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 All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

One of the challenges of finding a queer community is not only connecting with your people, but also unearthing your history. Queer people have always existed, but our existence has been covered up and buried. It can feel like we have no history, which is alienating. All Out is a much-needed book, because it locates queer people (teens in particular) through time. It is also optimistic historical fiction. It imagines not only queer teens in the past, but how they might have found happiness there. It rejects the idea that queer people don’t have a history–or that if they do, it is fundamentally tragic.

Although all the stories are historical fiction, they do sometimes play with genre by including magical realism, fantastical elements, or fairy tale retellings. There are trans, gay, lesbian, asexual, and aromantic characters. (I can’t remember bi characters? But I may have missed that.) There are a lot of different time periods (~1200s-1999) and cultures involved, although I would have liked to see more stories set outside of North America and Europe.

The story that really stood out to me was Malinda Lo’s. It’s about a Chinese girl in San Francisco in the 50s, and the male impersonator she has a crush on. It incorporates race, sexism, space exploration, the Chinese immigrant experience, and lesbian pulp fiction–all in such a short space! I really loved that story, and maybe it’s unfair to want a short story to be a novel, but… I do. Luckily, I think we might be getting it! There’s definitely enough here to flesh out, so I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version.

That’s my favourite, but I really enjoyed most of the stories. Dahlia Adler’s contribution that features two girls coming out to each other at Kurt Cobain’s vigil was another memorable one, and you really can’t go wrong with a story about two girls sailing off into the sunset together. (Well, you could, but they didn’t.) There are fun, captivating stories that make the world feel a little more open and inviting, so I have to give this 5 stars.

Cara reviews Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler

Under the Lights is a great light lesbian romance that’s about growing up and finding friends in unlikely places. There’s no deep trauma or life-or-death stakes here, and while there’s some light angst and the characters have real problems, the narrative never dwells on them too long or loses sight of the truth that the characters are pretty fortunate.

The story is told from the point of view of two coprotagonists, Josh Chester and Vanessa Park, both of whom are teenaged actors and minor celebrities in Hollywood. While they have a lot more money than most teenagers and some problems only celebrities do, the core conflicts are all about them figuring out what they want, notwithstanding what their parents want for them. It’s definitely YA and the sequel to a previous book of Adler’s, Daylight Falls, that features many of the same characters but different protagonists. You don’t need to have read it to read Under the Lights. (I still haven’t.)

The biggest reason I can see someone might not like this book is Josh Chester, so I’ll address him first. Josh is kind of a jerk. He intends to offend, for instance referring to Vanessa as “K-drama” for most of the book, insults everyone, and acts callous as hell. He tries to be unlikable, and I can see how some readers might find his voice to be such a turnoff that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy Vanessa’s. He’s funny, though, and his jerkiness more superficial than heartfelt. He doesn’t hurt people, and the girls he has no-strings-attached one-night stands with are every bit as interested in no-strings-attached sex with Josh Chester as he is in sex with them. I’m willing to forgive rudeness when it’s not coupled with malice, so Josh and his arc work for me.

Beyond that, I read enough lesbian romance that I’m tired of the formulas, and what I found refreshing about this novel is that it doesn’t follow them. How many lesbian romances have a het male coprotagonist who shares equal time with his female counterpart? The whole story is a beautifully-executed bait-and-switch playing on the structure of romance and YA romance in particular. In another book, Josh and Vanessa’s early relationship would be belligerent sexual tension. Because I’m reviewing this book for the Lesbrary, I’ve spoiled that part for you already: Josh and Vanessa do not end up together. You’d know the same if you read the blurb and know that “feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship” means “gay.” None of the relationships in the book end up coming out the way the characters expect them to. I want more books like this.

Vanessa’s coming to terms with falling for a girl felt real to me. When she angsts, it’s less because of internalized homophobia and more because she loves acting and worries that being a double-minority in Hollywood will cost her her career and that it will give her parents another reason to dislike her. I’m long past the drama of coming out myself, but sadly I can still relate to feeling like a perpetual disappointment to one’s parents. Vanessa and her future girlfriend hurt each other some times with the all-too-accurate clumsiness of teenagers working out how relationships go.

The dialogue’s good enough to have made me laugh out loud several times when I was writing this review. I’d quote it here but outside of the context and the characters, it would lose its punch. The plot and development of the characters are well-structured and have interesting symmetry with some depth I didn’t notice on my first reading. Under the Lights is romance done well.