Nat reviews Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

the cover of Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

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Ever since I read J.J. Arias’s Guava Flavored Lies, I’ve wanted to go to Miami so bad, just to hit up a Cuban bakery or three for a pastelito de guayaba and a cafecito. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by Arias, and, as with a lot of prolific authors lately, this recent work is a departure from her normal MO (in this case, exemplified by Vampires and the Goode series).

From two households alike in dignity, Sylvie Campos and Lauren Machado are business rivals and lifelong enemies thanks to a decades long feud between their families. But the conflict for our main characters may be more complex than it seems on the surface – details about Sylvie and Lauren’s past will be revealed along the way that give us a bit more insight into why the anger between the two seems so very… extra.

The story is largely centered around the feuding between the Campos and Machado families, who both own popular Cuban bakeries in Miami, and who each accuse the other of having allegedly stolen family recipes when the founding families parted ways. Opening with a flashback to Lauren and Sylvia’s schooldays, we get a glimpse of how the families’ long time squabbles have affected their kids, who are literally at each other’s throats, though it’s tempered with a hefty dose of humor.

Lauren and Sylvie end up thrown together in the foodie version of the only one bed trope; that is, one food festival and only one functional espresso machine. Aside from their day to day struggles while being stuck side by side at a high profile event, and all the verbal sparring that comes along with it – Sylvie is still determined to try to solve the mystery of the family feud and to prove once that Lauren’s family are recipe thieves.

By the end of the book you’ll have some intense cravings for croquetas and a strong cafe con leche. But the food is also a vehicle for themes of old vs new, as the younger generations of both rival bakeries are being groomed to take over. Lauren wants to modernize some aspects of her family’s business, trying out vegan recipes and experimenting with (much to Sylvie’s dismay) oat milk in her Cuban lattes. Sylvie just wants to perfect the classics and build on her family legacy. Food is the love language of both our MCs, and rather than being at odds, their styles are complimentary, though it takes some translation to realize it.

A satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance, Arias gives us an example of the amazing quality of writing coming from self published authors and small presses these days. Solid, witty prose and dialogue, and pacing and intrigue to move the story along. I hope this is a book that finds its way into a lot of e-readers! And as a long time independent publisher of Sapphic romance, Arias has a backlog of works in the event you fall for her recent bakery wars romantic comedy.

Kelleen reviews The Inconvenient Heiress by Jane Walsh

the cover of The Inconvenient Heiress

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I have elected myself president of the Jane Walsh fan club that does not exist. I am painting us Lavender Menace-style t-shirts with stencils and foam brushes and I’ll order broaches on Etsy. I’ll wear a backwards baseball cap as my crown and shout my allegiance from the roofs of all of the buildings because I LOVE JANE WALSH.

I, like so many of us, have been feeling increasingly as though my world is crumbling around me, so imagine my utter elation when I received an email from Bold Strokes that contained the gift of Jane Walsh’s new historical romance novel, The Inconvenient Heiress. There is nothing in the wide world that brightens my day faster than a Jane Walsh novel and this book brightened my world.

This book—the start of a new series for her—has impeccable vibes. Let me paint you a picture (this is a clever joke because one of the heroines is a painter): Two poor women on the regency coast, friends to lovers, all the pining, an unexpected (and rather inconvenient) arrival of an unknown family fortune, the much more expected threat of losing the fortune, determined suitressing, a curvy heroine, a rockstar community of proud lesbian spinsters, two loving families, finding literally any excuse to kiss your best friend even though you’re just gals being pals, and the most stunning cover I have ever seen.

This book is so tender. It’s soft and aching and delicate while at the same time being all the things I ever want in a historical romance novel—dramatic and lush and dynamic. Each word is so steeped in culture and convention and then with some magic flick of her wrist she’s flipped it all upside down onto its head. Jane Walsh writes with such a reverence for women and womanhood while embracing a vast and wondrous queerness.

Reading a Jane Walsh novel is a dream with every page. It’s a reminder that we have always been here, that we have always been finding community and finding love, that we have always risked it all and been rewarded for our bravery, that queer love is about the quiet moments as well as the loud ones, that we deserve to wear flowy gowns and make our art and find our future, that we deserve to have our love and care returned to us in spades, that we deserve and deserve and deserve.

Pick up a Jane Walsh romance novel. You won’t regret it. And there’s always room in our fan club.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bold Strokes Books for this ARC. Out August 16th, 2022.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

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

the cover of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the cover of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

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“Queer, feminist, angry, and beautiful.”

When I say I want sapphic romcoms, this is what I want. I want sapphic romcoms that pack an emotional punch. That present the diversity and the affinity of queer womanhood. That have queer women who call themselves queer with no explanation and bi women who have loved men. That have complex family dynamics that both are about queerness and absolutely are not. That feel like romance novels with romance tropes and everything that we love about romance and are at the same time fundamentally, intrinsically, profoundly, and lovingly queer. Romcoms that f*ck and also fall in love. Romcoms with real, wild emotions and feminism and humor on every page. Romcoms that were written for queer women about our own lives, to be enjoyed only secondarily by everyone else. When I say I want sapphic romcoms, I mean I want this book.

Delilah Green is a historical romance alpha hero wrapped up in tattoos and soft butch vibes and I am into it. Delilah is a photographer who’s hired to photograph her stepsister’s wedding, and reluctantly returns home to discover that her childhood crush and stepsister’s best friend is all grown up — and very queer. And Claire Sutherland is a single mom and bookstore manager who is just trying to live her best life and take care of her best friend in a retro polka dot dress and sexy librarian glasses.

The way that the love between Delilah and Claire develops is gentle and sexy and hilarious. In coming home to Bright Falls, Delilah must confront her strained relationship with her stepmother and stepsister and come to terms with the grief and feelings of rejection that she’s been running away from since she was a teenager. Falling in bed (and then in love) with her stepsister’s best friend doesn’t help matters, especially as Claire is actively trying to break up her best friend’s wedding to a terrible man. Fascinatingly, throughout this book Delilah and Claire are both allies and adversaries. They embody everything that the other is trying to avoid and yet must team up to save Astrid from herself and her fiancé. And the raging sexual tension between the two doesn’t help matters. The conflict in this book is just so good, the way they are pulled together and run apart.

This is a book about family, and how scary and slippery and beautiful family can be for queer folks. It’s about motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and partnership. It’s about joy and it’s about grief and it’s about art and it’s about all of it all at once.

These heroines are strong and flawed and sexy and fantastic. They make bad choices and take big risks. They fall in love and try to resist falling in love. And they do it with humor and heart.

This book is the epitome of queer joy and we all deserve queer joy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley for this ARC.

Content warnings: death of a parent, toxic partner

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

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

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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.