Secrets, Sororities, and Sobriety: Thirsty by Jas Hammonds

Thirsty cover

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What would you be willing to do if it meant finding your flock? Jas Hammonds explores this age-old question in their young adult novel Thirsty. Incoming college freshmen Blake Brenner has been with her girlfriend, Ella, since freshman year; they are voted “The Couple Most Likely To Still Be Together In Ten Years” and are desperately in love. The duo is planning to go to Jameswell University and to join the exclusive Serena Society, along with their best friend, Annetta. As the summer begins, so does the Serena Society’s pledging process, which includes a fair amount of hazing. Blake is determined to prove herself—unlike Ella, who is a legacy pledge, Blake is the first in her family to go to college and has no connections or money to boost her status. However, in proving herself, Blake begins to develop an unhealthy relationship with both alcohol and partying, and she must decide what parts of herself to keep and which ones to banish.

This may be stating the obvious, but Thirsty is such a hard book to read, especially if you are an alcoholic or have dealt with alcoholics previously. I did cry at least twice and had to take self-mandated breaks while reading, so be prepared to do the same. But as hard and scary as reading Thirsty was, it also is incredibly healing, powerful, and such an important book to have out there. Narratives about alcoholism in teens/new adults feel rare, and I think that if I had read this in my early 20s, this book would have helped me curb some bad habits and/or thought patterns that existed at the time. 

The characterization in Thirsty is realistic, to the point where I sometimes felt uncomfortable with how much I identified with some of the characters and their choices. Blake’s desires of solidarity and feelings of loneliness are heartbreaking to read, all while her euphoria acts as a sort of bandage to the reader’s emotions. I also heartily enjoyed Annetta’s role in Thirsty—in a book that is dominated by Blake’s relationship with Ella, Annetta’s scenes acted as a palate cleanser and a place to emotionally recuperate. Annetta’s relationship with Blake shows how friendships should be about support, even when it may be initially unwanted.

If you enjoy Elizabeth Acevedo, emotionally complex stories, and solidarity narratives, you can order your copy of Thirsty through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Comp titles: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie, You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow, and Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett.

Content warnings include: alcoholism, hazing, accidentally outing, transphobia, intentional outing, cheating, vomiting, and vandalism.

A Sweet and Steamy Polyamorous Romance: Triple Sec by T.J. Alexander

Triple Sec cover

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Before this book had even come out (happy release day, Triple Sec!), I’d already been recommending it nonstop on Our Queerest Shelves. Ever since I finished it, I haven’t been able to stop talking about. It’s definitely one of my favourite books of the year so far, and in my top five favourite romance novels I’ve ever read.

This is about Mel, who is a bartender who’s jaded about love ever since her divorce. But then Bebe walks into the bar, and they have undeniable chemistry. Bebe is interested in dating Mel — she’s also married and polyamorous. Mel has never tried an open relationship, but it seems like a good way to tiptoe back into dating. This will be totally light and casual, right? They mutually agree: no falling in love. And Bebe’s nonbinary wife Kade is so intimidating that Mel can’t imagine actually being a part of their lives. But obviously, feelings don’t obey even the most clearly written out agreements.

I’ve long thought that reality TV shows are missing out by not casting all bisexuals. (Other than that season of Are You the One?) Think of the drama potential! The opportunity for different pairings increases exponentially. Since reading Triple Sec, I feel the same way about romance novels and polyamorous main characters. You can have two falling-in-love scenes in the same romance! Twice the first kisses! Two — or more — completely different relationship (and sexual) dynamics! I feel like I’ve been spoiled and will have trouble going back to two-person romances.

I know romance novels are so specific to each reader, but I loved the relationship dynamics and especially the dialogue. When Mel shows Bebe her tattoo of Pompeii and Bebe replies, “I love a good disaster myself” — look, I also would have fallen in love right then and there. I also liked the friendship between Mel and her roommate, who both agree to follow the good word of Saint Channing Tatum.

It’s also very steamy. I’m not going to get into it, but wow.

I enjoyed the ongoing rewriting of Bebe and Mel’s relationship agreement as they renegotiate things like pet names, catching feelings, and the dynamics between Kade, Mel, and Bebe.

While the central plot is the relationships between Mel, Bebe, and Kade, there’s also a subplot about a cocktail competition. I don’t drink, but I still found it fascinating to read about Mel’s different creations and how she keeps reworking her creations leading up the competition. Winning would mean she could buy her own bar, a dream of hers.

I also liked reading about Mel’s job: Terror & Virtue is a high-end cocktail lounge, and Mel is very skilled and passionate about her work — but it’s also customer service. It means dealing with drunk, rude customers and worrying about your next paycheck. In fact, the only criticism I had with Triple Sec is that I feel like the class difference between Mel and Bebe/Kade wasn’t really explored, other than Mel admiring their apartment and feeling a little out of place. Bebe and Kade are wealthy — Kade is a successful artist and Bebe is a lawyer defending workers’ rights.

That’s a very small complaint, though, especially since the ending didn’t go where I thought it would. If you want a fun, queer, polyamorous romance with lots of kind people learning how to best support each other, I highly recommend Triple Sec.

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 The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!