Danika reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

the cover of She Gets the Girl

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Do you want to read a fun and absorbing new adult F/F romance written by a wife/wife author team? Of course you do. So you can probably stop reading the review now. Go ahead and grab it.

This follows two point of view characters: Alex and Molly. Alex is a flirt who doesn’t take anything too seriously, which is why her on-again off-again girlfriend, Natalie, doesn’t trust her while she’s touring. Alex has promised to make platonic friends and stop flirting with every queer girl she sees, it will be an uphill battle to convince Natalie.

Meanwhile, Molly has had a crush on Cora since they were in high school together. Now, they’re starting at the same university, but she still can’t seem to get up the courage to ask her out. Or talk to her at all. That’s where Alex comes in, who promises to teach Molly how to get the girl. At least, she will if Molly promises to serve as a platonic friend reference at the end of this.

They quickly rub each other the wrong way, especially when Cora swoons over Alex. They have diametrically opposed personalities and are constantly bickering over the best course of action.

This has aspects of a Cyrano story: Alex is trying to get Molly together with Cora, but their relationship keeps deepening. They begin to confide in each other, perhaps because this odd arrangement allows them to be more vulnerable. Alex talks about financially supporting her alcoholic mother and how she’s worried that she won’t be able to keep her safe now that she’s not living at home.

Meanwhile, Molly’s relationship with her mom has also changed: they used to be each other’s best friends, but Molly is trying to find some independence and resents her mother for not letting her go. Molly’s mom is also a Korean adoptee who internalized a lot of racism in her upbringing, which is hard for Molly to deal with as a mixed race person.

I actually wish we had a little bit more time with both of these subplots, because there are big, thorny topics that don’t have a lot of space to be explored in this story. We only get a handful of lines devoted to either Molly’s or Alex’s moms, and the wrap-up of those plotlines feels a little abrupt.

But of course, this is a romance, and that’s where our attention is. I felt so much while reading this like I was watching a teen romantic comedy movie, including all the banter. (And yes, we get the cute rollerskating date promised by the front cover.)

This was compulsively readable. I would pick it up meaning to just read a chapter and resurface several chapters later. It’s a cute love story with some charmingly oblivious main characters who somehow don’t notice that they’re falling for each other. This is being marketed as YA, but it follows Alex and Molly as they start college

My only other complaint about this one is that I felt like it ended early. I wanted just a little bit more time with this couple. (Semi-spoiler, but not really because this is a romance: it ends immediately after they get together). I mean, they’re teenagers, so I’m not expecting to see their wedding, but I would have liked a glimpse into their more established relationship.

If you like sapphic romcoms, I definitely recommend this one.

This review was adapted from my review on the April 5th episode of All the Books.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Danika reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

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Ever since I read the Brown Sisters series by Talia Hibbert, I’ve been chasing the feeling of that romance reading experience. Luckily, I found a book that scratches that same itch, and it’s Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. Both have well-rounded side characters, a connection to family, and a ton of chemistry between the two main characters. I can’t wait to pick up the next one in the series. (Pro tip: the title/cover of the second book in the series is kind of a spoiler for this one, so read this first.)

Delilah is a photographer in New York who has a lot of one night stands with women and not a lot of deep connections. When her stepsister, Astrid, calls to ask her to be her wedding photographer, Delilah very reluctantly agrees — they’ve never been close. When she arrives, she heads to the local bar for a drink, and is promptly hit on by Claire, one of Astrid’s lifelong best friends — she doesn’t recognize her. She’s immediately struck that a) Claire is extremely attractive and b) it would drive Astrid up the wall if Delilah slept with her.

Claire is a bookstore owner (!!) who had her daughter when she was 19, which has shaped much of her life to this point. She split up with the father 9 years ago because he was unreliable, but they seem to keep falling into old patterns (i.e., into bed together). Her friends are trying to push her to move on and get out there, which is why she took the leap of flirting with what she thought was an attractive stranger, until Astrid showed up and made her mistake very evident.

