Danika reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars by Adiba JaigirdarThe Henna Wars was my most-anticipated 2020 release. First of all, look at that beautiful cover! Plus, rival henna shop owners fall in love?? Who can resist that premise? As with many books I have high expectations for, I was hesitant to actually start it. Luckily, it lives up to the promise of that cover and premise.

Actually, I was impressed from the first pages. The dedication page reads: To queer brown girls. This is for you. After that, it has content warnings! (For racism, homophobia, bullying, and outing.)

We start the novel with Nishat contemplating coming out:

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

She is a second generation Bangladeshi immigrant living in Ireland, and it’s not the best environment to come out in. She knows that her (private, all-girls) school will not take it well, and her family likely won’t, either. She has, however, already told her sister, who she is close with. The relationship between Nishat and her sister Priti was one of my favourite parts of the novel: they begin this story with an unshakeable bond, telling each other everything.

At the wedding, she bumps into Flávia, who she hasn’t seen since they were elementary classmates. Now, there’s an instant spark, and she’s pleasantly surprised to see her at school the next day. Complications arise in Business class, however. They all have to start their own business, and Nishat plans to do henna–she’s been practicing for years, learning from her grandmother, and feels like she’s beginning to be able to do justice to this art form. Unfortunately, Flávia noticed the henna at the wedding and comes up with the same idea–teaming up with her (white) cousin, who has spread racist rumours about Nishat.

Nishat tries to talk to Flávia about appropriating henna, but Flávia (who is Black and Brazillian) says that it’s just art, and that it’s actually really easy! Cue a painful rivalry for Nishat, who is determined to win this competition.

Okay, that’s more plot summary than I usually give, but it’s really just the first chapter or two. The Henna Wars is a fascinating book on several levels. One is that it grapples with cultural appropriation from another woman of colour, which I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before. Flávia is clueless to why Nishat is upset, and says that maybe Nishat doesn’t understand because she’s not an artist. It’s a mess.

But what really caught my attention is that this story manages to seem hopeful and joyous while dealing with dark subject matter. Nishat is trying to survive in a profoundly homophobic environment. She is not safe within her family, within her school, and doesn’t even feel sure she can tell her friends. She is harassed for her race, and the counselor can’t even get her name right. Even the pockets of joy she finds in a new crush and doing henna are complicated by this appropriation and competition, and Flávia’s teaming up with her racist cousin.

Despite all of this, though, Nishat never seems to lose herself. Even if her family doubts her and she faces pushback at school, she knows who she is, and she refuses to be ashamed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if she wins the Business competition or gets the girl: “Because I’m still here and I have my friends, my sister, and my family. And things will be okay.” [Spoiler, highlight to read:] Her parents earnestly watching Ellen is perfect. [End spoiler]

I can only imagine how difficult it is growing up as a Bangladeshi lesbian in Ireland. The Henna Wars suggests it’s a gauntlet. But Nishat is a model of steadiness and strength within the storm. She’s not perfect–she has flaws, makes mistakes, and sometimes is so embedded in her problems that she forgets to look around at what other people are dealing with–but she is inspiring.

I’ll leave off with a quote I couldn’t help but include:

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and it’s true; I’ve never really thought about having a type. I guess my type is… beautiful girl. Which is a lot of them. Most of them? Pretty much all girls.

Danika reviews The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga is a brutal, brilliant series. It is emphatically queer: it examines gender and sexuality from multiple angles, polyamorous configurations of genders are the norm for relationships, there are multiple non-binary point of view characters, and the main character is attracted to women. It boasts a huge cast of point of view characters and an ever-expanding setting made up of distinct, detailed cultures. It is complex and ambitious, and it challenged me at every turn. This is grimdark epic fantasy, so it’s far from a comfortable read–but it’s so very worth it.

This is a three volume, 1500+ page story, so I have a lot of thoughts on it. Most of them are general, but I’ll be addressing the second and third volumes at the end, so there will be spoilers there. There will also be a paragraph of content warnings (that is likely incomplete–did I mention it’s grimdark?) near the end. I do want to say that although there is a lot of dark and possibly triggering content, it’s not done in a gross-out, over-the-top way. Kameron Hurley has studied war and conflict, and has her Master’s in studying resistance movements, so the books portray war as it is: messy, brutal, humiliating, and endless. It resists neat and tidy tropes about saviours and righteous battles. But it isn’t done to be edgy or nihilistic: it supports the overall message of the messiness of being human, and how much we are shaped by our circumstances. With those caveats out of the way, let’s get into it.

