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 Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

Stone Fruit cover

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This is a graphic novel that follows Bron and Ray and their complicated relationship to each other and their families. Ray’s sister is an overstretched single mother, and Ray offered to step in and take care of her niece twice a week. 6-year-old Nessie adores spending time with them, especially since Aunt Bron is the most fun to play with. They go wild together, tearing through the woods looking for a silver hound, which is perpetually just out of reach, making up songs as they go. The primal state they all sink into on these adventures is shown in the illustration style, where they transform into monstrous figures.

Panels from Stone Fruit

Outside of these adventures, though, Bron and Ray are struggling. Bron is dealing with mental health difficulties, which causes her to distance herself from Ray. Ray reacts by feeling insecure and needy, trying to reach out for reassurance. Unsurprisingly, this becomes a downward spiral. I found this difficult to read–in fact, I almost put this down in the first part, because it felt so achingly sad and personal. I’m glad I pushed through it, though, because this is a beautiful exploration of messy, complicated relationships, whether familial or romantic.

Bron decides to go back home to face her past. Her family is religious, and they don’t approve or understand her being queer and trans. She begins making connections with her teenage sister, finding similarities she was previously unaware of–but still struggling to overcome the barriers between them. Meanwhile, Ray starts conversations with her sister, finding ways to communicate that aren’t constant arguments (her sister doesn’t approve of Bron).

The strength of this graphic novel was the same reason I had trouble getting into it: it’s painfully relatable. It’s about the messiness of everyday queerness. Ray and Bron tried to build an ideal life together, but they couldn’t outrun the underlying issues of living in a transphobic heterosexist world, especially when they formed the foundation of your early life. There are no easy answers, just humans tentatively reaching out to each other, finding both hurt and comfort.

Danika reviews The Key to You and Me by Jaye Robin Brown

The Key to You and Me by Jaye Robin Brown cover

You know when you see a book and think, “I’m already on board: stop selling,” and you try to avoid any other details about the book, because only the most vague premise is enough to get you to read it and you want to go in as uninformed as possible? I fully admit that I played myself doing this with The Key to You and Me. I saw the cover and thought, “F/F YA road trip novel. SAY NO MORE.” Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a road trip novel. It doesn’t claim to be a road trip novel. The cover is referring to a character teaching the other to drive. My expectations were completely unfounded, and it’s not this book’s fault that it didn’t meet them.

I shouldn’t have picked it up, honestly. I read Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit when it came out and didn’t enjoy it, but because I was so much in the minority in that opinion, I decided to give the author another go–mistakenly thinking it had one of my favourite tropes. Here’s what the book is actually about, not just my speculations based on cover design: Piper is an equestrian who wants to compete in the Olympics. After her girlfriend dumps her, she stays with her grandmother for the summer–an ultra-competitive woman who was once a professional equestrian herself. Piper is 18 and doesn’t have a driver’s license because she has a fear of driving, so her grandmother hires local teen Kat to teach Piper to drive, and Piper takes pictures with her to make her ex-girlfriend jealous. Unbeknownst to her, Kat is questioning her sexuality and quickly crushes on Piper. We alternate between their points of view.

I appreciate that Kat is questioning her sexuality and unsure at the start of the novel. She’s not just closeted: she genuinely doesn’t know–although she suspects she’s attracted to girls. Piper, on the other hand, has been out as a lesbian for years. I’m also glad that we have some horse girl representation here, which is sorely needed in sapphic lit.

Because Kat is questioning and unsure of herself, she does have some moments of homophobia. She’s so afraid of being outed that she can overcompensate to try to distance herself. Her best friend (who is a closeted gay guy) and her sister both suspect that she’s gay and voice it often, which just drives her further into the closet. I wish more time was spent on how damaging this can be: everyone has the right to come out on their own timeline, and having people say they already knew robs you of that agency. Piper, on the other hand, is heartbroken that her ex left her–and for a guy. She has some moments of biphobia around this (which is not supported by the text).

