F/F Jamaican-Inspired YA Fantasy with Dragons: So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

the cover of So Let Them Burn

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Any other Eragon girlies out there? Check out So Let Them Burn, a Jamaican-inspired F/F young adult fantasy that delivered from beginning to end! This moving and action-packed debut has made me a Kamilah Cole fangirl and I can’t wait for the second book in the duology!

This book switches between the POVs of two sisters Faron and Elara Vincent. Faron can channel the power of the gods, which made her the secret weapon of her country’s revolution against the dragon-riding Langley Empire. Faron is fiery, mischievous, and unwilling to play the part of wise and composed chosen-one. Elara is calm, diplomatic, and has felt like she’s been both living in her sister’s shadow while also being charged with “managing” Faron’s hot-headed emotions. At what was supposed to be an international peace summit, Elara ends up bonding with a Langley Empire dragon and the dragon’s other rider, Signey. Elara must then go to the dragon riding academy on enemy ground, both as a spy for her country and to try to figure out if there’s a way to reverse the bond so she can return home to sister. Among battles of gods and dragons, bubbling rage (against colonizers, the gods, the situation), and impossible choices, Elara and Signey find themselves falling for each other. Two badass dragon riders discovering enemy secrets, plotting revenge, and falling in love?! Yes please.

There are so many things that I love about this book. First off, I am a sucker for dragons. I appreciated the world building and how the dragons and bonded riders can all communicate with each other telepathically. They become their own unique family, in tune with each other’s emotions and thoughts. 

I also liked the focus on friend relationships. Especially in a moment when the romantasy genre is taking off, I appreciated how in this book, the friendships were treated as equally important relationships. The sapphic romance plot line was wonderful, but one of my favorite relationships in the book was the deeply honest and vulnerable friendship between Elara and her best friend, Reed. Reed has his own role to play in the book, as the son of the Langley Empire’s leader whose betrayal of his family in the war was key to shifting the tide and winning the revolution. Both Elara and Reed often feel misunderstood by the rest of their country—Elara as merely Faron’s sister and Reed as an outsider—but they see and support each other even when others don’t. Their relationship is refreshingly never romantic while being so important to both of them. 

Lastly, I loved how Cole normalizes queerness. There is great queer representation in this book, including lesbian, bisexual, and demisexual rep, but their queer identities were not the defining elements of the characters. I love how queerness was beautifully everywhere in this book while also not being the focus. Elara isn’t written as a GAY DRAGON RIDER, but rather just an incredible dragon rider—oh, and she happens to fall in love with a woman. 

I highly recommend you check this one out!  

Content Warnings: explicit language, depictions of PTSD (nightmares, unwanted memories/flashbacks, dissociation, anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior), explicit descriptions of war, blood, and corpses, grief (expressed in healthy and unhealthy ways), racism (challenged), minor character deaths, a near-fatal beating, and stolen body/mind autonomy.

A Dark, Magical Story of Gender Versus Tradition: Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson 

the cover of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven

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Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, written by Juno Dawson, is an enthralling urban fantasy that explores gender in a magical world that, similar to our own, finds itself strictly divided along the binary. It questions concepts of power, friendship, love, and feminism in a world in which traditional power structures are challenged and, to some, are no longer acceptable. Taken together with its fantastic characters and thrilling story, this book is a must-read for anyone who’s a fan of queer witchy stories.

On the night of the summer solstice, five young girls named Helena, Elle, Leonie, and twins Niamh and Ciara are inducted as members of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven (HMRC), the official witch’s coven of the British government. Twenty-five years and one devastating magical war later, the sisters have gone their separate ways. Wealthy Helena is now Headmistress of the HMRC. Leonie has left the coven to start Diaspora, a coven of queer witches and witches of color. This stands in stark contrast to the more conservative HMRC. Elle is a nurse and housewife who has chosen to keep her witchly status secret from her husband and children. Niamh is working as a veterinarian, using her powers to treat animals. However, when the HMRC discovers an incredibly powerful young warlock named Theo who is prophesied to destroy the world, Helena recruits her old friends to help her decide what to do. Things get even more complicated when Theo is revealed to be transgender. Soon, battle lines are drawn. On one side stands Helena, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. On the other side stand Niamh, Leonie, and Elle, fighting to nurture and protect this young witch. 

