Maggie reviews Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey is a western dystopian novella set in the American Southwest at a point when almost all food, gasoline, medical supplies, and other necessities have been rationed by the army, and the only books around have to be pre-approved by the government. Normally I think novellas have a tendency to fall flat for me, but I’m very intrigued by the spat of western-themed dystopian fiction that’s been put out recently, so I wanted to give it a try.

CONTENT WARNING: The story opens with a hanging. The main character, Esther, has just watched her friend Beatriz be hanged for possessing unapproved materials, and she knows she has to get out of town before a similar fate befalls her. So she hides away with the traveling Librarians, women who travel between small towns in the Southwest distributing approved books. It’s a place for women to exist without being married, and it’s away from her small town. Although initially unhappy with her presence, the Head Librarians Bet and Leda allow her to stay and set their assistant Cye to teaching her the ropes as they continue to deliver books to towns and carry out their secret mission of helping move contraband packages and people who need to leave. As Esther learns more about what it takes to be a Librarian and about her companions, it becomes clear that the Librarians are also a home to many sorts of people that would get run out of the small towns they go through, or worse, and as Esther learns more about their true mission, she’s left with more questions about herself and what she wants to do with her life.

As the main character, it is through Esther’s viewpoint that we see the Librarians, and at first I was frustrated by what seemed to be Esther’s willful obliviousness to what was right in front of her. She had had a whole relationship with Beatriz – not just an unrequited crush – and I couldn’t understand why she refused to acknowledge what was clear about the people she had fallen in with, even when they were right in front of her. But the more Esther revealed to Cye and later Amity, a fugitive that’s moving with them, the more I realized that this was a story about the trauma of having to live in fear of who you are and the consequences of being found out. A common enough theme in LGBT literature, but the rebellious queer western pastiche this was sold to me under obscured it from me to start with, and I think it is well done here in how it unfolds and how Esther herself has to realize the full extent of her trauma and how to navigate around it, especially for a novella. As things progressed, it was less the Librarian’s hidden duties that drew me on, but instead Esther’s progression of grappling with her past, present, and future.

I also thought it was interesting that Bet and Leda are present as queer elders, but it isn’t them that are Esther’s main mentors in coming into herself. Cye may mock her at first, but it is them and the outlaw Amity that end up helping Esther the most. Amity was also an interesting character to me, as an outlaw with competing streaks of deep pragmatism and compassion. I thought it was really interesting who here was most helpful to Esther and who had broader concerns than one timid girl.

As in all frontier or wilderness survival stories, I was super interested in the segments about Esther gaining the skills she needed to survive. Not only were there the expected segments about learning how to ride a horse or shoot a gun, there was a delightful segment where Esther tries her hand at learning bookbinding. What I found charming about Esther was that, even laboring under her own personal trauma and confusion, she tried hard to learn or do the practical things that life in the southwest on the road demanded.

In conclusion, Upright Women Wanted is an interesting and entertaining novella, and worth your time if you’re interested in westerns. In my opinion it succeeds better than a lot of novellas do at fleshing out interesting characters within a condensed plot, and it hits the grim but somewhat hopeful dystopia notes without hammering them too hard.

Shannon reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us, the 2019 release from author Kit Frick, is the story of two teenaged girls, both desperate to hold onto their secrets and their dreams, even if it means teaming up to take down their mutual enemy. It’s fast-paced and twisty, but not without its faults.

Amanda Kelly has known she would marry Carter Shaw for pretty much as long as she can remember. It’s one of those things that’s simply part of who she is. No one has ever asked her if it’s what she wants, and though a piece of Amanda struggles with the expectations her parents have placed on her, she’s pretty sure she loves Carter and is ready to get married as soon as they’re both done with school. Sure, Carter’s not perfect. He’s cheated on her a time or two, but Amanda’s sure they can get past his indiscretions. After all, isn’t that what true love is all about?

Rosalie Bell wants nothing more than to keep her head down until she turns eighteen. Once she’s a legal adult, she can leave her ultra-conservative parents behind and finally fully embrace her identity as a lesbian. As it is, she has a secret girlfriend and a fake relationship with the super popular Carter Shaw, the kind of boy her parents have always wanted her to spend time with. Carter’s  nice enough, but Rosalie just isn’t into him that way, but she knows she has to keep pretending to be straight if she wants to have a chance at living life on her own terms.

