Danika reviews Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet Geniza

Kimiko Does Cancer: A Graphic Memoir by Kimiko Tobimatsu, illustrated by Keet GenizaKimiko Does Cancer is about about a queer, mixed-race woman getting breast cancer. This is a short book, only 106 pages, and it moves quickly: the first page is about Kimiko finding a lump above her breast, and then it moves through her diagnosis, treatment, and the aftermath. Tobimatsu explains in interviews/articles that she wanted to write this book because the mainstream narrative around cancer didn’t include her experience. She wanted other queer people with cancer to have a reference that better reflects their lives.

For one thing, she comes into this experience already skeptical of doctors, especially around sexual health. One panel shows a doctor saying, “Only women who sleep with men need Paps,” (labelled on page as “Bad medical advice”). This is something that I was also told by a doctor, after she blushed and seemed flustered when I told her my sexual experience was with AFAB people. Although she’s grateful for her medical team, she also finds it overwhelming, especially when they give different advice. She also continues to face similar microagressions: a doctor who assumes she’ll immediately want reconstructive surgery on her breast before asking her–Kimiko had been interested in exploring what a mastectomy would mean for her exploration of gender. Later, another doctor asks if she’d like both breasts enhanced as long as they’re “plumping” one.

In her article on Rethink Cancer, she explains,

I didn’t want to talk about how to recover my sense of femininity despite breast scars and menopause; I wanted to explore how losing my breasts might allow me to lean into my masculinity. I didn’t want to talk about how changing femininity could affect a hetero relationship; I wanted to talk about the implications of breast cancer on queer relationships between women.”

This genderizing of breast cancer extends outside assumptions around patients’ relationships to their breasts. In “Straight Cancer in a Queer Body” at The Polyphony, Tobimatsu explains,

Whether we know it or not, ideas around gender are frequently at the forefront of conversations about breast cancer. Little is as connected to notions of femininity as breasts, hair and fertility – all things that can be lost following a breast cancer diagnosis. Perhaps for this reason, society’s response to the disease is to throw pink ribbons, make-up tutorials and a peppy outlook at the problem. For many queers and gender non-conforming folks, this feminization of the disease is stifling…

A page from Kimiko Does Cancer showing Kimiko meeting three women in a cancer support group. They introduce themselves and then transform magic girl style into feminine fighters. "I'm Macy, Stacy, Lacy! We're survivors, fighters, warriors! We kick cancer's butt! And look good while doing it~"

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer

Not only is Kimiko uncomfortable with the whiteness and heteronormativity/gender norms, she also is alienated by how apolitical these spaces are. Kimiko considers the ethics and greater implications of each of the choices she’s making in this journey, and the structure around them. She recognizes the privilege she has to be in Canada and have the medical support she does, and the special treatment she gets as a young cancer patient. She contemplates the ethics of freezing her eggs for $7,000 when she’s not sure whether she even wants kids–or whether it’s ethical to bring kids into a climate crisis. On top of that, she feels pressure to have had some great epiphany as a cancer survivor: to have a whole new outlook on life, and no longer care about the “little things.”

Kimiko Does Cancer follows the aftereffects of her treatment as well. She has menopause induced to (hopefully) prevent cancer from recurring. This leaves her with hot flashes, which play a major role in her life. I had no idea what having hot flashes really entailed:

Page from Kimiko Does Cancer shows stages of a hot flash, including anger, raging heat, hunger, and more.

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it finds its way into the right hands. I’ll leave off with one last quotation from the author, who explains the importance of changing this narrative. She explains that vague cancer fundraisers often get more attention than specific actions needed to improve marginalized peoples’ lives. (And of course, it’s all connected: racial justice and ending poverty are inextricably linked to health.)

When we centre certain bodies and not others, it has dire consequences – black women with breast cancer get diagnosed at later stages than white women and have lower survival rates… By depoliticizing cancer, it becomes an easy cause to support. Pink ribbon campaigns offer a way to give money to an easy-to-sympathize-with-cause that doesn’t force engagement with more difficult issues like poverty or racial justice.

“Straight Cancer in a Queer Body,” The Polyphony

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes by Eloisa Aquino

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes by Eloisa Aquino

The Life and Times of Butch Dykes was originally a series of zines, now collected in a highly illustrated hardcover. I was on board from the title page, where the publisher says, “If you bought this on Amazon, I’m so sorry because you could have gotten it cheaper and supported a small, independent publisher at www.Microcosm.Pub” That turns out to be true: Microcosm Publishing has a sliding scale price!