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is filled with great storytelling and relatable characters that feel drawn from real life. Juno Dawson’s writing is full of clever turns of phrase and humor that balance well with the dark nature of the story. The pace of the book never feels rushed. It mixes slower character-focused chapters with more thrilling narrative-focused ones to great effect. The characters and the dynamics between them feel incredibly realistic. You really get the sense that these women had been the closest of friends when they were younger, which makes their split all the more painful to read. In terms of balance between the four main characters, Juno Dawson does a fantastic job of giving each of them arcs that feel complete and integral to the overall story. Even though Niahm and Helena get most of the focus in the story, Leonie and Elle still get moments to shine and fully-fleshed out arcs. Lastly, I loved the magic system in this book. I am always a big fan of magical systems that portray magic as limited and coming with a physical cost. This is not a world in which magic is used in a haphazard or casual fashion. Casting spells in this world comes with a price. This makes the magic feel more grounded while also adding an incredible amount of narrative weight to the characters’ actions in pursuit of their goals.

I loved how Juno Dawson uses the split between the erstwhile best friends as a way to examine one of the most contentious debates within modern feminism: the inclusion of transgender women in traditionally cis women-only spaces. Through the four main characters, readers are presented with varying ways in which people come to this debate in the real world. By giving it apocalyptic consequences, we are shown just how massively important inclusion is for many transgender people. It takes something that is often misunderstood and poorly reported on, presents it in clear terms, and effectively shows how much it means to the people involved. At the same time, Juno Dawson does not treat all sides of the debate equally. Time and time again, events in the narrative make it very clear that transgender women belong in women’s spaces and that choosing otherwise is choosing hate. So, although this book is an exploration of modern gender issues, it is never one that tries to play both sides.    

At a personal, character level, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is also a story about the power of love and hate. Elle, Leonie, and especially Niamh push themselves beyond their physical and emotional boundaries multiple times in the narrative to keep Theo safe. Niamh and Elle especially go to great efforts to understand Theo and see the girl behind the chaotic magic. Despite the danger to themselves, they never once give up on Theo. On the other side, Helena travels a very dark route as she attempts to deny Theo’s personhood. She sacrifices her ideals, betrays her community, and becomes the type of monster she once fought against. All out of her hatred of what she does not understand. This conflict between radical love and unadulterated hate is a perfect allegory for what people, for better or worse, are willing to do in the fight over transgender rights. 

Another thing I really applaud Juno Dawson on is how she handles having a main character who ends up being a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). When I read Helena’s turn to TERFdom, I immediately got nervous. Despite my trust in Juno, I could not help but worry that somehow this would open the door to humanizing anti-trangender arguments. I was also worried that reading a character using anti-transgender hate speech over multiple chapters would be too triggering. Call it naivete or just simple world-weariness. Either way, I was wrong and came away incredibly impressed at how it all was handled. Never once is Helena portrayed as a sympathetic villain. Although you can see the causes of her turn to evil, you never are made to feel sorry for her or given the opportunity to side with her. The narrative shows how fear of the unknown can lead people down dark paths, but never once is lost the point that despite every chance given to reconsider her actions, she never does. Instead, she digs deeper and deeper into her hate, letting it consume her.   

I think if I had any complaint about the book it is that I wish that I could have seen more from the queer characters in the book. Leonie, for example, is the only queer main character and she gets the least amount of chapters dedicated to her. So, while the concept of gender is dealt with well in the book, it is mainly examined through the perspectives of cis straight women. 

