Sapphic YA with Complicated Families

Sapphic YA with Complicated Families cover collage

Here’s a trope I didn’t realize I loved in a YA novel: complicated families. Whether it’s an unusual family configuration, strained parent relationships, or long-lost siblings, I love seeing queer stories that explore all the different ways biological families can look. I come from a very loving and supportive but also fairly complicated family, so this topic is close to my heart. So here are a few of my favorite YA books with complicated families!

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this one, because it was hugely popular when it came out! This is a story told in verse about two sisters: one in New York and one in the Dominican Republic. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and her father, and Camino only sees her father once a year, when he comes to visit the Dominican Republic–but they actually don’t know about each other until their  father dies.

This is a story about grief, but it’s also about trying to navigate those family secrets as well as finding out more about their father after he died, when they don’t have a chance to talk to him about it or understand why he kept those secrets.

This is a really beautiful story that deals with some pretty difficult subject matter. Camino, especially, is really struggling, and when her father dies, she doesn’t have that  same support and protection that she had before, and that leaves her vulnerable. One of the things I really appreciated about this book was the two main characters slowly starting to  figure out who they might be to each other. We only see the beginning of this, but it stayed with me. This is a beautiful book about the complicated forms that family can take. (Yahaira has a girlfriend, so that’s the queer content.)

You can read my full review here.

This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This is one of my favorite YA books! It’s a literal getting the band back together story with an F/F romance subplot–who can resist that? This follows three teenagers in the summer after they graduated from high school. They used to be best friends and in a band together, but a lot of events transpired at the same time that broke them apart.

When a battle of the bands is announced, though, they have to figure out how to come back together to hopefully win a ten thousand dollar prize, which would be life-changing money for them. What broke up their friend group is that one of the main characters was struggling with alcoholism and was hospitalized. At that same time, Dia’s boyfriend died, and weeks later, she realizes she’s pregnant. So she decides she can’t stay in Hanna’s life as long as Hanna is really self-destructing and drinking so much, especially now that she is pregnant. They don’t talk to each other again until this summer that the story takes place.

What I really liked about this one is telling the story of Dia’s teen pregnancy and being a young mom. I come from a family of young mothers, and it is very difficult to be a young mom, but I also really appreciate stories that show how complicated it is and how you can still have this beautiful family that comes out of it. It’s a fairly small part of the plot, but it does show how Dia’s family came together to help her raise this child.

You can read my full review here.

How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

This is a heart-wrenching story that is equal parts sweet romance of two girls falling in love and Grace’s difficult relationship with her mother. Eva, Grace’s love interest, has just lost her mom, and she finds comfort in conversations with Grace’s mother, Maggie. Grace feels pulled in several directions: she’s jealous that Maggie and Eva have a better relationship than Maggie and Grace, but she’s also nervous for Eva. Maggie can seem like a gregarious, generous person, but she is unreliable. Grace is the one who has to rescue her from dangerous dive bar situations. She’s the one who is pulled from house to house and Maggie moves in with short-term boyfriends.

Grace also feels like she’s at a crossroads. She dreams of being a pianist and has a crucial audition coming up that would secure her a place at a prestigious school, but she’s afraid of what would happen to her mother if she left her alone.

You can read my full review here.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

Suzette and her brother Lionel used to be very close, but then Lionel started struggling with mental health issues and Suzette was sent away to boarding school. Suzette is bisexual and their family is Black and Jewish, so we see how those intersectionalities play out in Suzette’s life, especially when she was at boarding school, where she had a bad experience and was outed outed.

The focus of this story, though, is Suzette and Lionel trying to repair their relationship. There’s this gulf between them of that missing time–how they were both struggling when they weren’t in each other’s lives–and they’re having trouble getting back to where they were before. Some of the descriptions of this book talk about the love triangle where they are both interested in the same girl, but it isn’t really about that, and it’s not some sort of competitive love triangle. It’s much more about this sibling relationship and their complicated family, where they clearly both care a lot about each other, but are having trouble talking to each other about what’s happened, what’s changed in their family, and about how they can form a new relationship with each other.

You can read my full review here.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m danforth

I couldn’t help but talk about one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This book starts with Cameron having her first kiss with a girl and at that same time, far from the ferris wheel she’s riding, her parents die in a tragic audience. When Cam finds out, those two things become connected in her mind. She is sent to live with her very conservative aunt, and she ends up being sent to a conversion camp.