As the wedding preparations pick up, Claire and Delilah (and Astrid, and Astrid’s other best friend) are all thrown together, leading to awkwardness — and a whole lot of sexual tension between Delilah and Claire. Their dynamic is interesting, because they have good reason not to trust each other. To Delilah, Claire is the same person who rejected her when she was a fragile kid who just lost her dad. She’s best friends with Astrid, who is practically Delilah’s mortal enemy (second only to Isabel, Delilah’s stepmother). She’s firmly anchored in a place Delilah spent her whole childhood trying to escape. For Claire, Delilah is her best friend’s mortal enemy, unreliable, and scheduled to head back across the country in a matter of weeks. This unpredictability is exactly what she’s been trying to avoid with her ex, and having a kid makes starting a relationship a much more serious endeavor.

Still, of course they can’t pull themselves away from each other. Despite what Claire should represent to Delilah, she’s also kind, open, and welcoming, even when Delilah is feeling so vulnerable. Delilah is quickly protective of Claire and immediately becomes her stand-offish tween daughter’s favourite person. And, of course, there’s the undeniable sparks flying between them.

The real core relationship to this story, though, in my opinion, is between Astrid and Delilah, and that’s what gives this so much depth. To Delilah, she was rejected by Astrid, the golden child, and she felt completely alone in her life. We soon begin to realize that this isn’t the whole picture, though, and that Astrid had her own struggles. Just like in real life, and especially in families and childhood, the same scenes look very different from her perspective. And while Isabel ignored Delilah, she controlled Astrid, and continues to hold her to rigid expectations.

I love that all the characters in this book, even the side characters, feel like real people whose lives continue when they walk off the page. While this is a romance novel, it’s not the only thing going on in their lives: they’re also concerned about their families, friends, kid, career, etc.

The entire book had that absorbing “just one more chapter!” feel that kept me turning the pages into the night — and to be honest, that’s a very rare occurrence for me while reading! I was absorbed in the story and like I had lost time/forgot I was reading when I resurfaced. Blake’s sapphic YA books, How to Make a Wish and Girl Made of Stars, were already some of my favourites, so I’m glad to see that I love her adult books just as much, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

(Also check out Kelleen’s review of this title!)

Danika reviews Whisper Me a Love Song Vol. 1-4 by Eku Takeshima

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I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with yuri manga. On the one hand, it’s usually adorable and addictive to read. On the other, I’m in my 30s, so schoolgirl love stories (especially ones that don’t actually seem to acknowledge being queer as an identity) are not something I seek out. I usually tend to look for yuri between adult characters, especially manga that uses words like queer, lesbian, bisexual, etc. Still, sometimes I make an exception, and Whisper Me a Love Song is one.

This is told in two perspective: Himari and Yori. Himari is a ridiculously cute first year high school student who sees Yori perform (as the lead singer in a band) and is instantly smitten. She finds Yori after the performance and tells her that she’s fallen in love at first sight. She sighs over Yori to her friends, admiring her and looking forward to any moment they can spend together. Yori tells her that she returns her feelings… only to find out that Himari doesn’t really understand romantic love, and she just meant that she likes and admires her.

The series follows Yori trying to win Himari over (not in a creepy way) and Himari trying to understand the difference between the adoration she’s had for other girls her whole life and romantic love. Yori tries to fit the cool upperclassman role as much as she can, but when we see from her perspective, we know how awkward and earnest she really is.

This is almost tooth-achingly sweet, especially Himari’s character, who is often gazing up at Yori with giant sparkling eyes. The concept of Himari trying to understand romantic love and growing into that aspect of herself is a good hook, though, just like I found the premise of How Do We Relationship? to be intriguing enough to pull me in. Although they don’t use any identity labels, they do talk about dating, kissing, the possibility of becoming girlfriends, etc. (Some yuri titles leave it much more grey about whether they’re actually queer.)

Further on in the series, there’s a little bit of tension added with outside love interests as well as some drama between friends and bands, but mostly this is an adorable read. I really liked the art, and it’s cute to see these two tiptoe into the world of romance. I am looking forward to continuing the series!