One element I really didn’t enjoy, though, was the romantic/sexual relationships between teens (18 year olds in high school) and 20-somethings. Kat and Piper go to a party and Kat is immediately aggressively hit on by a 24 year old woman who also pressures her to drink. Despite this clearly making Kat uncomfortable, no one calls this woman out on it, and it doesn’t seem to be treated as a big deal. (Spoiler:) Kat goes on to lie to another 23 year old, claiming to be her age, and they make out (etc). When Kat finally tells her the truth, she says she’s not interested in being with a high schooler, but she also doesn’t seem upset or hold it against her. (End spoiler) Although she’s 18 and this isn’t illegal, it still is… creepy to me.

Putting aside all those details, though, the biggest reason I didn’t enjoy this one was the writing style. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but I kept bouncing off of it. The writing felt a little choppy, with a ton of dialogue, and it didn’t flow naturally for me as I was reading. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it, but for some reason I could not seem to immerse myself in it.

I’m sure that, like her earlier book, this one will have a lot of fans, but it wasn’t a great match for me.

Danika reviews Malice by Heather Walter

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Malice is an F/F retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with a Malificent/Aurora romance, and Malificent (“Alyce,” in this case) as the main character. This is a premise that I know a lot of Lesbrary readers will be excited about! It’s a duology, and this volume is mostly setting about Alyce’s journey to becoming the character we’re used to from the original story. This is an adult fantasy book, but the characters are in their late teens/early twenties, so it would appeal to YA readers as a crossover book as well.

Although I was intrigued by the premise, and I think this will appeal to a lot of readers, it didn’t quite land with me. The first 80% of the book moved quite slowly–it’s essentially a training montage of Alyce discovering her true powers and building them, as well as starting a friendship with Aurora. The last chunk of the book is explosive, moving the story forward at a sprint. I see other Goodreads reviews that were unhappy with where the story went, but I think it was inevitable when you consider the source material.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel like those two parts really meshed well together. Having a slow pace works if the story is meant to be slice of life and atmospheric–and a lot of this space is used to establish the worldbuilding–but it felt awkward to suddenly crash into the action, especially when some of it changed the tone of the story. (It’s hard to review this book without alluding to the ending!) I would have liked more time to deal with some of those elements, especially the one that affected Alyce the most on a personal level.

(Major spoiler:) I was surprised–and a little disappointed–when Alyce got… inhabited? by the spirit of an evil Vila, and that’s what spurs her to villainy. I would either have liked to see that happen earlier in the book and see her grapple with that and slowly succumb to it, or I would like to her snap because of her own experiences–which would be a believable character arc. Instead, it feels like her actions aren’t really hers, which gives them less weight and makes the transformation less interesting or surprising. (end spoiler)

There is a slowburn romance here, and we do get quite a bit of time building their friendship–which is why I was surprised when the eventual romance fell flat for me. I didn’t feel that tension between them. I liked them as friends, but I didn’t feel that heat that I expect from a slowburn romance.

As I mentioned, this is a fantasy novel that spends its time worldbuilding. We learn about the area’s history, its political machinations, and the magic system. This isn’t something that personally appeals to me as a reader, mostly because I have a terrible memory. One interesting note for queer readers is that this world is accepting of same-sex couples for the most part, except that the royal family requires M/F couples for heirs. (There aren’t any trans characters in the book, at least as far as I noticed.) (Content warning/spoiler:) An F/F couples jumps off a cliff because of their family not accepting them. (end spoiler)

I think my favourite part of the story was Aurora. With a “Sleeping Beauty” F/F retelling from Malificent’s perspective, I would expect Aurora to be all sunshine–that’s a great dynamic to play with, and it’s the default fairy tale princess personality. Instead, the first time we see Aurora, she’s in a shockingly low-cut dress, scandalizing everyone at the ball. She is defiant and critical of how the realm is managed (by her parents and their counsel). She is attracted to Alyce not just in spite of her darkness, but partly because of it. When Alyce accidently curses a royal fountain to spew smoking mud, Aurora declares it her new favourite thing. I liked this unexpected characterization of the princess, but we don’t see that much of her.