When I began The Mirror Empire, I was properly intimidated. Every reader brings different perspectives to a book; I bring a faulty memory and an inability to visualize, which makes epic fantasy a difficult genre for me. In fact, my struggle to get started with this book inspired me to make a video about my Reader’s Achilles Heel. I also have difficulty remembering names, so having a lot of POVs (at least 8 in first volume, and more as the series goes on) is a challenge. My strategy is to just let it wash over me, accepting that I will be lost and will miss some things, but hopefully I’ll get my feet under me at some point. It speaks to the strength of The Worldbreaker Saga that despite the overwhelming amount of names and information, I was compelled to keep reading. Imagine my shock when I neared the end of the book and discovered there is a glossary. A glossary of terms and place names and people’s names and who they’re related to! Please, save yourself the unneeded anguish that I went through and bookmark that right away. Reading when a lot more smoothly when I realized I could refer back to it! (There are glossaries in each volume.)

It’s no wonder that this series is 1500+ pages and includes so many points of view: it tackles complex, multilayered, big ideas. There is a philosophical underpinning to the story that makes it truly memorable. I’ll discuss this more in the paragraphs addressing Empire Ascendant and The Broken Heavens, but suffice to say that I genuinely came away from this with more empathy for other human beings. Who would we be in different circumstances? If we made different choices? This saga offers its own difficult answers to these questions.

The worldbuilding in this series is overwhelming. From the magic system to the landscape to each culture included, each detail made me want to know more. In this world, there are three suns, and three satellites. Magic users are each associated with one of these satellites, and their powers ebb and flow depending on whether their satellite is ascendant or descendant–so someone might spend a decade being the most powerful magic user in the world, only to spend the rest of their lives hardly able to do the simplest effect.

This series covers a lot of land–the second book begins with an expanded version of the first volume’s map. The forests are filled with monstrous plants: poisonous creeping vines, deadly walking trees, and even plants that can swallow you whole. When travelling, an area must be burned to camp out on, and that perimeter must be guarded. People ride giant dogs, or bears with forked tongues and bifurcated paws.

Each area has distinct cultures, attitudes, and histories. The Dhai think Saiduans are rude, because  they don’t ask for consent to touch others. The Dhai are seen as hopelessly out of touch, performing time-consuming rituals and refusing to engage in warfare. The Dorinah have ruthless women soldiers who treat their husbands little better than they treat their Dhai slaves. And this doesn’t touch on the Tordins or Aaldians–or the “mirror versions” of each. We begin the novel with Lillia fleeing from Dhai soldiers as a child, sent across a gap between the universes by her mother, only to be taken in by this world’s Dhai–a pacifist group. 

For me, I think a fantasy world has been established well when a fantastical event–with no real-world counterpart–is viscerally affecting. In His Dark Materials (spoilers for that series), it’s the moment when daemons are cut away from their person. Despite there being nothing to compare that to in real life, it is horrifying to read, because that bond has been so well-established that it feels real and natural. In Harry Potter, it may be the moment a wand is snapped. I knew the worldbuilding in The Worldbreaker Saga had worked on me when a fantastical event was truly shocking to me. I think I actually gasped.

But, of course, I am writing this on the Lesbrary, so it wouldn’t be right to talk about worldbuilding without addressing how queer this world is. Each culture has its own relationship to gender. I mentioned Dorinah’s approach to gender, and the (more familiar) reverse of that is in Tordin. The Dhai have 5 different pronouns, which are freely chosen. Saiduans have three sexes, and use ze pronouns as well as he and she. One character (who also happens to be immortal and self-healing) changes sex periodically–unwillingly. There are multiple non-binary characters, and a side character who uses they/them pronouns. As I mentioned, polyamory seems to be the norm, with different combinations of genders in each configuration. (This also brings different definitions of family, including “near-cousins”.) There isn’t a lot of sex included, but there are m/f, m/m, and f/f sex scenes. Although there are tons of characters, Lillia is the main character. She has a… complex relationship with another woman, Gian. Don’t expect a fluffy romance, but Lillia is definitely attracted to women.