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Danika reviews Cold by Mariko Tamaki

the cover of Cold by Mariko Tamaki

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I’m writing this having just finished Cold, and I can still feel an ache in my chest. My heart breaks for Georgia and Todd, and all the Georgias and Todds.

This is a YA mystery told from two perspectives. Todd is a young queer teen who was found dead in a park, and his ghost is observing the attempt to solve the mystery of his death. Then there’s Georgia, a queer teenage girl who is also observing the fall out from Todd’s death. Originally, I thought this would be about Georgia investigating and finding Todd’s killer, but it’s not so much a fast-paced mystery as it is a slow unfurling of what lead up to that night.

This is a quick read: it’s under 250 pages, the font is large, and the sentences are short. Georgia’s chapters especially are written like a teenager’s train of thought. It has a lot of short sentences, with some odd asides or comparisons–which felt very accurate to what it’s like to be inside a teenage brain. It’s an atmospheric, absorbing read.

Both Georgia and Todd are outsiders: queer, nerdy kids who aren’t accepted by their peers. Todd learns to mask himself, to play down his intelligence and any characteristics that might out him. Georgia stays on the fringes of her class, but she’s recently become close with Carrie, who used to hang out with the popular girls, and who Georgia has a big crush on. Perhaps Georgia can subconsciously relate to Todd, or maybe it’s because she watches a lot of CSI, but she can’t seem to stop thinking about him and his death.

I think this would appeal to younger teens, because it is easy to read in the writing style, but it also discusses rape and a (hypothetical) sexual and/or romantic relationship between a gay teacher and gay student. Todd’s chapters also follow police main characters, which is a significant portion of the story, if you’d rather not read about that.

As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just a story that includes homophobia; it’s a story about homophobia, so do be prepared for that going in.

I’m having trouble writing about this story in depth, because I don’t want to spoil anything, and it is primarily a study of these characters and their relationships to each other. Don’t go into this expecting a fast-paced mystery or a horror type of ghost story, but do expect a moving portrait of these characters and their place in the world.

I feel so deeply for these characters, and how Todd hadn’t yet had a chance to really live as his true self. It made for a melancholic read, but it just shows how skillfully it’s been written. If you’re ready for a story that will make your heart ache, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

the cover of Light from Uncommon Stars

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I loved this book, but it’s such a tricky, contradictory one to recommend. It’s about aliens and demons and curses, but it’s also a grounded, realistic character study. It’s hopeful and comforting, but it also contains abuse, bigotry, and a lot of brutal descriptions of transmisogyny. This disparate parts combine into a heartachingly affective story, but do be prepared to be reading about both the kindness and the cruelty of humanity.

It follows three main characters. Shizuka is a trans teen girl running away from an abusive family, turning to unsafe forms of sex work as well as precarious living situations to get by. Shizuka, aka the “Queen of Hell,” is a world renowned violin teacher. Each of her students has experienced the pinnacle of fame and success–before the all swan-dived into tragic ends. That’s because she made a deal with the devil, and she can only save her soul by securing 7 other souls in her place. She’s had 6 students, and she only has a year to find the 7th, but she’s determined to make sure this last student is the perfect choice. Then there’s Lan, a refugee from another world, fleeing a multi-universe-spanning crisis. She’s arrived at Earth safely with her family, and they are running a donut shop while upgrading their space travelling technology hidden underneath the shop.

The three of them seem to be living in books of different genres, but their lives become intertwined. When Shizuka hears Katrina playing in the park, she immediately recognizes that this is her final student and takes her in. When Shizuka stops in at the donut shop to the use the bathroom, she is immediately stunned by Lan, but doesn’t have time for romance right now. Still, she finds herself back at the donut shop multiple times, and eventually they open up to each other, and they find unexpected support and new perspectives on their situations from the other. (Shizuka is unfazed by the existence of aliens; once you’ve made a deal with the devil, reality seems much more flexible).