Amanda and Rosalie don’t really know each other, although each is all too aware of the other’s existence. Amanda wishes Rosalie would relinquish whatever hold she seems to have on Carter, and Rosalie feels a mixture of guilt and envy whenever she thinks of Amanda. But when both girls start receiving disturbing text messages from a blocked number, they realize someone out there knows each of their secrets and is ready to make them known to the world if Amanda and Rosalie don’t follow instructions. Now, these two must team up if they hope to come out of this unscathed, but how can they hope to work together with so much unspoken angst between them?

Rosalie’s character is the best thing about this book. I could feel her inner conflict whenever the story was told from her perspective. She doesn’t enjoy using Carter as her fake boyfriend, but her parents’ religious beliefs pose a real danger to her if she admits she’s attracted to girls. It’s a tough situation, one I don’t see in many books these days, and I applaud the author for bringing it to life on the page in a way that feels so relatable and authentic.

Amanda turned out to be a harder character for me to like. She’s super privileged, and while this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, her thoughts and beliefs were sometimes hard for me to swallow. There’s a sense of entitlement about her that drove me nuts at times. Her life definitely isn’t perfect, but her problems felt insignificant when compared to the things Rosalie is constantly going through. I wanted her to wake up and take a good look at reality rather than just whining about how hard things were for her.

There is quite a bit of homophobic rhetoric here, most of which comes from Rosalie’s parents and their religious leaders. While this gave me a deeper understanding of the peril Rosalie would be in if those around her discovered her sexual orientation, it could prove difficult for some readers to deal with.

All Eyes On Us is the first novel I’ve read by Kit Frick, and although I didn’t love everything about it, I’m intrigued enough to check out more of the author’s work. She definitely knows how to create a compulsively readable thriller, and I’m always on the lookout for those, especially when they feature characters who are bisexual or lesbian.

Casey A reviews The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

In October 2018, The Prom premiered on Broadway. It was a musical inspired by real events with a great deal of glitter thrown on top, and I was one of the people lucky enough to see the original cast on Broadway, because a good friend surprised me with tickets on my trip. The musical was fantastic, but sadly had a much shorter run than deserved, but it’s a book now, and we can all bask in its glory. The book is adapted from stage by Saundra Mitchell. Obviously the stage show has coloured my reading of the book, much like when you watch a film adaptation and you know all the bits they missed out. So I’m going to keep the comparisons vague to avoid spoilers, but I will still reference the show in my reading.

The story is set in Edgewater, Indiana, where our narrator Emma Nolan, informs us that it is a bad idea to be gay. Heads up, homophobia is a very presiding theme in this story, so if you are looking for a cute romance with no obstacles or politics, this may not be your read. Emma’s story preceding the book has been a difficult one, all too familiar to a lot of queer readers, but sadly a story that still must be told. The second narrator is Alyssa Greene, love interest, student body president, and perfect daughter to the overbearing leader of the PTA. The tension in the story all revolves around the fact that out and proud(ish) Emma would dearly like to go to prom with her closeted girlfriend. The PTA gets in the way, Broadway actors find out about the scandal and try to help. All hell breaks loose.

I’m torn over the structure of the book. On the one hand, I really enjoy swapping between Alyssa and Emma’s narratives, and this structure actually gives Alyssa a lot more agency and power than she has in the show. However, there are glimpses of scenes which exist on stage that they had to cut due to a lack of POV character, and are mentioned as asides, which make little sense. It’s a bit like only watching half of a crossover episode and wondering what you missed out on. The Prom is a nice short read, clocking in at just over two-hundred pages, so I think it might have made more sense to either expand to allow more points of view, or simply axe some of those asides altogether and focus on the main plot. The weirdest of these is perhaps that the book opens with reference to a broadway show flopping, and then doesn’t allude to this at all for about fifty pages. It makes a lot more sense by the end, but I personally think that the articles which serve as prologue and epilogue detract a little from the main narrative and are really only there for fans of the show.

The tone of the book is inescapably teenage highschooler. It’s a YA novel adaptation and it knows it. Pop culture references are abound, and if you aren’t up to date on your American High School slang (I am not), you might find yourself rereading a few sentences. But for the most part, I found the pop culture references hilarious and engaging. Emma’s narrative has a sarcastic and witty snap to it which is delightful to read even when things are going wrong. It also spans a decent range from memes, music, and tv, as well as inevitably a large number of broadway shows. This book genuinely made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions, and it’s chock full of genuinely wise quotes about homophobia, acceptance, and life in general.