The day that I read this book, twitter was having an argument about the use of the word “dyke,” so it was fascinating to read the intro and see how the author and publisher had considered this term. They explain that gender is fluid, that some of the people featured in the zine now identify as men (and were left out of the collection on request). Some presented their gender differently later in life. Some are non-binary and use they/them pronouns. Others we have no idea how they would identify if they had access to the vocabulary we have today. They all, however, are queer, love women, and defy gender expectations, which is the thread that holds this together.

Each zine (some have been digitally reconstructed) has a different subject. Most are biographies of individuals, but others are broad categories, like butch filmmakers, or Brazilian fern-haired singers. Every other page is an illustration, and the text is hand-lettered. There are many quotations from the people featured. This is a beautiful book to flip through.

Some of the people included are well-known figures like Audre Lorde, while others were people I’ve never heard of, like a 5’7 tattooed Japanese butch lesbian who became a hugely successful fashion model in the 90s. Even if I was familiar with the people being described, I loved seeing all the portraits. For the people I didn’t know, this acted as a great teaser, providing just enough tantalizing information that I wanted to seek out more.

I loved how diverse this collection is–not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also race and nationality. Eloisa Aquino is Brazilian-Canadian, and she features butches from all over the world (and across time). Each gets a short biography, which often has very little to do with gender or sexuality. Instead of acting as a 101 on who and what a butch dyke is, this collection offers beacons of people throughout history and around the world who have lived their authentic lives, which inherently encourages the readers to live their own.

This is a great little coffee table book, and I think it would make a perfect gift for fans of butch dykes, gender nonconforming, queer history, or zines! I did have some minor issues: the digital reconstruction means that some illustrations have noticeable pixelation, and one line (pg 52) seemed to imply that coming out as bisexual didn’t count as really coming out, but overall I thought this was a great, one-sitting read.

This was the book voted on by my Patrons to vlog about in August! Here is my vlog, which also discusses some other sapphic books, and features my bookshelf reorganization and my dogs!

If you’d like to pick what I read next, you can support me on Patreon, and you’ll also get queer women books in the mail throughout the year!

Danika reviews Love after the End edited by Joshua Whitehead

Love After the End edited by Joshua WhiteheadLove after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories by Indigenous authors. It’s edited and introduced by Joshua Whitehead, the author of Jonny Appleseed and full-metal indigiqueer. In that introduction, Whitehead reflects on the intersection between Indigeneity and queerness: “How does queer Indigeneity upset or upend queerness? Are we queerer than queer?” He goes on to explain that originally, Love after the End was going to be a collection of dystopic stories, but they pivoted towards utopias: “For, as we know  we have already survived the apocalypse—this, right here, right now, is a dystopian present.”

The introduction alone is thought-provoking and sometimes intimidating. Whitehead brings his study of theory to this work, and some of the ideas went over my head. I appreciated being introduced to these ideas, though, and it definitely left me thinking, including his mention of “contemporary erasures and appropriations of the term Two-Spirit by settler queer cultures who idealize, mysticize, and romanticize our hi/stories in order to generate a queer genealogy for settler sexualities.” Besides, this is an anthology by and for Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous people; as a white settler reader, I know I’m not going to understand every reference. The authors are from many nations across North America, and many stories include untranslated words from different Indigenous languages.

Although the introduction is academic, the stories themselves are written accessibly. They cover a lot of different topics, but many come back to the idea of space travel, and especially of evacuating a dying Earth. In one story, a portal is made that allows travel to an almost identical, uninhabited planet. The main character has a white partner who doesn’t understand the main character’s reluctance to leave, or her distrust of the supposedly peaceful government’s settlement of a “new world.” The Earth is ravaged, and left for dead by most–Indigenous communities are some of the few people who are willing to stay. Another story has the characters’ escape hinge on space travel that will use the Earth’s kinetic core energy to fuel it, leaving the planet destroyed. Each character has to decide whether they will stay or go, and what that means for their identity and relationship with place.

As I was reading Love after the End, I was reminded just how colonialist SFF often is as a genre, whether it’s about “conquering new worlds” and literally establishing colonies, or centring Medieval England in fantasy stories, or just holding up white, straight, cis, male protagonists as the heroes. This collection is such a refreshing change of perspective. These stories include a relationship with the land that isn’t common in science fiction stories. They assume a greater responsibility for protecting the Earth than I’m used to from a dystopia. The question of whether to stay on a planet that’s been destroyed by (white, wealthy) human activity is very different here than in a typical white space travel story.