While I enjoyed the quiet relationship forming between Lan and Shizuka, it’s very much in the background. This isn’t a romance, and there’s no grand romantic gesture or even much discussion of the nature of their relationship. Despite the sci fi and fantastical elements of this story, it was Katrina who took centre stage for me. As a trans woman of colour (she’s Chinese, Vietnamese, and Mexican), she faces a hostile world, including from her family. She goes through physical abuse, rape, and is a target for transmisogynistic vitriol online and commonly from strangers in person. It’s relentless.

Katrina finds refuge with Shizuka, who accepts her completely. She is able to have a safe place to stay and practice her passion of playing violin. Shizuka obviously cares a lot about her… but she’s also planning to sell her soul. The chapters count down the months until Shizuka’s deadline, creating a ticking timebomb as Katrina and Shizuka get closer. The most heartbreaking thing is (slight spoiler, fairly early in the book), Katrina is not surprised or even hurt by the idea that she is being taken in just to have her soul sacrificed. Everything has a price, and it is worth it for her. (spoiler ends)

This is also a celebration of music. Violins are described with reverence, including occasional point of view chapters from a gifted luthier who is going through her own struggles of being rejected from the family business and then being the only one left to carry it on. At their best, Katrina and Shizuka’s performances transport listeners to different moment in their lives and the music becomes transcendent. Food is given a similar treatment: originally the donuts are artificially replicated from the former owner’s recipes, but members of Lan’s family begin to find the magic in making them from scratch, and how these simple treats can move people.

An undercurrent of Light From Uncommon Stars is about mortality–which makes sense, considering Shizuka’s predicament. (slight spoiler) Lan is fleeting from the End Plague, which is a kind of destructive nihilism that is said to overtake all societies when they realize that all things will end, including their own existence. Shizuka pushes back at the idea that having knowledge of your own mortality (even on a grand scale) is inherently destructive. (spoiler ends) They find meaning in ephemeral things like music and food, and that this can be enough. There’s also an AI character who considers herself to be Lan’s daughter, while Lan sees her as artificial, and the question of whether she is truly a person becomes life or death.

Despite the high concepts and fantastical elements, this isn’t an action-packed story. It’s character driven. It’s about Katrina finding her place in the world and deciding what she wants to do. It’s about her processing living in a world that is hostile to her, and forming her own sense of identity despite that. She finds meaning in her art, even when that’s recording video game soundtracks and posting them anonymously online. She learns from Shizuka how to find just one friendly face in a crowd while performing. And eventually, she finds her anger and is able to channel it into her art. Then there’s Shizuka, grappling with what she’s done and whether she’s willing to do it again or be pulled into hell in a matter of months. And Lan, who can’t quite convince herself she’s safe, and so is always working, preparing, and keeping ready for the other shoe to drop.

This is gorgeous, multifaceted story that I bounced between wanting to read cover to cover in one sitting and setting aside for weeks because I wasn’t emotionally prepared to dive back into it. While it took me a bit to finish, I’m glad I started the year off with this one. It’s exactly the kind of challenging, hopeful, and unexpected story I want to read a lot more of, and it’s a definite 5 stars.

Content warnings: abuse, homophobia (including f slur), transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm (cutting), suicidal thoughts, r slur [and likely more: please research more content warnings if there’s anything specific you’d like to avoid that I might have missed]

Danika reviews The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

the cover of The All-Consuming World

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Fun fact: the first Cassandra Khaw book I read was a paranormal romance called Bearly a Lady, about a bisexual werebear fatshionista. I really enjoyed it! But I found out later that this is very much not Khaw’s usual genre.  They usually write horror and sci fi, and pretty brutal horror and sci fi at that. Although those aren’t my usual genres, I decided to take a chance on this one.

The All-Consuming World is a little bit heist novel, a little bit noir narration, a hint of Lovecraftian, and a whole lot of gritty sci fi. Maya is a rabid dog of a mercenary clone who is ready to fist fight with god. She is entirely, illogically, wholeheartedly devoted to Rita, a mad scientist type. Rita is cold, withholds affection, and is always pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme. She’s manipulative, even cruel, and always five steps ahead of anyone else.