Speaking of Lillia, it’s the Worldbreaker Saga’s complex, multifaceted characters that first pulled me in. As I mentioned, there are a ton of POV characters. Lillia is disabled and has asthma, and she begins are the hero of the story. I kept being eager to get back to her chapters, only to become disenchanted with her fairly early on. I was frustrated that I didn’t like her as much anymore. As the story continued, I realized that every person included is deeply flawed. Some of the POV characters are even villainous or monstrous at times–but they’re never one-dimensional. Zezilli is a Dorinah solider, and Anavha is her slim, gold-adorned, compliant husband waiting at home: “He was the one thing in her life she controlled completely.” She won’t allow him to read or socialize. We get POVs from both characters, and it’s difficult at times to be in her head. She is part-Dhai, and she participates–in fact, helps to lead–the genocide of Dhai in Dorinah. Meanwhile, Anavha is completely broken down by his situation, and struggles to know how to feel about Zezilli. Good characters make bad choices, horrific characters become relatable–this story doesn’t let you get comfortable with easy judgments. (Also, I have no neat place to put this, but there is also a nonverbal side character who uses limited sign language.)

The Worldbreaker saga is an ambitious, far-reaching, complex, and deeply thoughtful story. Despite being overwhelmed by it at first, I loved it by the end. It leaves me with so much to think about, and although it took me a while to get through it in the first place, I’m already eyeing it up to reread. If you want a book that will challenge you and leave you thinking well after reading it, I highly recommend this one.

An incomplete list of content warnings for the series: genocide, gore, murder, slavery (including being sold into prostitution at 14), rape (described), torture, cutting, disordered eating, and cannibalism (ritual/mourning). 

Empire Ascendant takes the worldbuilding established in The Mirror Empire and expands it. It begins with a bigger map, and adds more characters, countries, and cultures. A layer of complexity is added by beginning to really explore the intrusion of multiple parallel worlds. The concept that people can only travel to another world if their parallel self is dead is an interesting plot point, adding both limitations and danger–your other world self is likely to want you killed. The “mirror” version of Kirana is interesting–she is a warlord and ruthless, but her motivation is to save her family. (And we get another f/f couple!) This is also when we start to see the real arc of Lillia, which I find fascinating. Is she a saviour? A villain? She has been completely broken down by her life and emerged different. Fundamentally, she is the most persevering, survivalist character I’ve ever read.


The Broken Heavens delves more into the questions raised in Empire Ascendant: how related are you to your “mirror” selves? Who would you be if raised in a different world? One world has warlike Dhai, while one has pacifist Dhai. How could they have gone in such different directions? Lillia has continued on her journey, becoming more hardened. After so much time and so many pages have gone by, it’s very satisfying to have characters come back together, especially when their stories have gone in different directions for a long time. By this volume, I realized that I had kind of come to love and relate to these terrible people. After spending so much time in their heads, I could understand them, even if I would hate them in real life. I enjoyed both previous volumes, but I liked that this one added the element of a kind of prophecy: who is the worldbreaker, key, and guide? What happens when they meet? I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that I found it a very satisfying ending. I thought that the story had to end one way to stay true to Lilia’s character arc, and another to be satisfying for the plot, but it managed to do both. (I did wonder what happened to one character, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.) This delivered on being an epic story, and the ending managed to live up to everything that came before it.

Danika reviews Dragon Bike: Fantastical Stories of Bicycling, Feminism, & Dragons edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike edited by Elly Blue

Dragon Bike is the newest addition to the Bikes in Space series of Microcosm publishing, which all deal with feminist bicyclist science fiction stories, but each volume has a different sub-theme. I previously reviewed volume 4, Biketopia, and like that one, this isn’t entirely queer stories–there are only a few included–but there are even fewer stories that are straight.

I love the diversity in this collection, in every sense. It’s a joy to read through the authors pages, which include queer, disabled, and trans authors, as well as authors of colour. On top of that, though, I’m always interested to see how the theme plays out in each Bikes in Space story, because there’s always a huge range. Some are sci fi, some fantasy, and some more realistic. In Dragon Bike stories, the dragons can be a myth (from many cultures), a danger, an infestation, a protector, a computer program, and–of course–a bike. Witchcanics work on creations that are equal parts machine and magic. A nonbinary kid and their friends seek revenge on a slave driver. You’re never sure what you’re going to get in the next story.