That being said, I loved Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. It is an expertly written story with great characters and a thrilling narrative. Moreover, as a transgender woman living in today’s political climate, I absolutely adored how the debates that shape my life right now were made manifest and dealt with in such powerful terms.

Childhood Nostalgia is a Trap: Mister Magic by Kiersten White

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I wasn’t sure if I would review this for the Lesbrary at first, because although the main character mentions that she’s bisexual at the beginning, it didn’t seem to come up again. Once I finished it, though, I realized that queerness is essential to the underpinning of the story. (There are also several queer men side characters.)

Millennials all remember Mister Magic: it was a kids’ show with a huge following, and 30 years after it shut down, people still discuss it in message boards and debate the finer points of the show. Was Mister Magic a person or just a puppet? Did the show stop because a kid died, or is that just a creepypasta rumour? These debates are impossible to verify, though, because there are no surviving episodes or even clips from Mister Magic, despite it being one of the longest running shows of all time.

Val doesn’t remember her childhood. Her memories start when she and her father showed up at a horse ranch and began a new life. He refused to let her have any contact with the outside world, including watching television. Then, at his funeral, an oddly familiar man shows up and tells her she was once part of the Circle of Friends on Mister Magic, and they’re all getting together for a reunion. Before she can second guess herself, she leaves with these new/old friends, looking for answers about what she’s been running from her whole life.

I’m a little divided on how I feel about this book. The premise is interesting, and I liked the interspersed snippets about the show, including Reddit discussions. The author’s note was illuminating, and I respect what she was trying to do. I like the message about the danger of trying to return to an imagined childhood innocence, and how trying to do the best for your kids can lead you to crushing their individuality out of them. The ending was surprising but fitting. Spoiler, highlight to read: And I appreciated that the ideal person raising kids and teaching them lessons about the world was a childless queer woman. End spoilers.

While I liked the premise and the message of this novel, the execution fell a little flat to me. I think this would make an amazing novella—maybe even a short story. The middle dragged a lot, and I didn’t feel like I was getting new information. In the end, I’m glad I read it because of the strength of the premise and ending, but I do think most of the middle could be cut without losing much of the story.

As for the horror element, this is a little unsettling and creepy, but not outright scary or disgusting. I think this would be a good book to pick up if you want to dip your toes into horror, but don’t want to give yourself nightmares.

If you’re on the fence, I recommend reading the author’s note first to give you an idea of what the author is going for. Some elements of this are really strong, so it’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have if the plot was a little more streamlined.

Content warnings for parental abuse and neglect, racism, homophobia, religious trauma, child death.

Getting the Band Back Together: It Goes Like This by Miel Moreland

It Goes Like This cover

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It Goes Like This is a story about friendship, second chances, and not giving up on the people who care about you. The story follows the former members of Moonlight Overthrow, a band of teenagers who split up a year and a half before the events of the novel. Celeste and Gina, two of the members, have built new solo careers for themselves in music and acting. Steph has disappeared from the public eye and cut off all communication with their former friends. And Eva is a college student, writing music and closely following the fandom of her former band on Tumblr on a secret account. When dire circumstances cause the band to come back together for a one-time charity concert, the former friends are forced to confront their past together and decide if they’re really better off without each other. 

Each of the four members of Moonlight Overthrow are featured and are fully fledged, three-dimensional characters. However, Eva is the clear primary protagonist. The core of a story is a pair of questions, both centered around her. Will the band get back together, now that they’ve seen what their lives are like without each other? And will Eva and her ex, Celeste, rekindle the relationship that they were in for much of their time in the band? As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the answer to both questions depends on Eva, as she was the person most hurt by the end of both the band and her relationship.

Eva’s journey is deeply sympathetic. Through a series of flashbacks in the story, we see how deeply hurt she was by the band’s breaking up, the only person who wanted to stay together. How abandoned and lost she felt in the immediate aftermath. We also see her fear over seeing her best friends back together, and her ex-girlfriend, whom she still has strong feelings for, reaching back out. These people hurt her without warning before, and it’s hard for her to decide to trust them again, no matter how much she wants to.