They both used to be part of the dirty dozen (at least, that was the most polite name for them), a group of criminal women. It’s been 40 years, though, since a job went bad and left two of them dead — permanently. Maya is used to waking up in a vat of goo, newly regenerated from her most recent grisly demise, but there are some deaths you can’t come back from. Now, they’ve got to try to get the band back together for one last job.

The universe is ruled by AIs, and Maya and her fellow clones are the last dregs of what passes for humanity. Rita says that the AIs are ready to wipe the last of them out and start fresh — but who knows if you can trust anything she says.

This is a fairly short book at 275 pages, but it packs a ton in. The narration style is distinct. Maya’s POV chapters — which are most of them — use the word fuck about once a paragraph. Throughout the book, Khaw uses really distinct metaphors and similes — sort of like a noir detective story, but with a bloodthirsty futuristic perspective. For example, “the sound unspooled between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White.”

Also, either keep a dictionary on hand or just bask in Khaw’s superior vocabulary. I kept rediscovering words I haven’t encountered in years, and then bumping into a good chunk I’ve never seen before.

This is definitely a story that throws you right into the world, trusting you’ll pick it up as you go. There are factions of AIs, each with their own values. AI Minds interconnect in a grand conversation. AI have elaborate rules for communication, sampling lines and voices from all of recorded human history: a laugh from Audrey Hepburn, a line from Leonard Cohen. Ageships are sentient ships of unfathomable size and power, capable of swallowing stars.

It’s also got some… unique visuals. Needless to say, the Butcher of Eight’s appearance is just as intimidating as the name. Also, we get a lot of detail of being awake during eyeball surgery, so definite content warnings for gore.

Most of the book is spent in the “getting the band back together” plot, which is good, because it lets us get slowly introduced to a big cast. They are all queer women and non-binary people, with very different personalities. There’s an ethereal, worshipped pop star that literally glows and has multiple mouths trailing down her neck, and a disembodied woman in code corrupting the conversation from within — just to name a few.

But the relationship between Maya and Rita is at the core of the story: Maya can’t seem to control her loyalty to her, even when Rita hurts her and everyone else in her life. It’s also just fun to be in Maya’s head, because she is so out of control: the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s in a deadly fight.

It’s a story about the defiance and audacity of humans, of never knowing when to give up.

This isn’t one every reader is going to love, because it is very gritty and sometimes stomach-turning, but I really enjoyed it, despite it not being a genre I usually gravitate towards. If you can handle nonstop profanity and gore with your existential heist stories, definitely give this a try.

Danika reviews She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen

the cover of She Drives Me Crazy

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If you want a teen romcom in an F/F YA book, this is the read for you!

I’m getting caught up on 2021 reviews, and I listened to this several months ago and don’t remember a lot of details, but what more do I really need to say than that and also showing you that cover?

Scottie is struggling to get over her ex-girlfriend, Tally. They used to be on the basketball team together, but Tally transferred to a wealthier school to get on the better team. Now, she acts like she’s superior to Scottie and barely acknowledges her, even when they’re playing against each other. While Scottie is still mulling over that disastrous game, she backs up into Irene’s car. Irene is a cheerleader who has been Scottie’s nemesis (whether she knows it or not) when Irene called to have Scottie’s car towed at a party, apparently just to be a jerk.

Their moms decide that Scottie will drive Irene to school until her car is back from the shop: a solution neither of them is very happy about. Then Scottie decides that the best way to show up her ex is for Irene to pretend to date her–in return, she’ll empty her savings to pay for the damage on the car.

Yep, it’s enemies to lovers and fake dating! It is very much like a teen romcom movie: the two of them get to know each other over their music choices on the drive. They have miscommunication. They both open up about their insecurities. Scottie realizes that, despite being hung up on her toxic ex, maybe the girl she’s been looking for has been right in front of her this whole time. There’s also the “only one bed” trope. They even discuss teen romcom movies!

I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was a quick, fun listening experience! It’s cute, and the ending is cathartic and sweet.