Since this is the Lesbrary, I’ll point out the sapphic stories!

The collection begins with “Chen D’Angelo and the Chinese-Italian Dragon” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, which takes place on a generation ship. The main character is a Chinese-Italian kid with two moms who have a Chinese pizzeria. Her best friend is Deaf and uses sign language. I loved this one, and although it works well as a short story, I kept imagining it as a picture book! I would love to see this generation ship, and the final dragon in its glory. Totally cute.

“Bootleg” by Alice Pow follows a trans and queer main character living in a too-familiar corporate dystopia, where bikes have become so overpriced that only the wealthy can own them. Candace has been scrounging (and stealing) bike parts to make her own, but now she’s down to the last piece she needs, and she’ll have to take it from the factory itself, dodging past the bots working there. This is a short one, but it’s fun. I’d like to see more of Candace’s life: “‘We’re like if Bonnie and Clyde didn’t kill people.’ Maia turned to kiss Candace’s forehead. ‘And we’re queer as hell.’ ‘That, too.'”

“The Dragon’s Lake” by Sarena Ulibarri has a bit of a fairy tale with a twist feel to it. Lita was meant to be saving the princess from a dragon–but things went awry, and now somehow she’s being held captive by a dragon. There’s a whole island full of them, being put to work by the dragon and its giant snail cronies. Lita is still reeling from her recent breakup, but she starts to get close to another woman on the island. This is another one I’d like to see expanded: personally, I like the D&D feel of the original cave mission, so I would have liked to see that.

“‘Til We Meet Again” by Joyce Chng features the dragon bike races, and a romance between two competitors. This is super cute!

As with all anthologies, there are some stories that I liked more than others, but I enjoyed seeing all of the different directions that authors took this prompt. I’d definitely like to pick up more Bikes in Space books.

Danika reviews Witches of Ash & Ruin by E. Latimer

Witches of Ash and Ruin by E Latimer

Witches are turning up dead in this small Irish town–and they are following a pattern, one that has been winding through different towns for decades. Two rival covens must make an uneasy alliance to find and defend against this witch killer.

Dayna’s coven is the only place she feels at home. Her father is a conservative Christian who would never tolerate witchcraft, if he knew about it. He cast her mother was cast out for her mental illness, sending her to a Christian camp that she has only recently returned from, a stranger to Dayna. She also deals with somatic OCD, and has been ostracized by her community after being outed as bisexual. Now, the cozy family she has with her coven is being threatened, and she’ll do anything to defend it.

Meiner has been raised by her abusive grandmother, who also happens to be a terrifyingly powerful witch. Now, the King Witch is losing her memory, and often slips into irrationality or moments of delusion. Also taken in by this grandmother is Cora, who was “rescued” from an abusive aunt. She and Meiner used to be close, and even dated briefly, but now they have been pitted against each other for who is most worthy to inherent the coven. Cora will do anything for power, even if it means losing herself.

While Dayna and Meiner are clearly the main characters in this story, and their hate-to-love relationship is compelling, there are more point of view characters included. Dubh is the witch killer, and we see brief, chilling glimpses into his actions and motivations. Cora sometimes gets her own POV, revealing her desperation thinly veiling her vulnerability. We also get Samuel’s POV, who is Dayna’s ex, the Good Christian Boy, and is secretly obsessed with a serial killer.

I found it difficult to get into Witches of Ash & Ruin because of the constant POV shifts: it felt like there were so many starts and stops. I also found it difficult to keep track of so many names all at once (but that’s a fault of mine as a reader). By halfway through, although I didn’t remember all of the side characters’ names, I could appreciate what each POV brought to the story. I did get caught up on Samuel, though, who seemed more like a plot device to show things that the other characters necessarily couldn’t see. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that he’s unnecessary; maybe it’s just that I didn’t like him!

I think this would be a great October read for a blustery evening. There are murders taking place, and a real sense of foreboding. The characters are basically being hunted, and you’re not sure how or when they will be targeted. I was a little bit disappointed with the magic aspect, though: early in the novel, we’re told that the “witchlings” have all been waiting to ascend as witches, when they will get a direct link to their god and gain incredible power, unlike anything they could access before. But although two ascend fairly early on, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic being used until the very end of the book. Ultimately, although I appreciated a lot of this book, I just didn’t connect to it the way I wanted to. I think partly that was because I probably would have enjoyed this more in the fall, closer to Halloween, but also because I was overwhelmed with the amount of characters (everyone in both their covens, plus family members and friends), so I couldn’t remember who some of the major characters were, even by the end of the book. I don’t think that’s a fault of the book, though. If you enjoy dark stories about witches, and are interested in one set in Ireland, give this one a try!