This is a really difficult read in times, but it is beautifully written. I love Cam Post as a character, there’s a bunch of great funny moments, and the side characters are really strong. The complicated family is mostly Cameron trying to reconcile with her grief and with her feelings about her parents, who she never got to come out to, so she doesn’t really get closure. She feels this misplaced guilt that somehow this was a punishment for her kissing a girl, and that’s why her parents died. It’s about her learning to accept her whole self and trying to deal with her grief without punishing herself. This is my favorite YA book of all time. It’s brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

This is a beautiful historical YA novels set in the 1920s in the U.S. It’s about Garnet, who loves birds, but she can only express her interest in ornithology by cutting intricate silhouettes of birds; that’s the “ladylike” way that she can pursue her interests. Her mother really needs for her to get married to support them, because they don’t really have any other options. Meanwhile, Garnet falls for a flapper girl.

What makes this complicated, and I think what is the strength of the book, is that it discusses what we owe to each other and to our family: the difficulty and complexity of balancing your own individual needs and wants with the people who might be dependent on you. In most queer YA books, you get to come out and live your authentic self, and if your family is not supportive, you walk away from them. But for Garnet, she knows if she walks away from her mother, she has almost no way to support herself. Her mother would be fairly helpless living as an older single woman in 1920s America with no money and no backup. Silhouette of a Sparrow grapples with those really difficult questions about family and individuality.

You can read my full review here.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

What I really liked about this book is that it has two main characters who are both Bengali Irish teenagers, but they’re very different from each other: they have very different families, they speak different languages, they have different religions. They are both queer, but one of them is out as bisexual to her family, who is extremely accepting, and the other character has a family where she can’t really safely come out.

I think that in modern queer YA, we don’t see many families where you just don’t come out–because it’s not a good idea or because you don’t feel safe doing it. And I think it’s important to have that representation. I especially liked that because we had these two families, we saw that it wasn’t just because they were a Bengali family, that there are Bengali families who would be very accepting and others that wouldn’t be. The comparison between those two families that made it such an interesting book to read with that lens.

Another complicated family component to this is that Ishu has spent her life being fiercely competitive with her older sister. She’s even competing to be head girl (that’s how she got into this fake dating mess) to try to one-up her sister. But they begin to have a different dynamic with some distance, and a subplot of this story is them rebuilding their relationship as something more supportive.

You can read my full review here.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

This is about Nora, who was raised by her con artist mother. She had to participate in a lot of cons and become different people in all of them. Obviously, that is already a very complicated family. She no longer has much contract with her mother, and she’s living with her older sister who helped her get out that dangerous situation. They are trying to leave that life behind them, but Nora ends up being caught up in a bank robbery and held hostage with her girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend.

This is an incredible thriller: it’s so fast-paced. Definitely check out the trigger warnings, though, because it is also one of the most brutal books I have read. It is incredibly effective, and for the purposes of this list, it really shows how difficult it is for Nora to have grown up with this mother, who did not provide a safe and loving environment for her, but who also helped inform so much of who she is, and Nora trying to detangle those. If you are okay with really difficult subject matter, including rape, murder, and gore, and if you want to read a thriller about misogyny, I highly recommend this one.

You can read my full review here.

Middletown by Sarah Moon

This is the book that inspired this post! It’s YA novel about two sisters who are trying to stay out of foster care while their mother is in rehab, and it It also has a gender questioning main character.

Not only do Eli and Anna have a difficult relationship with their mother–Eli always accepts their mother’s apologies after she comes home from the drunk tank, while Anna storms to her bedroom and slams the door–they also have a complicated relationship to each other. They used to be very close, but there’s been distance between them ever since Anna threw out all her soccer gear one night and started dressed in black with no explanation. Now, while their mother is in rehab, they have only each other. And if they’re going to avoid getting split up by foster care, they’ll have to be persistent. (Anna dresses up as their aunt and goes to Eli’s parent teacher conferences.)

Quickly, though, their plans fall apart, and in the scramble and impromptu road trip that results, they’ll learn their family is even more complicated than they imagined.

You can read my full review here.

This post was originally a video sponsored by Middletown! If you want to hear me talk about these books instead of reading it, I’ve included the original video.

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SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

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

Mary reviews Gingerbread Hearts by Judy Underwood

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.

“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey

Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.

This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.

“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann

Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.

This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.

However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.

“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens

Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.

This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
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“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan

Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.

This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.

“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae

These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.

In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.

These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.