(This bit is only about differences to the show, so if you aren’t already a fan, be ready for spoilers.) Firstly, there are some great little cast easter eggs in the names of the characters, some very obvious and some quite sneaky. The words of many (if not all) of the musical numbers have also made it into the writing one way or another, with several of them providing a lot of backbone to the plot, and others acting as throwaway lines which maybe don’t quite work. As I’ve already alluded to, the broadway characters don’t get a point of view. Dee Dee and Barry are still in it, but Trent and Angie have been axed entirely (despite the cast of Godspell still being present). Dee Dee really is turned into a caricature of what was already a largely than life character, but Barry somehow manages to retain depth and dignity, despite soaking up most of Trent’s role in the narrative.

Seeing the show and then reading the book definitely changed my reading of the book, and I’m very interested to know what others think who haven’t read it. From an adaptation standpoint, I thought it was a very cute read, with a lot of power, which overall took the narrative from a new angle and made sure we got more of the love interest’s side of the story. I would recommend this book highly to people who have seen or know the show, and and anyone who just wants a nice triumphant story about love against all odds.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Maggie reviews Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

I was perusing Hoopla’s queer romance section since I have been on a romance kick lately, and I came across Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West. A lesbian romance about union organizing? Set in Indiana? With a pun for a title? As a queer lady whose roots are in Indiana and whose friends have recently organized a union drive, I had to read it. It proved to be an interesting read, although the fate of the factory was, at times, more interesting to me than the fate of the main romance. Still, it was good to read a queer romance set more off the beaten path, as you will.

Hoosier Daddy features Jill “Friday” Fryman as she works in a factory in her small hometown. Conditions are rough in the factory, there’s rumors of a buyout, the annual Pork Festival is coming up and emotions are high, and in the midst of all of this a couple of “union agitators” roll into town to try to drum up interest in unionizing the factory. One of the union reps, El, catches Friday’s eye. Friday has to navigate her feelings for El, her professional life and opinions as a line supervisor at the factory who is getting dragged ever deeper into management politics, and how it all interconnects with her small town life. This book struggles a little in attempting to balance scenes of small town life, factory and union politics, and scenes of queer romance in a straight rural town, and it shows in how Friday struggles to make any sort of proactive sense of her own choices as events progress. There are some homophobic incidents, but all of Friday’s personal relationships are positive, albeit sometimes that special brand of rural supportive that is also sometimes backhandedly insulting.

I was eager to read a queer romance set in a rural setting, because, obviously, queer people do exist in rural areas but media often leaves them out. And I think Hoosier Daddy gets a lot right. Friday’s friends and family profess their brand of support for her sexuality (usually starting with some form of “it doesn’t bother me but”) while on the other hand Friday’s car is vandalized twice because of her relationship with El. It’s a rural dynamic that allows El and Friday to have a relationship where Friday can introduce El to her Grammy and friends but still means that there’s no doubt as to why the air gets let out of her tires at the bar. Other details also struck true to me, including all the descriptions of the Pork Festival, the community importance of the fish fry at the VFW, and how it’s impossible to escape meeting people who are related to someone else you know. Everyone in town being intimately aware of all the drama also feel accurate. Friday’s immersion in the community is vividly brought to life in a very vivid and familiar way, which I liked, because in that small a setting it is very hard to separate.

Which is why the plotline of whether the factory will unionize is as big of a deal as Friday and El’s romance, because the mood of the community directly effects Friday and El’s relationship. The book itself seemed strangely ambivalent on whether you should root for this unionization effort to succeed or not. The factory clearly needed to unionize. Safety regulations are routinely ignored. Friday’s boss verbally harasses her several times. What you get to eat at the cafeteria is dependent on whether the cafeteria manager likes you. Management engages in blatant union-busting rhetoric and bribery. Public opinion is constantly against the “union agitators” except for the few radicals they manage to attract right away. It all culminates in a death, which finally swings the momentum towards unionizing. But then the buyout goes through and the new management seems genuinely good while also pushing anti-union rhetoric. I was left very confused as a reader as to who the book was rooting for, since the union clearly needs to happen even while it paints new management so glowingly. I was also baffled as to why Friday couldn’t seem to maintain a consistent opinion on what was happening at her job or her relationship with regards to these changes, always reacting rather than acting.