Celeste’s story revolves around Eva. A successful solo performer now, Celeste still finds herself writing songs about her ex, even more than a year after their unceremonious breakup. Now, finally with the chance to make things right, she’s desperate to show Eva that she’s realized that breaking her heart is the biggest mistake of her life. Her coming to terms with the ways that she has hurt and continues to hurt Eva is a compelling part of the story.

Gina’s story is more introspective than the previous character’s. Her primary conflict of the novel revolves around how she, and the world at large, perceive her. Throughout the story, she refers to herself as the next Rihanna, or the next Beyonce, comparing herself to other successful Black performers. As the story goes on, she’s forced to confront the ways she’s comparing herself to others, and the ways that has caused her to push away those close to her. 

Finally, Steph’s story is much smaller in many ways than the other characters. After Moonlight Overthrow broke up, Steph disappeared, returning to the band’s home of Duluth and cutting off contact. Their conflicts within the story primarily revolve around the fears around the effects of being a nonbinary person in what was most well known as a “girl band”, and around the effect that being in a band had on their family, who also feature prominently in the story.

Miel Moreland has a talent for writing sapphic romance, and this story is no exception. The “will they, won’t they” tension between Eva and Celeste is palpable throughout the story, especially with the commentary from their friends and flashbacks to their time together. Celeste grows to understand the ways in which their breakup hurt Eva, and takes actions to rebuild her trust. The regrowing friendship between them and questions about more make a compelling romantic core for the story.

Gina also has a sapphic romance of her own, though it is less relevant through the story. Her girl back home serves less as a romantic subplot and more of a chance for Gina to open up to her old friends and show her willingness to rekindle the friendship that has long since died out.

The real representational win though is Steph and their identity. Cleverly, though Steph’s identity isn’t revealed to the characters until the end of the first act and there are several flashbacks throughout the story, these parts of the book are written so that rather than either misgender the character or have a character use they/them pronouns they wouldn’t know to use, pronouns are avoided altogether. Not gendering Steph until the characters are aware of their gender identity makes the world feel more natural, without resorting to misgendering the character. 

And Steph’s identity does form an undercurrent through the story. One of the primary reasons that they left the band was its identity as a “group of queer girls”. When their friends re-enter their life, Steph is unsure whether they have a place in this group, and their friend’s quick acceptance and willingness to defend them is a heartwarming piece of the story.

All in all, It Goes Like This is an excellent read. The story flows well and stays engaging, with multiple POVs and a few flashbacks helping to keep up the pace and stop things from feeling too slow. The story has some good thematic depth as well, though we can’t get into specifics there without spoiling the story. Rest assured, this is a story that stuck with me after I finished reading it, and even inspired a reread to see these characters I enjoyed so much again. You won’t regret your time with Moonlight Overthrow.

The Loosely Medieval YA Romcom of My Dreams: Gwen and Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

the cover of Gwen and Art Are Not In Love

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Gwen and Art are Not in Love by Lex Croucher is not an Arthurian retelling, nor is it particularly converned with historical accuracy. What it is instead is a queer YA romcom set in a Camelot that is slightly obsessed with King Arthur several hundred years after his death, starring a princess (Gwen) and a noble (Art) who have been engaged since they were children, and who also can’t stand each other. Rather than fall for each other, as the romcom structure would typically dictate, they instead grow closer in the aftermath of Gwen catching Art kissing a stable boy and then Art finding Gwen’s diary, wherein she fantasizes about the kingdom’s only female knight. From there, they decide to more or less act as each other’s wing(wo)men for the summer, resulting in what may be the sweetest, funniest, and all-around most entertaining book I have read this year.

Reading this book felt like reading fanfiction, and I mean that as the highest compliment. When I stopped reading published books in my free time and switched over to fanfiction for years because it was the only place I could find what I was looking for, this book right here is exactly what I wish I had. These characters felt like old friends right from the beginning, and I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a book. Like, the dialogue in this book was impeccable.