Sheila Laroque reviews Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for family; and Linday’s non-fiction account of growing up punk, queer and Indigenous in smaller cities of the Canadian prairies will resonate with many folks from many walks of life. After all, the concept of a ‘chosen family’ has been discussed widely in queer writings before, but nîtisânak brings new perspectives and ways of writing that will appeal to a broader audience. The text is peppered with shorthand, acronyms, and other shorthand ways of writing that makes the text feel less formal. The way that Lindsay writes feels very organic to Internet message boards and a Twitter-savvy audience; without feeling forced. This makes sense, because part of their story discusses the importance of Internet messaging boards in the punk scene on the prairies to find the next shows and a sense of community.

Lindsay’s story takes place in many of the same cities as my own. Reading this book at times feels like it could have been written by myself, or any other of my friends from when I was younger. Their story takes place largely in Regina, Saskatchewan which is a rival city to where I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They then move to Edmonton, Alberta and have a tumultuous and in many aspects an abusive relationship with a girlfriend that is referred to as B2B. This acronym stands for ‘back to black’, in reference to the Amy Winehouse album of the same name. Nixon’s description of this relationship of being both something beautiful and something that was the source of a great deal of pain for them resonated a great deal for me. Romantic relationships blend into familial relationships; and Nixon highlights with great care some of the foundational ways that young queer friendships can also create the same family bond and structure in our lives.

Peppered throughout this work are different prayers that are numbered. Setting aside the text like this gives the sense that these parts are special and need to be paid attention to. They are different than prayers that many people would have likely encountered in other contexts. For example, prayer 3 states: “Thank you to all the trees who breathe in poison on the daily, who gift us the air that we breath and the wind that propels everything forward”. These moments stand out in the text, while other Cree words are used seamlessly, without definition or italics. In a way that makes the Cree language just as another part of the text, and another part of their story. Cree is spoken widely enough that the curious reader could easily look up the words in any online Cree dictionary to the definitions of a new word. By just leaving it as it is, Lindsay is inviting the reader into their reality and the worldview that they and their family hold. This choice of writing style also signals that the work is for an Indigenous audience; to whom might not have seen themselves reflected in other coming of age stories. Being queer, Indigenous and punk in a particular local prairie context is an important story that can reflect back pieces of our own realities to us; even if we ourselves are not necessarily those things.

This is an important piece of writing that will appeal to people from many different backgrounds and families. I would give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.

Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Mars reviews We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour cover

Not to be dramatic, but we need to start this review with a common understanding stated outright: this novel is beautiful. The prose, the imagery, the point. All of it, beautiful.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour front and back cover spread

I found this short novel by completely ignoring the adage about books and their covers, and I am so glad for it. The gorgeous cover illustration depicts a girl standing on her dorm bed, arm raised, covering her eyes from an unseen sun as she stares out over a dark shore. Snow falls around her.

She faces away from us and her world is a stark contrast of pink surveying an empty blue landscape and a black sky. As she stands among her messy belongings in rumpled pajamas, everything about this girl seems lonely. What is she looking for? If we think about the usual mental association of college as a community space where privacy might well not exist, the juxtaposition is even more jarring. In this context, what does it mean that this girl stands staring out at one of the loneliest sights one can know: the empty horizon?

This cover is the perfect illustration for the story of Marin, a college freshman who is briefly entertaining Mabel, a beloved and estranged figure from a life that she used to know. From Marin’s perspective, we cover the three days over her winter break that she shares with Mabel in what sounds like the emptiest, loneliest dorm ever, and which she calls “home”. Without revealing too much, Marin is haunted by the ghost of her grandfather’s passing, and all the weight that carries for a traumatized girl who is struggling to understand who she is against the broken foundation of who she thought she was.

We were innocent enough to think that our lives were what we thought they were, that if we placed all of the facts about ourselves together they’d form an image that made sense – that looked like us when we looked in the mirror, that looked like our living rooms and our kitchens and the people who raised us – instead of revealing all the things we didn’t know (128).

We follow her flashbacks and dissociations to piece together the mystery of what has torn this girl apart and, crucially, how she can come back together again. What does it mean to go through a tragedy that destroys you? What does it mean when you are changed deeply and immutably, but still need to go on living your life like everything is normal?

In this coming-of-age novel, LaCour heartachingly captures the paradox of such an experience; one in which a unique loneliness begets an almost overwhelming internal expansiveness. While the main character Marin’s queerness is not centered in this story, it is a real and present facet of her; and if you are like me, Marin’s relatability will make you itch to give this little starfish a hug.

A side note on the illustration: while this beautiful book jacket was done by Adams Carvalho, I was originally attracted to it because I was reminded of the unique style of queer author and illustrator Tillie Walden, whose webcomic “On a Sunbeam” touched my soul, and about which I will need to dedicate a future review.