Danika reviews The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana PorterThe Seep is a weird fiction novella (200 pages) exploring a “soft” alien invasion utopia. It begins with a section titled “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World.” Earth is being invaded by a disembodied alien species–which turns out to be a good thing. The Seep forms a symbiotic relationship with humans. They get to experience linear time and human emotions, and in exchange, well, they solve basically every problem people have ever had. Illness, inequality, capitalism, pollution and climate change all disappear. People develop intense empathy for everyone and everything in the world. Everything and everyone is connected, anything imagined is possible, and everyone is immortal to boot.

A utopia may seem like a set up for a boring book: where’s the conflict? But although The Seep just wants everyone to be happy, it doesn’t understand human complexity and why we might like things that are bad for us. In fact, despite having every opportunity imaginable, Trina is miserable. She is grieving, and she’s tired of this new world: everyone is constantly emotionally processing and high on The Seep. She finds herself nostalgic for struggle and purpose. She’s trans, and after fighting for so long, she’s at home in her body and vaguely irritated at people who treat changing faces and growing wings as a whim.

Despite the big premise, the real story is about Trina’s journey through grief. Her relationship with her wife is over (I won’t spoil why), and no amount of The Seep wand-waving will fix it. This alien species of superior intellect, power, and empathy can’t grasp why she would choose to feel pain, to poison herself with alcohol, to neglect her home and relationships. This novella shows what being human really means, and how no world, no matter how idyllic, really can be without conflict–but that’s just part of the experience of being alive.

I loved how queer this is. From the beginning, Trina and Deeba are having a dinner party with two other queer couples. I liked the discussion of what race and gender and sex mean in a world where you can change your appearance effortlessly. Trina and Deeba are both racialized women. Trina is Jewish and indigenous, and other Jewish and racialized characters appear as side characters. I appreciated this focus, but I acknowledge that I am reading this from a white, non-Jewish, cis perspective, and although the author is bisexual, this is not as far as I know an own voices representation of any of the other marginalizations that Trina has. I would be interested to read reviews by trans, Jewish, and indigenous readers.

If you’re looking for a short, thoughtful, and weird read–definitely pick this up. I loved the writing and the characterizations (there are so few good bear characters in books, you know?), and I look forward to picking up anything this Chana Porter writes next!

SPONSORED REVIEW: Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

 Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

The city didn’t care. It lay serene as they all loved and teemed and scrambled and strove.

Loud Pipes Save Lives is a thriller with a noir feel, following a New York cop, a vigilante women’s motorcycle club, and the many people tangled up in the ensuing investigation. From the beginning, I was pulled in with the writing, which reminded me of an old noir mystery: Sparr’s partner is described as a “blond, butch slab of a woman.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, though: Sparr is moved to another district to try to track down the motorcycle club that has been beating down acquitted rapists and abusers. We’re soon given the points of view of these women, though, so the reader is fully informed of what’s really happening. The real mystery–and the reason Sparr has been relocated–is to investigate the seemingly closed case of her father’s death.

There are a lot of pieces to this story, and it demands the reader keep track of a large cast and their relationships and dealings. There are political machinations, family secrets, romances, and, of course, a motorcycle gang (sorry–motorcycle club). I lost track of how many points of view we get in this story–at least seven? By the fifth point of view change in a row with no repeats, my head was spinning. On top of the POV characters, there’s just a large cast in general: I found myself having to search my ebook multiple times to remember who people were, and some characters felt like they could have been cut out with no consequence for the plot. The frequent POV shifts also made me feel less connected to the characters, because I didn’t spend much time with any one of them. Sparr seems like she should be the main character, but I didn’t feel like I really knew her. The POV shifts also lessened the suspense, because we see almost everyone’s perspective.

It’s a shame to spend so little time with them, because this a diverse, interesting cast! The motorcycle club in particular is made up of many women of different races, nationalities, and orientations, and there are multiple major characters with disabilities. They are often complex and flawed–there are no perfect people here. This adds to the noir atmosphere: there are no clear winners, and justice is murky and undefined. It doesn’t have a catharsis of the good guys beating the bad guys and everyone riding off into the sunset. Instead, we have to sit with the grey areas and complexity.