One of the things I was tracking throughout the book was how the one Black character (as far as I noticed, at least) was depicted. (Spoiler:) Unfortunately, she is killed off. Just like killing off the One Queer Character in a series, regardless of the reasoning, can be painful for queer readers, this is… not what I was hoping for. (end spoilers)

Overall, there are some strong elements to this story, but some of the issues I had with it overshadowed that, especially in the pacing. I believe I’m in the minority on this one, though, so I still recommend picking it up if the idea intrigues you!

Danika reviews The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

The Unbroken (Magic of the Lost #1) by C.L. Clark

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This is a thought-provoking, complex book that I’m still mulling over. The Unbroken is a military fantasy about a colonial occupation. It’s based on French on occupation of North Africa, though it’s not–of course–an exact match. There isn’t a lot of sexism in this world: women serve alongside men at all ranks in the military, and they also lead the revolution. It also doesn’t seem to have heteronormativity. There are lots of same-sex couples, and none of them are treated any differently. Don’t let that mislead you, though: this is a brutal colonialist occupation, and while there may not be a lot of sexism or homophobia, racism is a foundational piece of this narrative. The Balladairians also view religion as “uncivilized” and have banned any practice of religion, whether in Balladaire or Qazāl.

Because this is military fantasy, it’s not surprising that this is grim and violent, including hangings and discussion of rape. I sometimes struggled with this novel because of how bleak it got–but that is also an unreasonable criticism of a book about colonialism. It is multi-faceted in its depiction of the realities of colonialism, looking at it from multiple angles. The two main characters are Luca, the Balladairian princess fighting to get her rightful throne that is being occupied by her uncle, and Touraine, a conscript (or “Sand,” pejoratively) who was taken from Qazāl as a child to be made into a Balladairian soldier. They are fascinating, deeply flawed, complicated characters who have a powerful bond despite spending 95% of the story apart. Luca, of course, looks at the occupation of Qazāl from the perspective of the powerful, and she wants to restore peace to prove to her uncle that she is ready to lead. Touraine wants to be a good soldier, to rise in the ranks far enough to be respected despite being a “Sand.” Both begin on the same side of this conflict, but as the novel goes on, we also see how Qazāl citizens see this occupation, and a rebellion is planned.

The most compelling and fraught aspect of The Unbroken, to me, are these two main characters. Luca is a Balladarian (white) bisexual disabled princess–her legs were injured in an accident and she walks with a cane. She wants Balladairian rule in Qazāl to be less violent–but she has no intention of pulling Balladaire out of Qazāl. She wants peace, but as a tool to gaining power. Touraine was taken by the empire when she was young and doesn’t remember her childhood home. Her cohort is the only one made up of “Sands,” and she is fiercely loyal to them. They are in a difficult situation: they’re not Balladarian enough to be trusted by their superiors, but the Qazāl citizens don’t trust them either. They’re always on the front lines, essentially used as cannon fodder, and they have no way to escape. Touraine and the other “Sands” soldiers do have ideological differences, though: Touraine wants to be treated as an equal, assimilated into Balladarian society, while Beau and others want to be free from them. She doesn’t recognize that working hard to become a lieutenant hasn’t saved her from racist disrespect and threats, and that she won’t be able to pull herself up by her bootstraps out of systemic oppression. When they arrive in Qazāl, she hears rumors about her mother being there, but she has no desire to meet her. She thinks of the Qazāl citizens as uncivilized–she’s internalized this racism and thinks she’s “not like other Qazāli.”