Mars reviews Seeing Red by Cara Malone

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is like that daytime soap opera that you can’t help but watch, no matter how much the characters have you clutching your pearls and loudly shouting about foreshadowing. Everyday heroes, villains, and questionable moral situations abound in this entertaining and somehow heartwarming story.

Our main hero here is Hunter Ross, completely exhausted loving auntie extraordinaire. Hunter is the ride-or-die sister that we all wish we could have. She dropped out of nursing school two years ago to help her sister Piper support her two nephews. No matter what they do though or how many hours Hunter clocks in at the nursing home, the looming tower of bills never seems to go down. Hunter barely has time to sleep, never mind romance.

As she tries to keep Piper walking on the straight and narrow after a brush with crime that got her scamming husband Jed Wolfe thrown in jail, the universe throws the sisters a bone in the form of the Kiera Murphy, a sweet college student with a generous heart and a rich, sassy grandmother looking for a nurse as she begins to slowly lose her memory. As fate would have it, Hunter appears in their lives and is just what the doctor ordered. .But is she? With Hunter comes her family, and with Hunter’s family, there’s always something looming.

While this story has a lot going on including (but not limited to) identity theft, sororities, family, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, the author has woven together serious themes and the light-hearted warmth of new love into a sweet and sometimes sizzling story. I would say that this story is a good poolside read. It’s deals with heavy themes but doesn’t leave readers bogged down, gets dark without breaking your heart, and provides just enough mystery that it’ll be impossible to read just one chapter at a time.

Marthese reviews A Harvest of Ripe Figs by Shira Glassman

‘’Not everybody reads encyclopaedias for fun’’

A Harvest of Ripe Figs is the third book in the Mangoverse series. It takes place a bit after the epilogue in the second book. I loved this book so much I binge read it.

This book combines two genres which I love: fantasy and mystery. Shulamit and her family have settled with what happened at the end of  book two . Things are quiet, and indeed, the plot does not revolve much around Shula’s group drama! A violin/fiddle of importance gets stolen (I’m still confused about the difference between a violin and a fiddle!) and Shulamit uses her intellect and deduction skills along with some help from her family to discover what happened to it.

During the mystery, it comes out that Shula is a good interrogator (no torture involved–don’t worry) while Riv stops a lot of bullshit – which I loved. Isaac is smug but helpful and Aviva is supportive and introspective. There is a lot of gender talk and criticism of stereotypes.

I liked the down to business element. For example Riv may be attracted to Isaac but she focuses on her job first. There is no ‘but they couldn’t help themselves’ element.

The accepting diversity is what draws me to this series and in this book, there is very minor ace representation (like blink and you miss it; but I appreciated that it was there).

There is also young trans representation! Aviva sums it up perfectly ”That’s the boy who exists. Anything else is a story” and although Shula doesn’t get it at first, she is very protective of her people. Indeed, she’s a great leadership example (despite it being not a democracy). Shula has plans for giving more females more power in her city. She’s ok with sharing power.

Another thing that was super squee worthy for me was the mention of pests and tropical plants. At the moment, I’m working on a campaign for fair and sustainable tropical fruit (make fruit fair) so it’s something that I became familiar with. The pests are a real problem to our food security and farmers’ livelihoods and Shula really cares about her farmers – the backbone of Perach.

Shula is all about responsibility -whether her own of the wrongdoers responsibility. Wish the world was more like that.

The word ‘Feminism’ is actually used! Women supporting women is also another feature of the book. There was lots of body positivity – especially surrounding maternity and different sizes.

There’s also an example of a toxic relationship and an entitled ‘nice guy’ who wants to be the center of attention and expects things for his ‘sacrifices’. This is dealt with rather than ignored or condoned.

Apart from all the simply narrated but complex topics, it’s simply a fun read. There are some funny elements like the stories about Riv – which turn out pretty helpful in the end.

For me, a good mystery isn’t necessarily complex but it must be clean and rounded-up. Things that were mentioned throughout find their use in the conclusion to the mystery and so for me, while predictable it’s a good mystery.

There were many metaphors also about ripening and maturing – people developing and becoming more themselves. Of course, much food talk as well which I came to expect from this series.

What I wanted to see was Kaveh and his companion again (see I even forgot his name). They were mentioned but in passing. Would have been good if they visited or had visible correspondence at least; considering that they are family.

All in all, it’s a fun read. Fluffy-ish fantasy without too much drama. The pages just seemed to scroll by. I was already used to the world and the characters and it was an enjoyable and fun read. While it may seem an easy read, it still points critically to problems in our society and speaks about different issues.