One aspect I wish we could have spent more time on is the romance between Lily Sparr and Miri. They are partners in the force, and they act just like a couple. They want to be together all the time. They go to each other for comfort. They stay at each others houses. They dance together. But they’ve never pursued anything romantic. [minor spoilers:] It turns out that they are likely both asexual–that word isn’t used, but the text is explicit that neither of them is interested in any sexual acts. [end spoilers] This makes for a sweet couple of scenes, but it is a very minor part of the book. I can actually imagine this volume being expanded into a series, so we could get more of this romance and other characters’ development. There is so much that is touched on, but it competes with the many other aspects of the story.

Ultimately, I appreciated the pieces all working together to bring this story to life. The writing was precise and included some memorable lines. There was a huge diversity in the characters, and they all had their own histories and motivations, complete with complicated relationships with others. But because each aspect was so concise, and there was so much packed in, I would have liked a little more room to explore the characters and their relationships to each other. I appreciated the story on an intellectual level, but I didn’t get a chance to fully engage on an emotional level.

I also wanted to mention quite a few trigger warnings: violence and gore (described); mentions of: rape (incest and pedophilia), cutting, miscarriage, manslaughter, incest between siblings, ableist slur, police shooting of unarmed black man, sex work slur, death of sex worker, and depiction of a mentally ill person as violent.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Kenzie Kickstarts a Team (The Derby Daredevils #1) by Kit Rosewater, illustrated by Sophie Escabasse

Kenzie Kickstarts a Team by Kit Rosewater

The Derby Daredevils is a middle grade series following a junior roller derby team, with an #ownvoices queer main character. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve already clicked away to order a copy or request it from your library. And that would be the correct response. I am jubilated that we are finally at the place in queer lit where a mainstream early chapter book can have an incidentally queer main character. Break out the streamers, people. We’ve made it!

But on to the book itself! Admittedly, I’m a little older than the target demographic. Kenzie and her friends are 10 years old. Her best friend, Shelly, and her are obsessed with roller derby. Kenzie’s mom is a derby girl, but she can’t try out herself until she’s 15–that is, until a junior derby league opens up. Shelly and Kenzie are ecstatic, but in order to make sure they can stay the Dynamic Duo (and not be broken up into different teams), they have to form a 5 person team and try out together. But will being part of team threaten their Dynamic Duo stasis?

This is aimed at 8-12, and I think it’s a perfect fit for kids at around the Wimpy Kid stage. It’s short, and packed full of illustrations! (They’re every 3 pages or so.) I loved seeing the diverse group of kids come together–diverse in terms of race and personality. Kenzie’s dad is trans, and I think this is the first book I’ve come across where that is casually mentioned. Kenzie refers to his life before transitioning as him being like an “undercover agent.” Later, when she realizes she has a crush on a girl, she empathizes with that status.

This is the first book in the series, and it’s under 200 pages, so we really just get an introduction to each of the characters (as they get added to the team), and an idea of their interactions. From what I’ve seen, I like the characters and their varied relationships: I look forward to seeing the dynamics develop over the course of the series, and to getting to know each of the characters individually. (I think each of the girls on the team will have their own point of view title, and at least one other character is implied to also be queer.) [spoiler:] It’s implied that Kenzie’s crush returns the sentiment, so we’ll see how that develops over the series! [end spoiler]

The next volume comes out in September, and I will definitely keep going with it! If you have any kids in your life in the 8-12 range, pick this one up for them! It’s shades of Baby-Sitters Club and Lumberjanes, with its own derby flair. Perfect for kid daredevils with or without skates!


SPONSORED REVIEW: Oaktown Girls Series by Suzanne Falter

Oaktown Girls by Suzanne Falter is a four volume romance series following several lesbians and one non-binary character in Oakland as they explore and deepen their relationships. While the first volume focuses mainly on Kate and Lizzy, there are more point of view characters added as the series progresses, eventually having 8 main point of view characters.