At the beginning of the story, I didn’t know what to think of Luca and Touraine. They are interesting, but they’re also both on the side of the colonizers. Was I supposed to be rooting for them and their relationship? That misconception didn’t last long, though. Despite following the rules her entire life and devoting herself to protecting the empire, Touraine ends up in a situation that strips her of her rank and should have also cost her life. Luca steps in and saves her, hiring her as an assistant. This creates a complicated power dynamic between them–even more so than already existed. Touraine still isn’t free: “Luca was as much a jailer as she was a safe bunker.” She’s also disposable for Luca, who wants to use her to further her plans. Other soldiers are also resentful of Touraine’s new cushy life, while she misses them and feels like she’s lost autonomy. Over the course of working together and living in close quarters, Luca and Touraine form a complicated relationship that is mostly made left unexplained by both of them. They are drawn together and will continue to be throughout the entire book, but they don’t have a foundation there. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It’s compelling, but it’s also frustrating and disappointing. Luca imagines what they could have been in different circumstances.

I really appreciated Touraine’s story arc, but it was also difficult to read. (Mild spoilers follow) She recognizes how wrong she was about Balladaire and Qazāl. She begins to turn against the power that has always treated her, the other “Sands,” and the Qazāli like dirt. Touraine evolves from trying to further her own career while protecting the “Sands” to looking out for the well-being of this occupied nation as a whole: “This looked like the losing side. It even felt like the losing side. It didn’t feel like the wrong side.” She stops trying to be the “One Good Qazāli:” “She didn’t want Balladairian respect. Not anymore.” At the same time… wow, this was hard to read. I was constantly surprised at how Clark would allow Touraine (and Luca) to make mistakes. Big mistakes. Mistakes with disastrous consequences that she had to live with. At each turn, I could understand their reasoning, but it was painful to read. Things just seemed to get worse and worse, partly because of both Luca and Touraine’s fractured loyalties and priorities. They both say they want peace in Qazāl, but they both have things they value over that (the throne, the Sands), and the choices they make to try to balance those two things tend to blow up in their faces. (Spoiler end here)

Even after writing a thousand words about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general. But I also struggled to finish this book. The bleakness, the toxic relationship between Luca and Touraine, the gut punches of mistakes and their consequences–it wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to come back to. And at almost 500 pages, it’s not a quick read to power through at that point. That is what it was trying to do, though, and I think it was a great accomplishment. I’m curious about where the trilogy will go, but I’m still on the fence about whether I want to return to this world again. If you want to read post-colonial/anti-colonialism fantasy, though, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.

Danika reviews Our Teachers are Dating! Vol. 1 by Pikachi Ohi

Our Teachers are Dating! Vol. 1 cover

I’ve been on a bit of a manga kick lately, especially lesbian manga. (See my post Lesbian Manga and Yuri Manga: What’s the Difference and Where Should You Start? for more.) My latest favourite has been How Do We Relationship?, and I’m always looking for more yuri manga with adult main characters. Unfortunately, Our Teachers are Dating! was a miss for me.

This series takes place in a sort of weird alternate universe of intense yuri fans. Hayama and Terano are two teachers who have just started dating, but they act just as awkward and shy as schoolgirls on their first dates. Their coworkers ship them–in fact, Bandou (one of the other female teachers) specifically applied to be at this all-girls school to cheer on yuri couples. She spies on them. It’s creepy. Their principal is also supportive, which is nice in the sense that she’s not homophobic, but is weird that no one even mentions the complications of two coworkers dating. In fact, they’re encouraged to go on a date at school??

I should mention at this point that I was a teacher very recently (I completed training about a year and a half ago, was a substitute teacher, and then had my first class end a few months ago). So it’s likely that this affected me more than the average reader, but I was completely taken out of the story by how unprofessional and even unethical they were acting. The dating at school was already weird–talking about your dating life with students is definitely beginning to cross a line. But that wasn’t the end of it! Hayamo confides in her students that she hasn’t said I love you yet (after a month??), but she has said “I’m attracted to you.” This is already way past what you should disclose to your students, but then her students convince her to practice saying it to photos of Terano on their phones. Another teacher walks in on what looks like her confessing her love to student, which is supposed to be a comedic moment, but it completely pulled me out of the story. Again, I know a teacher is likely not the intended audience here.