“How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls” is about a “Native girl who loves other girls” writing a manual on how to survive in this post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s also an exploration of what systems would replace the white colonial system once it collapsed. She explains, “See, when the borders broke, people decided that Kinship should be our main law instead. Except the problem was that Kinship means different things to different people. And sometimes people who should see each other as kin, inawemaagan, reject each other.” She loves and respects her culture, but is also critiquing this new system of power: who is left out? She find that Two-Spirit people, including her friends, are not always respected the way they should be. She grapples with the idea of what it means to be kin, and who decides.

Many of these stories use Nation-specific language for identity, which doesn’t neatly map onto white, European categories:

“The boys made fun of Kokomis ’ shirt. They said I’m a girl and girls shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. They said I’m wrong.” Her mother crooned. She gently grasped her face. “When you were born, your Kokomis held you in his arms and he looked at me with tears running down his face because he had been waiting his whole life for another îhkwewak like him, and there you were, I gave birth to you, and I was never more grateful for anything else in my life. You are a gift, Winu. And people are often jealous of gifts that are not for them.”

Reading this collection also reminded me of what I’ve read about Indigenous survivance. Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe scholar who coined the term, says: “Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy, and victimry.” I recommend reading more about it, including at survivance.org. The stories in Love after the End position Indigenous people in the future, instead of the past. They frame Indigenous nations as not only subsisting, but using traditional knowledge and culture as strengths in current and future societies.

… There’s also an m/m romance story between a teenage boy and an AI who is also a cyberengineered super-intelligent rat! (In this story, same-sex relationships are accepted, but human/AI romantic relationships were the “the sort of thing that was whispered about, something that lived in the shadows.”)

I really enjoyed this collection, both as an addition to queer lit and as a much-needed collection of SFF. This is a great way to be introduced to a lot of talented authors, some of whom also contributed to Love Beyond Body Space and Time and some who are new to this collection. Usually in an anthology, I concentrate on the sapphic stories, but because Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer identities don’t neatly fit into white western categories of sexuality, I’m not going to try to separate those out. I will say that I think this collection is definitely relevant to Lesbrary readers, and it left me hungry for more Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer SFF!

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]

Danika reviews Be Gay, Do Comics!: Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib

Be Gay, Do ComicsBe Gay, Do Comics is an anthology with more than 30 contributors, all discussing some aspect of queer life. This was a refreshingly diverse and thought-provoking collection. Most anthologies in this vein that I’ve read have played it pretty safe: they’ve usually been very white, and mostly focused on gay cis men, with the overarching message being one of acceptance. Be Gay, Do Comics covers a wide range of topics from a lot of different voices, including many artists of color and trans artists, and includes comics about queer liberation and resisting assimilation.

There is a mix of one-page comics and longer pieces, with some being fairly simple one-off jokes or observations and others looking at queer history. I was especially interested in the comics that looked at queer history and culture that is lesser known, including looking at gay characters in Puerto Rican TV shows, comparing that to the history and present state of LGBTQ rights in Puerto Rico. Another explores how LGBTQ people have been treated in the Philippines, pre-colonialism up to the present. There is also a comic including interviews from queer parents raising kids in Malaysia.

Some comics are biographies of queer people in history I wasn’t aware of, including Gad Beck, a gay Jewish spy, and Baron von Steuben, an openly gay military leader in the American Revolution. Some of these figures at larger than life, others are everyday. Others look at events, such as Hazel Newlevant’s comic about queer uprisings that preceded Stonewall, or an explanation of the Lavender Scare, or the history of the rainbow flag.

Of course, there are also a lot of personal stories included. Some talk about exploring their gender, or coming out. One is about being non-binary while taking folk dancing lessons. Another talks coming out in their late 30s, and the pride and embarrassment and mourning of that–mourning for their younger out queer self who never was. While I’m used to LGBT anthologies being mostly cis gay men, there were lots of trans comics in this one, and even an intersex contribution. There was also a variety both in identities and politics, including a comic about gay Republicans, comics about gatekeeping in the queer community, and one about gay liberation.

It’s hard to speak about an anthology like this in a cohesive way, because they are all so different: in art style, tone, topic, and identity. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Although as always there were some comics I liked more than others, there weren’t any that I felt were weak. It’s a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different artists as well. This is one I would happily recommend. It’s not focused specifically on lesbians and bi women, but there is definitely sapphic representation. I’m happy to see that queer anthologies are expanding to be a little more challenging and diverse than they were just a handful of years ago.

Danika reviews Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Because this is the Lesbrary, I’ll start by saying that this is a f/m romance with a bi+ main character (and love interest).