Which leads to the purpose of this book: Friday and El’s relationship. From the get-go their chemistry is of an instant, physical sort. They end up having a lot of hot encounters (too many of them in public restrooms for my taste but still fun), but it takes them forever to have any sort of real conversation or connection. In my opinion, Friday and El make more sense as a summer fling. It would be right for them to avoid discussing their work if this was a short term affair, but if they really want to make this work long term they need to discuss professional and social boundaries and be upfront about it. It makes sense for them to continue to hook up in bathrooms if this wasn’t a relationship that was going anywhere, but if they both really felt a deeper connection – Friday has her own house or El has a hotel room right there, no bathroom stalls without doors included. I’m glad that El had the wherewithal to get herself into a place where the relationship made more sense by the end of the book, because for much of the book they felt like a floundering, although passionate, mess.

All in all, while it was refreshing to read a queer romance set in a rural area, the romance itself got lost in the setting and the plot line that consumed the whole town. Friday and El were always so caught with reacting or dealing with their surroundings that they had little time to develop their own relationship past a physical level. Plus, while there are lots of dogs appearing in this book, every single one of them has flatulence which is described in detail? Which is really an unnecessarily gross level of description that no one really needs, in my personal opinion. Overall, I had a lot more feelings about the state of the factory’s union than Friday and El’s union, but the setting puts this book at a 3/5 stars in my book. Small town girls deserve queer representation too!

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.

Megan G reviews Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Megan hasn’t spoken in months. Not since that horrible day. She worries that if she starts talking, she won’t be able to stop, and there are some things she simply cannot tell anybody. Except suddenly Jasmine moves to town; kind and talkative Jasmine. And for some reason, Megan finds herself wanting to speak again.

This is one of those typical young adult books that those of us who enjoy YA eat up, and those who don’t roll their eyes at. I have to be honest, I think I would have rolled my eyes a bit if the main couple hadn’t been two girls. It’s just that type of YA book.

I mainly picked this book up because the main character’s name was Megan, and I have to admit that I did enjoy her as a protagonist for the most part. She’s obviously very internal, as she doesn’t speak, but Rushton still manages to do a good job of displaying her character through her inner thoughts and her actions. My only frustration about this is that at times her actions can feel random and quite jarring, and are never truly explained beyond the overall theme of “she’s sad and lonely.” These moments seem to be there more for the sake of drama than to truly advance Megan as a character.

Jasmine, Megan’s love interest, is very interesting and enjoyable overall, but at times falls a little flat. Again, this is a very typical young adult book, so of course the love interest at times feels like she’s there for little more than to be the love interest. Still, as far as young adult love interests go, she’s decently entertaining and at least somewhat fleshed out.

All the young adult cliché’s aside (which, honestly, are not much of a deterrent for me, especially in queer YA), the main thing that frustrated me about this book is that there is a background male character who is assumed to be gay, and bullied because of this at random intervals throughout the book. Halfway through the novel the author seems to forget about him, so the last we see of him is him running from homophobic taunts while Megan thinks to herself that she’s glad she isn’t the one being bullied for once. I’m a big fan of mlm/wlw solidarity, and that was severely lacking in this particular book. I almost rather that tiny little subplot hadn’t even been included, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story and just made me feel annoyed.

Still, overall this is a cute and charming little story with a bit of a mystery to it and a sweet wlw love story. It’s a fast read that I think any YA-loving wlw will enjoy.

Mary Springer reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterspoon

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for mentions of homophobia and abuse

The relationship between sapphic women and Christianity is a complicated and sometimes tragic and violent one. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical story based around the author’s life raised by an evangelists in an English Pentecostal community while discovering her attraction to women.

Jeanette is devoted to her religion and the Christian path her mother has determined for her. She’s admired for being a good Christian girl and absolutely faithful to her community. That is, until she falls in love with another girl, Melanie.

Their relationship makes Jeanette so happy she tell hers mother about it, but only finds her mother angry and upset. Up until this moment, Jeanette has been everything her mother wanted her to be, and her mother in turn as loved and supported everything she did (because everything she did was what her mother told her to do). This change is traumatizing enough for Jeanette without what happens next.

Jeanette and Melanie are forced to undergo exorcisms at the church. Melanie, who has always been the more subservient and less confident of the two, repents. Jeanette refuses and is locked in her parlor by her mother. This whole process takes several days and the author does not shy away from it, probably because she experienced something close to, if not that exactly as it was.