I can’t gush enough about how much fun I had reading this book or all of the things I loved about it because it really was pretty much everything, so instead I’m just going to note the two things that kept sticking out at me that made me appreciate this book even more:

For one, I loved the way this book challenged the idea of being “not like other girls,” because yeah, as a queer nerdy teenager, I definitely could have related to Gwen’s assumption that all of the other girls were shallow stereotypes gossiping about her when she’s not listening, and I also could have used a reminder that other teenager girls aren’t the enemy just because they’re more comfortable making friends than you are. I thought this book incorporated that really nicely, without it feeling heavy-handed.

Most importantly, I loved how much love was in this book. Between Gwen and Art’s blossoming friendship, their respective blossoming romances, and Gwen’s close friendship with her brother, there really is no shortage of love of all kinds, something that I think is especially important in queer YA. It was a joy to watch these kids fall in love, and then also be able to talk about it with their outside support systems, or help each other work through their feelings, or go let loose together at a party on their birthday.

My only note, if you will, is I did feel like the sapphic relationship got the least pagetime, predominantly because Art’s love interest is also Gwen’s brother, which means that while Gabe is a major character in both Art and Gwen’s chapters, Bridget is mostly only in Gwen’s. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a failing on this book’s part, because I truly do mean it when I say I loved every page of this book, but I did wish I got as much of Bridget as I did of Gwen, Art, and Gabe.

From the very first page, I thought this was legitimately one of the funniest books I have ever read, but it did not take long for this book to prove itself full of just as much heart, as well as characters I would protect with my life. If I could give my teenage self just one book, it would almost certainly be this one.

Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

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A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carolina reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

It seems apt to begin 2021, a time of reflection and introspection for many, with a YA novel that feels fresh and timeless at the same time. Malinda Lo’s new novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club echoes with the same beats as my favorite “baby gay” first lesbian novels (e.g. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel), but holds nuance and depth as an exploration of the limitations and restraints of the Eisenhower Era. Malindo Lo explores the role of the “other” in white picket fence McCarthyist America through the eyes of a young girl coming to terms with historical familial trauma, her identity as a Chinese lesbian in society, and future as a woman in a male-dominated field in San Francisco’s post-war Chinatown.

Lily Hu is a “good Chinese girl.” Her father is a reputable family doctor, her mother by his side as a nurse, both parents well-respected members of their tight-knit Chinatown family. There is no room in their community’s embrace for error or deviation, as their neighborhood faces the tides of post-World War II racism and the initial waves of the Red Scare. When Lily discovers an intriguing advertisement for a male impersonator at a local nightclub, The Telegraph Club, she realizes she might not be quite like her cookie-cutter classmates as she once thought.. As the novel progresses, Lily discovers the wonder of the gay underground in The Telegraph Club alongside her close friend, and first love, Kath. Lily must delicately maintain the balance her of double life between Chinatown and The Castro in order to protect her family as they face deportation for supposed Communist ties, and save her new friends, Kath, and herself from the prying eyes of the gay-bashing police.

Last Night at The Telegraph Club has beautiful writing full of detail and care; Lo rebuilds the glitz and glitter of 1950’s era San Francisco before your eyes, situating the reader in the heart of Chinatown alongside the Hu family. The pacing was on the nose for a fast-paced, exciting coming of age novel and I could seldom put the novel down. Malinda Lo celebrates queer friendship and found families in Last Night at The Telegraph Club, one of my favorite themes that is very near and dear to my heart and seldom stressed in novels.

I loved the vignettes between chapters from Lily’s family’s point of view, as it regaled their journey to adulthood as immigrants and children of diaspora as they come to terms with their American surroundings as Chinese outsiders. Lily’s father’s fear of deportation and alienation from his American peers rings true in contemporary America. Personally, I related to Lily’s mother’s fear of being too “Americanized” and distanced from her own culture, as I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants. However, these outside perspectives interrupted Lily’s narrative and felt that they needed more depth in order to remain pertinent to the plot. I also would have preferred some fleshing out of the secondary characters, especially Shirley and Calvin, Lily’s friends who become involved in the Communist Party.