I picked this up firstly because I really enjoyed Dugan’s previous queer YA title, Hot Dog Girl. I was also interested in the premise: two teenagers whose parents own competing comic book shops fall for each other. As the title suggests, these are ~star-crossed lovers~, but it isn’t a Romeo & Juliet retelling beyond that (at least, not as far as I could tell). It ended up being a thought-provoking read for me, one I’m still turning over in my head days after finishing it. It definitely wasn’t what I expected.

Jubilee is a cellist prodigy whose life is consumed by her music, and is currently frantically rehearsing to get a spot (and scholarship) for the summer program at Carnegie. Her music teacher and friends both demand that she takes a break and lives a little, so when she attends a comic convention, she decides to pursue a “con crush” with a guy in a Batman mask. Ridley is there to help out at his father’s booth–except that his dad usually wants nothing to do with him. Ridley is suffering from serious anxiety and depression, and is caught completely off guard when Jubillee flirts with him.

Their romance continues in text form, until Ridley tells his dad he’ll scope out the competition and report back to him in order to not get sent back to his mother’s house–and in order to live in the same town as Jubilee, who is oblivious that Ridley is also the mysterious Batman cosplayer and that he’s supposed to be spying on her for his frankly villainous father.

So that’s the premise! But what struck me about this story isn’t the machinations of the plot, but the details. Ridley is a character that I have not seen in a novel before. Top Ten by Katie Cotugno (another bi f/m romance) has a socially anxious main character, but Ridley’s thought spirals are disturbing, especially if you have any anxiety or depression yourself. He catastrophizes. He picks apart and criticizes every one of his own words and actions. It’s unnerving to be inside of his head. He also has suicide ideations, including a previous attempt. His family is abusive, from an emotionally absent mother to an openly insulting and even frightening father. He makes bad choices, but they are understandable because of how much we see into his reality. At the same time, I would warn anyone with anxiety or depression to approach this cautiously, especially because he sometimes feels like a burden to his loved ones because of his mental health struggles.

The beginning of Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship was cute: I could see how they both hit it off, with their similar senses of humour and love of fandom. (Ridley is a huge fan of Jubilee’s stepmother’s comics.) [Minor spoiler:] I was also surprised at how early on in the story Ridley came clean about his deception. I’m used to stories like this dragging on the deception, and I much prefer that Jubilee and Ridley get on the same page at a reasonable point. [end spoilers] Unfortunately, even after that, it isn’t exactly a healthy relationship. They are both good people, and I see why they’re attracted to each other, but it doesn’t work. Jubilee begins to spend much of her time trying to take care of Ridley, neglecting her own life. Ridley is dependent on her, and also feels guilty about keeping their relationship (and his family) a secret from her parents. They love each other, but it’s not making either of them very happy.

Of course, check the title again: did we really expect a riff on Romeo and Juliet to be a happy story? It’s the ending that left me thinking the most, however. [Major spoilers, highlight to read:] They don’t end up dead, but this R&J-inspired couple do have a suitable tragic and dramatic ending to their relationship. As shocking as it first felt to have Ridley steal his sister’s car (without a license) and try to drive them both out of town, it did follow from the rest of the story. Ridley is completely panicked, and feels like there’s no way out. He can’t give up Jubilee, the only good thing in his life. He can’t go back to his mother, and his father kicked him out. He is spiraling. And although Jubilee knows this is a bad idea, she loves Ridley and is afraid for him. She worries that he’ll try to kill himself if she leaves him alone during this crisis. She feels like if she can only say the right thing, go along with it just for now, she can buy enough time to save him. I understand this impulse, and I’ve been in relationships where I felt responsible for my partner’s safety, so it felt discomfiting and realistic.

The car crash also felt surprising, but makes sense. He doesn’t know how to drive! And maybe this is what needed to happen to make them both understand how serious the problem was. Surprisingly, the happy ending for this Romeo and Juliet is not being together. It’s in getting therapy. Ridley realizes that he needs help, and reaches out to his sister, who is eager to do anything that will keep him safe. He ends up going into inpatient care in a centre specializing in anxiety and depression in teens. Surprisingly, Jubilee also begins attending a support group for codependency. [End spoilers] It’s interesting to think about this in conversation with Romeo and Juliet retellings, which usually glorify an all-consuming, doomed love. Why do we keep coming back to these stories? What do we want from them? And what do they look like in the present day?

And, of course, to booked this Lesbrary review, I have to talk about the queer content. On tumblr and twitter, people often are looking for m/f romances where both characters are bi+. Jubilee doesn’t identify with a label, but she is attracted to multiple genders. She feels like an impostor because she’s only dated boys, though, so she doesn’t feel like she can say she isn’t straight. Ridley’s last relationship was an “almost boyfriend” who blackmailed him, leading to his non-fatal suicide attempt. Jubilee and Ridley aren’t the only queer characters, though. Jubilee’s best friend, Jayla, is a Black lesbian, and there is a little bit of discussion of how she is treated by the comics fandom because she’s Black, including when cosplaying white characters. Jubilee also has two moms, and her stepmom is Latinx.