Jeanette eventually pretends to repent simply out of a desperate need for food. However, she remains steadfast in her belief that nothing is wrong with her love for Melanie and that she can maintain that love alongside her faith.

Jeanette remains faithful to her religion because of its ties to love. She loves her mother and believes her mother loves her back. She loves the people in her church and up until this moment they have always loved her back. She loved Melanie, and didn’t see how that love was any different than those others felt. Alongside all of this is her, her love in the God of her church and her belief that he loves her back.

Her church takes an opposite perspective, turning to hate her in a snap judgement of her different sexuality. Jeanette finds herself alone, without the love her community that she was so devoted to.

The bravest part of Jeanette is that despite all of this not only does she not stop loving herself, but she never stops being compassionate and kind. She doesn’t let the hatred of her church sink her from her beliefs in her religion or herself.

The book does a great job of showing how the hatred of the Church members is so contrasted by Jeanette, the lesbian’s, purposeful love, kindness and faith. This book was published in 1985, a time when such depicts would have been shocking. The author takes her time to show the community and it’s members, so you grow attached to them alongside Jeanette, and then feel the same pain she does when she is rejected.

The story is empowering in Jeanette and her ability to take everything in stride and continue to love herself and those around her.

Mary Springer reviews Desperate Times by Hildred Billing

Desperate Times by Hildred Billings

This review contains spoilers. I will state when I am about to go into them, so if you want to read the first few paragraphs to get a general gist of the book, you can do so safely.

Romances between two butch lesbians are hard to come by, so when I found this title I thought I had hit the jackpot.

For many lesbians, living in a small town can be a nightmare for dating opportunities. This is the exact predicament Tess and Sidney find themselves, which inevitably ends in them matching on a dating app and meeting up a local bar. However, each posted some misleading pictures of themselves and both are disappointed to find the other is not femme. For these butches that would usually be a deal breaker, but being the only option for each other they agree to a casual relationship. However, what was supposed to be friends with benefits quickly turns into something more romantic, which becomes a problem in a homophobic, conservative town.

I like a love story with some good, old-fashioned angst, and there was definitely plenty of that here. Tess grew up on a ranch raised by her emotionally distant father and constantly surrounded by men. That plus growing up in a small, conservative town leaves her with a lot of walls and issues to deal with.

Sidney herself is dealing with the frustration of moving from a town with a good-sized LGBT+ community, to this area with absolutely nothing. A place where there is literally just one other lesbian in town. She moved there to take care of a historical building and gives her a set amount of time to stick with it before she’ll allow herself to give up.

This was an interesting premise with a lot of potential and for the first two parts of the book, I felt it lived it up to that. However, in the third part things took a dramatic turn that just did not sit well with me.

Spoilers below.

There is a big celebration for the fourth of July. Sidney and Tess meet up and then go back to Sidney’s place where they start to make out and then begin to go further. In that moment, they see two of the old, gossipy neighbor ladies are staring at them through the window. At this point they are let into the house for some reason, proceed to rage and throw homophobic insults at them. Tess starts crying at this, and Sidney scoffs at her.

Now, that alone would be bad enough. To see the person that you’re involved with being outed and then crying about it only to scoff and diminish them – that’s bad enough. It portrays Sidney as having no idea the potential danger this puts Sidney and herself in, and also that she doesn’t care about her at all.

Then, Tess’s somewhat-friend Ray comes in and tries to help the situation. So, Tess just goes up and kisses him on the mouth to prove her heterosexuality to the two homophobes.

So, that happens. I can’t really find the words to appropriately explain my feelings about this. I’m going to assume you can imagine them.

After that, Sidney is removed from her position as caretaker of the historical house. Tess pretty much avoids her as rumors swarm over the town about the two of them.

Then, they just up and get back together. There’s a brief and unsatisfying makeup seen. Neither of the characters really grows or changes in the third part. I never really felt like how they were outed and how terribly it affected Tess what was fully dealt with. Tess never really grew out of her emotionally detached state. To be honest, she came off as a jerk most of the time.

It felt like Sidney was looking down on everyone for most of the book in a snobbish, upper-middle class kind of way. Which, considering the conservative homophobia makes sense. But as someone who grew up in and is unfortunately stuck in such a small town, there are beautiful parts to it that I wish could have been portrayed as well.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book. However, the final one made it impossible for me to give it a positive review. The author has published more books so I might check those out, because the writing is really well done and the initial premise shows promise for future stories.

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.