Driven by Suzanne FalterOne of the strengths of Oaktown Girls is this sense of a strong lesbian community. Lizzy and Temika run a garage together, and it becomes a hub. All the main characters are connected in some way, and you get the sense of them forming an always-expanding family. They are different ages and at different points in their relationships, which makes the community feel vibrant. Even the peripheral characters–customers, employers, the villain of the series–are lesbians. I also appreciated that Temika, Delilah, and Lizzy are middle-aged: a demographic that doesn’t always get represented in romance novels.

The characters are all multi-faceted and flawed, which can sometimes prove frustrating: I lost sympathy for Kate in the first book, while Lizzy’s attitude in the second volume rubbed me the wrong way. As I continued reading, though, I realized that this wasn’t a matter of them not being written well, but that the characters themselves made bad decisions: they weren’t always the people I wanted them to be. And I respect that, especially when each character’s flaws and strengths are completely different from each other.

Committed by Suzanne FalterOne ongoing theme in this series had to do with self-help and spirituality. It began with statements like “This is the thing about the human race, Lizzy. We always get what we need in this life.” and “If it truly meant to be, it would simply happen. That’s just how the Universe worked.” I’ll be honest, this isn’t a philosophy that appeals to me. I’m also surprised to have that sentiment co-existing with some of the truly horrific things that happen over the course of the series (check out the trigger warnings section for details). Once I finished the first volume, I saw in the author’s biography that she has published self-help books, which explains the tone.

From the second book onward, the series becomes more spiritual, not just general self-help sentiments. Sally is introduced, who is a psychic character whose visions are confirmed by the text. She speaks to angels and believes in goddesses. By the end of the series, it seems like everyone believes in goddesses, hears voices occasionally, and are constantly getting sudden epiphanies about what they must do right now–which can seem very convenient to the plot.

Destined by Suzanne FalterOverall, although the spiritual aspect wasn’t something I connect with, I really enjoyed this series. It’s fun and surprising. The first book is about two rival lesbian garages, including a cartoonishly evil villain, with a romance blossoming across these rival camps. Who can resist that? A psychic character was definitely a curveball, but so was the corporate espionage subplot in the third book. I never knew what would happen next. Sometimes it’s about a developing romance, sometimes it’s about the threat of deportation and having to live in a sanctuary church and the isolation that causes. The last book really wrapped up the series, giving each relationship a relevant milestone, and I appreciated the family that had formed between them.

Unfortunately, I did have some issues with the series, including some things I think are worth having content warnings for. Firstly, although it was fun to have a villain to rail against in the first book, Mindy’s rage and single-mindedness is ascribed to her brain injury, which I didn’t feel great about. We did have a few chapters from her perspective, and because she really seems to be driven entirely by spite, with no positive qualities, it wasn’t particularly compelling to read from her perspective.

Revealed by Suzanne FalterLater in the series, we get the point of view of a non-binary character. I appreciate this addition, and I believe this was done with the best of intentions, but the representation here fell short. Monroe’s gender identity is sometimes fetishized: “Monroe’s wan countenance was maddeningly, alluringly non-gender-specific” and “Non-binary. Not choosing male or female. Monroe was somewhere deliciously in between. Instantly, Rosalind began to blush crimson with the alarming realization that she’d been instantly aroused.” Awkwardly, Monroe is also referred to in-text and by characters as “a ‘they'” constantly. As in: “she’s not a she— she’s a ‘they’” and “She’d never even considered being with a non-binary person. A ‘they.’” Similarly: “Can I really bring home a non-binary?”

Monroe is also constantly misgendered by people, and their gender is often discussed as being somewhat tragic: doomed to always be misgendered, and as undesirable. The text establishes that Monroe is being read as a woman by seemingly everyone around them. It also includes their birth name. Their mother is determined to misgender them, saying “You were born a girl, and you’ll always be a girl, Sarah. As if I should have to remind you.” As I mentioned, I really believe that this was meant to be a positive depiction, but it missteps frequently, including lines like: “Just like Cher refused to call Chastity Chaz back in the day.” At a different point, a sex worker is referred to as a “transvestite.” I’m disappointed, because I think Monroe could have been a really great addition to this story, with a little reworking. I think it would have helped if there were any other trans characters, even minor characters, so that Monroe wouldn’t have to be the only representation of trans or non-binary people.

Oaktown Girls is a series that never failed to surprise me. I became emotionally invested in the growing cast of characters, and I appreciated seeing them become a chosen family. Like the characters it portrays, this series is flawed, but it is also compelling and enjoyable. Just be prepared to roll with the punches, because you never know where it will go next.