Malinda Lo’s works are already a bookshelf staple for any WLW; Ash and Huntress are often a young gay person’s first book with lesbian characters. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a fitting addition to Lo’s acclaimed literature, a wonderful coming of age novel full of love and heart. I would highly recommend this new novel, in stores and online on January 19, 2021.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for the eARC of the novel!

Trigger Warnings: racism, homophobia, police brutality, family trauma, abandonment

Bee reviews Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

I’ve been reading Alison Evans’ work for a while. The main appeal for me is that they are a Melbournian author, and their YA sci-fi/fantasies always have a basis in the city and surrounding areas. I think I’ve written here before about how much that appeals to me. When their newest book, Euphoria Kids, was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy that turns magic into an everyday thing for its core group of teens. Iris was grown from a seed in the ground, giving them an affinity for plants and their magical properties. They are a lonely kid, with no human friends – only the faeries that visit them in the house they live in with their two mums. That is, until they see a “new” girl on the bus one day – Babs, who was cursed by a witch and sometimes turns invisible. Babs is made of fire, and lives with her mum, who has fibromyalgia, but still practices magic. A third member is added to their group when they meet a boy who hasn’t chosen his name yet, but who also has something magic about him – what exactly is uncertain.

As is probably clear, this is a diverse group of friends. Iris is non-binary, Babs is a trans girl, and the boy is also trans. Iris’ mums are obviously lesbians, and Babs makes it clear that she is too, as well as a secondary character who works in a café which they love going to. The trio also encounter dryads and faeries – dryads who have no gender, and cannot understand why humans do; faeries who shift between as many genders as they like, as easily as they can change their appearance. I’m loath to say “It’s great representation”, because I often feel that the word “representation” is just used as a catch-all for an identity named in the story, even when that identity isn’t given justice or used naturally. However, that isn’t what Evans is doing at all. The genders of the teens are tied to the magic they learn and explore, almost like being trans is a magic in and of itself.

The writing and story are, in a word, tender. The trio of teenagers are just so sweet and wide-eyed, experiencing this magical word with wonder and care. Their friendship is fierce and loving, and the way they band together to overcome obstacles is very endearing. It is a very kind book – a book that is careful with its characters, with its reader, and with all of the people who may see themselves represented in its pages. The descriptions of magic are ethereal, and the use of plants and connection to nature is filled with all the joy of walking in a secluded forest and seeing light pouring through the trees. It is all just so gentle; the perfect book for reading under a blanket with a cup of tea (and the characters drink a lot of tea too, so you won’t be alone in that).

Something which Evans does very well is write otherworldly things in a convincing way. Of course planting a jar of herbs in the garden works as a protection spell; of course a lesbian couple can nurture a seed that turns into a child; of course a girl can light fires with her touch. Theirs is the type of writing that draws a reader in, and enfolds them in the world that has been created. It’s a book filled with comforting imagery and beautiful turns of phrase – the world of magic is easily pictured, and the use of the Australian bush is wonderful.

I am usually not much of a fantasy fan; I find it confusing at the best of times. But for me, this type of real-world magic is easy to get behind. With friendships at the core of the story, there is something to root for. The characters are all also very appealing – the adults all have magic of their own as well, and treat the three teens with love and respect. It’s just plain nice to read, honestly. While it’s a good entry-level fantasy, it’s also a very witchy story, full of enchantment. And I was enchanted, definitely. It’s a world I would gladly fall into, again and again.