Even without that weirdness, I wasn’t into this story. It’s cute, but there are a lot of issues holding it back. It was originally published in a magazine format, and it feels disjointed. It also feels… I’m not sure the best way to say this, but it feels a bit indulgent, almost like fanservice. They are both blushing and cutesy, and there are so many closeups of kissing. There is a sex scene, but more than that are just a lot of panels of tongues. I’m all for sexy yuri, in fact, one of the things I liked about How Do We Relationship? was the frank sexual content, but it didn’t work for me here. It didn’t feel like a natural part of the story as much as suddenly zooming in on kissing over and over. There’s also a scene where Terano is admonished for always asking before touching or kissing Hayama and told basically that it makes her seem less enthusiastic, which I didn’t like.

I’m going to keep looking for yuri/lesbian manga with adult characters, but I was disappointed by this one.

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 I’m a Wild Seed: My Graphic Memoir on Queerness and Decolonizing the World by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

I'm a Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz cover

I’m a Wild Seed is a short (51 pages) graphic memoir exploring the author’s exploration of her identity. It’s about how her “coming into queerness,” but it’s also about her relationship to her racial identity and decolonizing gender and sexuality.

Because this is so short, it often reminded me more of an in-depth essay than a graphic memoir–that’s not a complaint! It’s packed full of memes, diagrams, and other visuals that I’m familiar with on the internet than I am in books.

De La Cruz shares not only her personal story, but also the history and context she’s learned along the way. It’s through this background that she can better understand her own identity, and she’s clearly eager to share these with the reader. She also discussed how her freedom is tied to Black trans women’s: that no one is free until the most vulnerable of us are.

She comes out at 29 because she spends her early years trying to understand her racial and cultural identity: how can she be Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Black? What does that mean for her? Where does she fit in? She explains that because it was so difficult to understand and come to terms with that, she had no time or space to question her sexual identity or gender.

This is a quick read, but it’s insightful and thought-provoking. My only complaint is that I would have gladly read a version of this book twice or three times as long!

I’m a Wild Seed comes out April 6, 2021

Danika reviews How Do We Relationship? Volumes 1 & 2 by Tamifull

How Do We Relationship Vols 1 and 2 by Tamifull covers

Although I’m far from an expert, I’ve really been enjoying yuri manga lately, especially lesbian manga. (Check out my post: Lesbian Manga and Yuri Manga: What’s the Difference and Where Should You Start?) Although I enjoyed books like Girl Friends, I’d rather read about adult characters–hopefully ones that use words like lesbian, bisexual, or queer to describe themselves.

This series is about two women who meet in college and decide, “What are the chances I’m going to
run into another out queer woman here? Why don’t we just date each other?” They don’t have much in common–in fact, they hardly know each other at this point, but decide to see what happens. They have very different personalities, which keeps their interactions interesting, and it’s hard to tell at first if they will be able to have a functioning relationship.

They’re also both working through a lot of self-esteem issues and carry some baggage with them. Miwa is very shy and sheltered, and she’s never been in a relationship. Miwa was painfully outed when she was younger. These influences mean they sometimes disagree about being out as a couple. Because they have this contrived beginning to their relationship, they take nothing for granted, which I really liked. They have frank discussions about their relationship–and particularly about sex. I’m used to yuri manga that has a lot of blushing and hand-holding and meaningful glances. This is one of the
few that I’ve read that has sex scenes, and they don’t feel like fan service or the male gaze to me. Whether it’s in sex or conversations, I appreciated that they’re often realistically awkward. This is not a romanticized relationship: they are both complex, flawed people, but they are trying to improve.

This isn’t flawless: volume 2 contains a possibly transmisogynistic joke, unless I’m misinterpreting it–though it also might have a trans character. There is a side character who gets a subplot who discussed not wanting to be in a relationship because they would “have to be a woman.” I look forward to seeing how that arc continues in volume 3. Saeko can also be pushy with Miwa–and she definitely needs to stop groping her in public.

Overall, though, if you like yuri manga, I highly recommend this series! I’m excited to see queer manga become more common: series that deal with real-life LGBTQ issues and not just subtext or schoolgirl stories.