Verona Comics was definitely an interesting and unexpected read. It’s one that left me thinking, and I think acts as a good counterpoint to all-consuming, unhealthy teen romances that are often glorified, especially in YA/teen movies. It isn’t one that I would recommend freely, though, because of the intense mental health issues, including a suicidal main character. If you’re able to safely put yourself in that head space, though, this is a compelling read that will definitely stick with me.

Danika reviews Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Papi was a man split in two,
playing a game against himself.

But the problem with that
is that in order to win, you also always lose.

Yahaira and Camino are half-sisters, but they don’t know it. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and father, though he goes to the Dominican Republic every summer. She has recently discovered the reason he makes this journey every year and is furious, refusing to speak to him (or let him know what’s wrong). Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and looks forward to her father’s yearly visits, especially since her mother passed away. They are both heartbroken when their father’s plane crashes and he passes away, unaware of their shared grief.

I was immediately interested in the premise of Clap When You Land. I have a big, messy family–we even discovered a long-lost aunt at one point–so I wanted to be able to read about these two characters discovering that they’re family, and figuring out how to assimilate that into their understanding of themselves.

This is my first Acevado book, and I’ve heard amazing things about them. I knew that some of her books are written in verse, but I wasn’t sure if this one was: I ended up listening to it as an audiobook, and I still wasn’t sure when the novel began. I realized that it is written in verse, but it works in spoken format, and sounds natural most of the time. There are also two narrators for the point of view characters, which I appreciated.

I loved the characters: they felt well-rounded and real, and I felt for them. Yahaira is trying to understand her life now that she knows her father has been lying to her. She had turned away from him and the values that he instilled, freezing him out before he got on the plane. She has stopped playing chess, which used to be a big part of their shared lives. She is lost afterwards, struggling to deal with the messy aftermath of death: her mother making funeral arrangements (in the Dominican Republic? In New York?), distant family members showing up at the door when the settlement money is brought up, and her teachers and classmates not knowing how to speak to her. She also has a girlfriend, who lives next door, and they have a very sweet relationship. It’s nice to see an f/f relationship that is already established and comfortable. It has flaws, but is fundamentally a source of comfort and happiness for both of them.

Camino’s everyday life is very different. She wants to be a doctor, and already has experience caring for the sick and dying as an apprentice. She is used to friends her age having children and possibly dying from it, because there isn’t adequate medical supplies and treatment. She goes to a private school paid for by her father, in the hopes of eventually going to the U.S. for university. After he passes, not only is she left orphaned, but she is incredibly vulnerable. Her school asks for tuition she doesn’t have, and she is being recruited into sex work by a man who was once paid by her father to leave her alone. Her options are running out, and she is willing to take a desperate risk to save herself.

Even the side characters are complex and interesting, even if we don’t see a lot of them. Yahaira’s mother and Camino’s aunt are mostly background characters, but we can see how their grief affects them, and the strength that it takes to continue onward and to take care of them as much as they can. This is primarily a story about grief, so it isn’t fast-moving. Instead, we stay with Yahaira and Camino as they try to process, and we sit with that discomfort.

From the premise, I knew that eventually the two half-sisters would have to meet, or at least become aware of each other, and that was the moment I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it came a lot later in than I was hoping for. They aren’t even aware of the other’s existence until the latter half of the book. I was excited to get to that point, but it felt a little bit rushed. I wanted to see the two of them establish a relationship and then see it change and mature. I wanted to see how their lives changed with each other in them.

This is a thoughtful, poignant story about grief, and I can see why Acevado is celebrated as a writer. I didn’t get the resolution I was hoping for from Yahaira and Camino’s relationship, but that’s a personal reaction, and it’s still one I would recommend.

SPONSORED REVIEW: The Debt by Natalie Edwards

The Debt by Natalie Edwards

El is a con artist. She began this vocation as a 12 year old orphan, being raised by her reluctant aunt. El was smart, bored, and angry when a library book of cons led her to being taken on as an apprentice by Rose. Now, she’s established her own reputation as a woman who can get things done, and she’s able to live out her life in a secluded house in the countryside, just taking the jobs that interest her. When Rose asks her for a favour, she has no idea that this chain of events will lead her to joining a team of women bent on revenge.