Mallory Lass reviews The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding

The Summer of Jordi Perez

CW: Body shaming and homophobic mother, elaboration at the end

Spoilers: Spoilers marked at the end for the first 35% of the book

I’ve been wanting to read The Summer of Jordi Parez ever since I attended a 2018 ClexaCon panel where Amy Spalding was a speaker. What jumped out at me during her panel was that her book featured a protagonist that was traversing both queerness and body image issues. Having dove head first into the world of lesfic romances in 2016, and ultimately reading so many books with conventionally beautiful protagonists, I have been seeking books with character representations closer to my lived experience.

Abby “Abbs” Ives is a plus size fashion blogger in the summer between her junior and senior year. She’s the daughter of Norah Ives of “Eat Healthy with Norah!” fame and her older sister Rachel is preoccupied with college life and her new boyfriend. Her best friend Maliah also has a new boyfriend, Trevor, and Abby feels destined to be alone. She’s just started her dream internship at a boutique clothing store, Lemonberry and has a major crush on her surprise co-intern, Jordi Perez.

Jordi Parez could be described as a misunderstood artist. She is a photographer with a penchant for wearing black, but not necessarily in a goth way, she has more of a New York artist vibe. When Abby and Jordi first meet outside the boutique for their internship, Abby doesn’t even know Jordi’s name, or that they attend the same high school. Neither of them knew there would be two interns, and they soon find out that they are fighting for one job at the end of the summer. Little does Abby know, that is the least of the complications ahead of her.

This book is written in first person from Abby’s point of view, which I mostly enjoyed. My only complaint is that she can be really self-deprecating (which other characters point out), and while I understand it does fit the character and the story Spalding is telling, I found it grating at times. My lived experience of being seventeen years old seems so far away from me now, and I didn’t always relate to Abby’s anxiety-filled daydreams, or love of fashion, but it did give me a glimpse into everything Abby was thinking or feeling and really allowed me to go on the journey with her. I felt the chaos and joy of Abby’s crush and the momentum of her relationship with Jordi as it progressed, and that was accentuated by the narrative choice Spalding made.

There are some gems of life advice in this book, and Spalding has a way of grounding all of this wisdom in casual conversation and observation which I find relatable even as an adult reader. It is definitely not preachy, and that’s a bonus. Abby’s summer is a modern coming of age journey filled with social media and text messages and also descriptions of kissing as something unknowable because it’s a thing you do. Spalding has a beautiful way with words, and all the while it still feels authentic from a seventeen year old. Some of the lines are adorably cheesy, for example: “I can’t tell the bass drum apart from my thudding heart.” The easy dialogue and great concept make this an enjoyable and quick read.

There is a fun supporting cast of characters. With Abby and Jordi’s families, their friend groups, and their Lemonberry co-workers and boss Maggie all getting space on the page, Abby’s life is dimensional and complicated. Her relationships are changing around her and that is one thing I really loved about this book. The interpersonal plantonic and familial relationships really shine, even when they are not in a positive place.

If you, like me, fell in love with Jared in the indie hit Booksmart, you’ll probably enjoy the relationship between Jax and Abby. Jax is the queer platonic friend everyone wishes they had. Abby and Jax have great banter and are building their relationship around what Jax dubs being “friends-in-law” (he’s best friends with Trevor, and Abby is best friends with Maliah who are dating) and I’m totally stealing that. If you want a story about coming into yourself, navigating evolving friend groups, familial challenges, and your first girlfriend – this is a book for you.

Content Warning (with spoilers)

The portrayal of Abby’s mother Norah is very real, but could also be really triggering for some readers. She “forgets” Abby came out as a lesbian, and fails to apologise for it. She essentially asks her to go on a diet. She plays the “why are you making our relationship so difficult” card a lot and is generally not a supportive mother to Abby. She has a skewed idea of what it means to be healthy, what healthy body acceptance looks like, and doesn’t understand how to connect with Abby in an authentic way. Based on other characters support of her I don’t think it’s a case of an unreliable narrator, or that Abby’s view of her mom is very far off from reality. Norah makes an attempt at smoothing things over, but the damage has been done and in my opinion can’t be repaired in one day by words alone, but actions over time. If you have unsupportive parents, you might want to pass on this book.