Content warnings: violence and death, including a murdered child, traumatic injury of a child, witnessed suicide of a child; PTSD; internalized homophobia and parental homophobia; casual mention of drunk driving; anti-sex work sentiments (and pro-police sentiments)

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure is about Simone, a teenager who’s been HIV positive since birth. Her dads have done their best to make sure she has the best possible life, and as long as she takes her medication every day, her day-to-day isn’t much different from her peers. The problem is not so much with symptoms or medical care, but stigma. At her last school, her peers turned on her when they found out her diagnosis, and she had to switch schools. Now, she just wants to enjoy directing the high school play and hanging out with her friends and crushing on a boy without having to think about how people would react if they knew. Which is why getting blackmail notes threatening to out her if she doesn’t stay away from her crush is particularly terrifying.

I will say up front that this has a bisexual main character, and the central romance is M/F. But even aside from the bi main character, there is queer rep aplenty: Simone has two dads, one of her best friends in an asexual lesbian, and the other best friend is also bisexual. In fact, it’s partly because Simone is surrounded by confident, out queer people in her life that she doesn’t feel like she can claim the word bisexual for herself. Sure, she has crushes on celebrity women, but that doesn’t count, right? And liking one girl isn’t enough to be able to call herself bisexual, right? An undercurrent of the story is Simone coming to terms with her sexuality, and realizing that she can claim that identity. (Also, her–almost?–ex-girlfriend is awful.)

I find this book a little difficult to describe, because on the whole, I found it a fun, absorbing, even fluffy read. Simone is passionate about musical theatre, and she is excited and intimidated to be acting as director. She is swooning over a cute guy (also involved in the production), and their romance is adorable. Simone’s friends are great–even if they have some communication issues–and so is her family. She is surrounded by support, and there is a lot of humour sprinkled throughout.

On the other hand, Full Disclosure also grapples with the stigma around HIV positivity. Simone’s dads felt that it was fitting that they adopt an HIV positive baby, after having lost so many people in their lives to HIV and AIDS. There is discussion of what living through the epidemic was like, and the extreme bigotry towards people with HIV/AIDS. Simone is being blackmailed, and she lives in fear of having people turn against her again. She doesn’t feel like she can even talk to the principal about it, because it could mean that the information could get out. Even her best friends don’t know.

There is tension between the lightheartedness of the book as a whole, and the serious underpinnings. It meshes well, though, and doesn’t feel like bouncing between emotional extremes. Instead, it portrays that HIV positive teens can have happy, fulfilling lives and also have to worry about unfair, hateful treatment. They can be carefree in most aspects of their lives, and also have to take their health very seriously.

Full Disclosure is masterful, including well-rounded characters, an adorable love story, and a protagonist who grows and matures over the course of the novel. I highly recommend this, and I can’t wait to read more from Camryn Garrett.

Danika reviews Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

If you’re looking for a fun f/f YA romcom, this is the perfect fit. I’ve been on a bit of an audiobook slump lately. I am very picky when it comes to audiobooks: they have to have the right narrator, and an interesting enough plot to pull me in, but it also has to be something I can miss a sentence of and still hold the thread, and I prefer them to be fairly light. It makes it very difficult to find a good fit, especially combined with my other book tastes and my library’s audiobook selection. Her Royal Highness finally broke through that slump, and I whipped through it.

Millie has been obsessed with Scotland since she first saw Brave. When she applied to stay in a fancy boarding school there, she didn’t expect to actually get in, never mind get a full scholarship that made it a real possibility. But heartbreak gives her an excuse to take the leap, where she immediately clashes with her roommate–who happens to be a Scottish princess.

I knew this was a hate to love story, but at the beginning of the story, I was skeptical of how I could root for their relationship. Flora comes off as obnoxious and even cruel, and I couldn’t see how Millie could end up wanting to date her. Hawkins pulled it off, though, slowly making Flora a more three dimensional and likable character, and before I knew it, I was totally invested in them.

This is Royals Book 2, but reading the first (m/f) book isn’t all necessary for this one. It gives you some fun insight into some side characters in this one, but that’s all. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for the kind of sweet and angsty love story that comes out of hate to love stories. Check out the audiobook if you want the Scottish and Texan accents!