The Debt is a crime thriller set in England in the late 1990s: part heist story, part revenge plot. At first, I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. We’re thrown into El’s world, where nothing can be taken at face value. It’s told mostly from her perspective, but we also get excepts from newspapers and magazine articles, and some flashbacks–including the first chapter. Because this is a story about con artists, you’re never sure what’s real, and everyone has a secret. Reading the first chapter, I thought it would be a mystery solved by con artists. Soon, it felt more like a heist story, with a team of very different women joining together to take down a common foe. As I kept reading, I realized that this was darker than that would suggest: it’s fundamentally a revenge story against someone who seems to have no bounds to his cruelty. While a heist story is usually about getting away with a prize, none of these women will be able to regain the people that were taken from them. They can only hope to stop it from happening again, and enact some blunt force justice.

Even before I had acclimatized to the tone and focus of the story, I immediately liked El. She is self-assured and skilled at what she does. She seems to always have things under control, which makes it all the more interesting when she is forced to deviate from her plans. I also found it interesting that she isn’t motivated by money: even when she was a child, she had spending money, and we meet her when she’s already well-established. She does cons because she’s good at them, and because she wants to. Unfortunately, this isn’t a profession that easily meshes with having a relationship. We learn that she’s had a string of short-term girlfriends, but the relationships all ended when they began asking questions about her work. There isn’t any romantic subplot here, but we do see multiple queer characters, and get some insight to what that meant at different time periods in the UK.

The whole appeal to me of a heist story is the ragtag crew of characters. There’s something very satisfying about a group of talented, motivated women teaming up to bring down a rich, misogynistic, violent man. Although we don’t spend a lot of time with each character–the plot takes up most of the page time–we do get enough to have a sense of them all as distinct personalities, and I wanted to spend more time with them. Of course, that would have slowed down the pacing some, so I’m satisfied with what we got, but Edwards managed to make each of their personalities intriguing enough that I wanted to get to know them more. They all have their own reasons for getting involved in this, and as their plan comes together, we begin to see how their stories intersect.

One character I did not want to see more of was Marchant. He is the villain of the piece, and almost over-the-top in his cruelty.

Marchant, despite his corporate successes, had one, deep-seated ambition that remained thus far unfulfilled: he wanted to get into office. Not buy his way to a peerage or sit on the non-exec board of a policy institute, but actually get elected–to have people want to vote for him. It wasn’t even really about power, Rose had said–he had more than enough of that already. It was about ego. He had a narcissist’s appetite for veneration.

Marchant is a powerful figure, a businessman whose success comes down to being given loans by family early on. He has “connections” that make him untouchable, despite the long list of despicable acts in this past. This power isn’t enough, however: he’s egotistical enough to run for office… (This is England, by the way.) It’s not hard to get behind the women’s plan to take him down. Because each of these characters has a connection to him and has personal reasons for wanting him to fall, it lends the revenge plot a lot of weight–especially considering that he has no qualms at having any potential threats “taken care of.”

The dark tone of this story comes with some content warnings you should be aware of. There is violence, murder, and gore, including familicide as well as child abuse. There’s also mention of hatred of sex workers, but this is pushed back on by the text. There was also offhand mention of a schizophrenic person murdering someone (equating being schizophrenic with violence), and fatphobia in the narration of the story, which felt like rare missteps in this novel. While I’m discussing flaws, I did have one questions about the ending: [spoiler, highlight to read] Why weren’t the women all tied up when El walked in? Or dead? Didn’t Marchant only need Rose alive? It also seemed too risky that the video would be sent to the news station before he showed up. [end spoilers]

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Debt. I don’t read a lot of crime novels, so I wasn’t sure how the reading experience would go. I ended up being invested in the characters and discovering their backstories, and I couldn’t help but root for Marchant being taken down. [spoiler, highlight to read] I was also happy to see that it ends up being a heist story of kinds after all! [end spoilers] This is also possibly the most well-edited self-published book I’ve ever read–it wasn’t a surprise, then, to find out that Natalie Edwards is (along with being a “cultural researcher with a long-standing interest in cons and con artists”) a former copywriter.

If any part of “all-women heist team, con artists, and a revenge story against a wealthy misogynist” interests you, definitely pick up The Debt by Natalie Edwards!