Spoilers

Abby and Jordi get together in the first third of the book, and their budding relationship is really romantic and age appropriate. I liked the way Spalding built up Abby’s crush on Jordi, and how she brought them together. Abby gets to explore the age old question of “How do you tell if a girl is into other girls?” with different characters – tl;dr attending a Tegan and Sara concert doesn’t make you gay, but it should go in the plus column. Overall, I found the pacing enjoyable and I didn’t spend the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop or some big conflict to happen but you’ll have to read for yourself to see if Abby and Jordi can survive the summer.

Bee reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Spoiler Warning

Trigger Warnings: body horror, gore, violence

The things I heard about Wilder Girls before I picked it up:

  • Lord of the Flies-esque, but with girls
  • Body horror
  • Secrets and lies
  • Queer girls

And needless to say, I was sold. If the ethereal and captivatingly disturbing cover weren’t enough, these tidbits promised something dark and twisted that appealed to my love of the grotesque and monstrous girls in love.

Wilder Girls centres on the students of Raxter, an all-girls boarding school on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined after an outbreak of an untraceable disease called the Tox, which manifests itself in different ways for whoever contracts it: second spines bursting through the skin, scales growing over limbs, unhealed blisters and sores which ooze and bleed without relief. In the worst cases, the Tox turns the girls feral and violent, forcing their peers to put them down like animals. The core trio of girls are Hetty, Byatt, and Reese, close-knit friends who distance themselves from the others for their own protection. Hetty is connected to Byatt like a sister, and secretly yearns for something more with Reese, which is threatened when Hetty is put on the team which collects the shipments of supplies and rations from the mainland, and becomes privy to some dark truths.

In reading Wilder Girls, I was consistently reminded of the movie Annihilation–yes, that one with Gina Rodriguez with an undercut, a tank top, and a big gun. The blending of nature and bodies, the twisted manifestations of the Tox, reminded me a lot of the visuals in the film. There are also mutant animals which threaten the girls’ lives; there is a particularly memorable scene with a disfigured bear which is a little too reminiscent of the scene from Annihilation. However, the similarities weren’t a problem for me. I loved the film and its aesthetic, especially the way it presented twisted depictions of bodies and a rawness in all its women. After watching it, I definitely wanted more. Wilder Girls gave it to me. Rory Power’s descriptions are evocative and visceral, creating that same rawness which worked so well for me in the film. Maybe these similarities are subjective, but I do think it’s a worthy comparison, especially if you were a fan of the movie. I may have to pick up the book by Jeff VanderMeer to see if the similarities are that concrete.

There are obvious differences, too. The relationships between Byatt, Hetty, and Reese are a major drawcard; they are strong and complicated, and the girls are all sharp in their own ways, making for compelling reading. The attraction between Hetty and Reese isn’t soft by any means: it’s a rough sort of yearning, with a desperation that I feel we don’t normally see in YA. It, like the rest of the book, is dark–and it’s deliciously appealing.

The ultimate answer of what the Tox is, and the involvement of a navy research base, did seem a bit rushed to me, and left me with more questions than answers. If you are looking for a book which neatly ties everything up and reveals the entire mystery to you, then this is perhaps not a good choice. But I did enjoy that as more plot points at revealed, the conspiracy deepens and the desperation heightens. One thing that can definitely be said about the characters is that none of them are perfect, and none of them are selfless. In fact, they are all selfish in their own ways, and it makes for some realistic and believable reading.

Wilder Girls, for me, is a highly recommended read. It is a violent representation of girlhood of a kind that is rare in fiction, and deserves to be celebrated. It helps that the characters are well realised and have depth, and the whole thing is grounded in female friendship. It is also served well by Power’s frank and unrelenting prose. This is a book which I feel can tempt even people who don’t usually read YA–fans of horror in general should find something to like. I for one am definitely looking forward to reading more of Power’s work in the future.