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

Danika reviews Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Codi is in a rut. She has two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, and they’ve been doing the same things since they became friends in the 6th grade. Now she’s 17, and she’s sick of sitting in the basement and watching movies. All three of them are determined to make a change this summer, and maybe get their first kisses (Codi is a lesbian, Martiza is bi, and JaKory is gay). The only problem is that Maritza and JaKory seem to still see the shy, homebody Codi that she was as a kid, and don’t seem to believe that she can be anyone different. When Maritza calls Codi, drunk, and begs her to pick her up from a party, Codi reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t expect to run into one of the “cool kids” kissing another guy in the shadows outside. Ricky asks Codi to not tell anyone about the kiss, and she is drawn into his friend group–including Lydia, who she immediately crushes on. Now Codi is having a whole different summer, with partying, drinking, and skinny-dipping–and not telling her best friends anything about it.

I had a bit of a conflicted relationship with this book. I love that it’s a queer YA book about friendship, including having a bunch of different queer friends. I don’t think we see enough stories where queer people are friends and not just love interests. Codi’s attitude is completely understandable: she feels trapped by her best friends’ expectations of her, so she breaks out of them and doesn’t let them in. At the same time, though, Maritza and JaKory both encourage her to break out of her rut and she refuses, but then she gets angry at them for thinking that she’s in a rut.

She also judges herself for not partying, being a “real” teenager. Maybe me being a 30 year old teacher hurt my enjoyment of this book, but I was frustrated by the idea that the only right way to be a teenager is to act out a teen movie. Maybe I’m defensive because I’ve never been a drinking or partying type. This isn’t a flaw in the writing: it is acknowledged later in the book that there is no one right way to be a teenager, and that you shouldn’t feel like you have to act out some image of being a teenager.

Mostly, I just found it painful to watch Codi make these long, drawn-out mistakes. Her motivation is understandable, and it’s believable, but watching her sabotage some of her most important and long-lasting relationships wasn’t fun, especially when they could be solved with a few conversations. Codi and her friends are all complex and flawed characters, which means that they do hurt each other and make mistakes. I just didn’t find it personally enjoyable to go through chapter after chapter of Codi lying (or lying by omission) to her best friends.

My favourite part was the romance. Codi and Lydia become closer as friends, and then we see that dance around each other of not knowing if the other is interested or even if they’re straight. It felt real to me, seeing the slow, nervous progression of their relationship, including misunderstandings. Codi’s flustered reactions are all-too-relatable. They also have sweet, meaningful conversations–just the kind of exchanges I’d expect from the beginnings of a flirtation between two teenage girls. Their romance was definitely what I enjoyed the most.

The ending felt a little neat to me, especially considering how messy and drawn-out the tensions were between so many characters. There’s a bit of a time jump to explain this, but even still, I would have liked to see this honest conversation earlier so that we had more time to deal with the fallout. I understand why lots of people enjoy this one: it’s a great friendship book, it has a sweet romance, and it looks at the expectations and social pressures of being a teenager. Unfortunately, that plot element of Codi continually choosing to mislead her best friends soured the reading experience for me.

Danika reviews Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Zami by Audre Lorde

Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.

Audre Lorde is a name that looms large in lesbian literature, in Black history, and in her legacy in poetry. I have read some of her essays and poems, but I hadn’t before read a long-form work by her. Zami is her autobiography, starting from early childhood and covering up to about her mid-20s. It was interesting to read about this period of her life, because I think some part of me imagined Lorde as appearing fully formed as the imposing figure she became. I’m also used to memoirs, which focus on one aspect of the author’s life, where this explores many subjects, from relationship to her mother, her education, her various jobs and relationships, and growing up as a Black gay woman in the United States in the 40s and 50s. I didn’t realize how early she wrote this: we don’t get to see her as the established poet she became, or as a lesbian activist or leader–instead, this is her journey to get there.

Lorde’s foundation in poetry is definitely visible here. While some passages are matter of fact, others are phrased poetically or even have whole excerpts of poems. I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated to pick this one up because of her reputation as both a poet and a theorist. This isn’t a book to speed through: like a poem, it’s packed with so much to pause and consider. Some lines I couldn’t understand, but that’s just the nature of reading poetry.

Lorde’s observations are often timeless or depressingly still timely commentary, while other aspects are firmly rooted in the time period she was coming of age. At some points she seems to have a wild and enviable youth: moving to Mexico on her own just for the love it, entertaining a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck friends piled in a room together, experimenting with drugs and relationships–while the next page will bring something truly horrific. Having to work a bad job as a young person is relateable, but having that job expose you to harmful levels of radiation (Lorde would develop cancer later in life) is not. Trying out polyamory, having endless lesbian processing, relationship miscommunication, that could all have been written yesterday. But having your partner go through shock therapy for her mental illness is very different. It was surreal to see historical events occur casually in her life, such as McCarthyism resulting in the FBI showing up at her door multiple times.

Her crispy hair twinkles in the summer sun as her big proud stomach moved her on down the block while I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem… I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.

The structure of Zami is a tour through the women that shaped Lorde’s life, from her mother to long-term relationships to brief friendships or conflicts. From the perspective of reviewing for the Lesbrary, it was interesting to see how Lorde’s sexual orientation comes up. This isn’t a “coming out” story–there’s no tearful reveal to her mother, no angst-ridden turmoil over choosing a label–it’s just a gradual exploration of her feelings for women. Her observation about lesbians I found to often be applicable still:

Meeting other lesbians was very difficult, except for the bars which I did not go to because I did not drink. One read The Ladder and the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and wondered where all the other gay-girls were. Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be. Such were the results of loneliness…

That loneliness and confusion about coming out or just beginning relationships with women is, sadly, I think something lesbians and queer women still deal with.

In wonder, but without surprise, I lay finally quiet with my arms around Ginger. So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly. How ridiculous and far away those fears seemed now, as if loving were some task outside of myself, rather than simply reaching out and letting my own desire guide me. It was all so simple. I felt so good I smiled into the darkness. Ginger cuddled closer.

Reading about Lorde’s first relationships–intoxicating, all-encompassing, and burning at both ends–was painfully nostalgic. I wanted to reach through the pages and try to reason with her, but only because I want to do the same thing with my own past.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing.

Her romantic relationships are not the only women showcased in Zami, though. One person I found interested was a roommate who was dedicated to the feminist cause. Unfortunately, the feminist movement at the time was anti-gay, seeing at as somehow bougie–something only frivolous capitalists did. (Interestingly, since the government at the time seemed to associate with communism.) This roommate had a string of disastrous relationships with men, and Lorde speculates about how she must have felt seeing Lorde’s happy “incorrect” relationship, when she couldn’t make it work in a “correct” relationship. The schisms within “the movement” also strike a chord today:

Every one of the women in our group took for granted, and would have said if asked, that we were all on the side of right. But the nature of that right everyone was presumed to be on the side of was always unnamed.

Of course, the woman that played the biggest role in her early life was her mother. Lorde’s mother is almost a mythic figure in these early chapters–fitting, for how a young child perceives their parents. She commands attention and respect. She is strong, unrelenting, and Lorde would grow up to clash with her–then we see very little of her after Lorde’s teenage years. This makes sense from a real life perspective, but from a story view, I wanted to see more of her. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a major role in this narrative, and we see how Lorde’s parents try to shield her from it. When white people in the street spit on 4-year-old Audre’s jacket, her mother wipes it off (keeping a handkerchief for this purpose) and chides people for carelessly spitting on the street and missing. When Audre asks to eat in the dining car, her parents say it’s too expensive–never mentioning that it was illegal for them as a Black family to each there. Of course, they can’t protect Lorde from the everyday racism of growing up Black in the 40s and 50s, but it did confuse her about the source of these common indignities. As a child, she internalized her ill treatment by others as something wrong with her personally, having no words for racism.

Once we talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.

It wasn’t until Lorde grew up, as a teenager and young adult, that she began to really understand how she was treated differently as a Black woman. She dreams of going to Mexico, working grueling, mind-numbing jobs to save up the money. Once there, she revels in being able to look around and be surrounded by Brown faces, by people who were friendly and curious about her instead of hostile.

Lorde faces the intersecting oppressions of being Black, gay, and a woman, finding very few people who can relate: she explains that most Black lesbians were closeted. Being a Black woman was a difficult enough hand to play, and most say being Black, gay, female, and out as suicidal. In lesbian circles, her Blackness is erased. Her white girlfriend is confident that being gay is the same as being Black: they’re both outsiders. Lorde can’t find the words or strength to fight her on this. The book ends with a sexual encounter with another out Black lesbian, and although it is a brief relationship, it’s a sigh of relief to see her find a connection where she doesn’t have to explain or hide any aspect of herself.

I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.

Zami is not an easy read. Lorde goes through some horrific things, including an unsafe illegal abortion. Trigger warnings for pedophilia, an incest fantasy, self-mutilation, racism, and homophobia.

It’s also a book that asks to be read slowly and thoughtfully. I feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface of it. Don’t expect this to be Audre Lorde’s full story–it’s more like the prologue to the woman we remember her as today.

I also wanted to shout out Autostraddle’s 2020 feature, the Year of Our (Audre) Lorde, where every month, Jehan examines one of Lorde’s essays or poems and discussed how it is relevant today for queer and trans people of colour. I highly recommend it.

I look forward to reading more of Lorde’s work, especially her poetry, though I now know to be prepared for some slow reading, leaving lots of time for contemplation. Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s books? What did you think of them?