A New Take On the 20-Something F*ckup Novel: All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different cover

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I have heard only great things about this book since it came out in 2022, but I somehow didn’t actually pick it up until my queer book club chose it for this month’s pick. I vaguely remembered downloading an ARC on my ereader, so I opened that up and jumped in. I was immediately struck by two surprises: 1) I wasn’t really enjoying the book, though I had been expecting to love it, and 2) I had started this book already. I was eight percent of the way through—which is not a lot, but it means at some point I started and abandoned it. Aside from the unease of reading through highlights I couldn’t remember making, I was also beginning to have a sinking feeling that this was not going to live up to the glowing reviews I’d heard.

Sneha is not an easy main character to like in the beginning of the story. She’s freshly graduated from her program and starting a new job in a new city: Milwaukee. She doesn’t have any real connections here, and she struggles to find her footing. Her property manager lives downstairs and erupts in anger if she makes the slightest noise. Her job is demanding and unpredictable. She hooks up with women without looking for anything lasting. And throughout it, she simmers with self-loathing that periodically boils over into cruelty and judgement.

Sneha is a queer woman of colour who has a lot of internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. She thinks hateful things about other women, people of colour, and queer people. She’s angry and judgmental, but she’s also passive. She feels constrained by being an immigrant, especially because her father was deported. She worries that any misstep will result in failure—not just her own, but also failure to live up to her parents’ dreams.

“What nobody told me when I was a very young person was that obedience, fearful toeing of every line, chasing every kind of safety, would not save you.”

At this point in the story, I was having trouble with it. It was interesting enough to keep going, but I began to think that maybe I’ve grown beyond identifying with 20-something fuckup literary fiction—a genre I loved when I was younger. I might have even DNFed it, if it weren’t for my book club. But then…it got me. Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d gotten invested in Sneha and the network of relationships she formed.

There’s such a payoff in Sneha’s character growth—not that she becomes a perfect person, but that she becomes more accepting of herself and others. And that payoff feels so powerful because she was such a mess in the beginning. So I can’t fault the book for that, and I will say it’s worth sticking with through those beginning chapters, when she is being insensitive and even cruel.

If you’re a fan of messy found family dynamics, I definitely recommend this one. All the characters are complex and flawed, but they come together to support each other. Tig is definitely the standout character of the novel: a charismatic Black nonbinary philosopher who imagines a better world and both accepts Sneha and holds her accountable.

“This is my tragedy and my great good fortune, to be the recipient of this bond, to be kept alive under its crushing warmth and weight, to be given it so freely, so much more than I have ever deserved.”

The small section of the book that takes place in India adds a lot of depth to the story, I think. Even Sneha’s mother is a complex character—maybe more so than Sneha originally gives her credit for.

I was also surprised to see how the story is structured: while most of the book takes place over a small time span, there are a few chapters that go over several years. I think some readers will find that jarring, but I appreciated seeing the bittersweet aftermath of this formative time in these characters’ lives.

I definitely recommend this as a book club book, because there is so much to pull out and discuss, from issues of classism and appropriation to it being set during the recession to Sneha’s character arc to Sneha’s relationship with Marina and a lot more. It’s definitely one I think I would appreciate even more on rereading.

Vic reviews The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne cover

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Considering it’s commonly referred to as part of the Sapphic Trifecta of fantasy and sapphic fantasy is, in my professional opinion, the best genre there is, it seems almost criminal that it took me so long to get to it. Maybe it was intimidation (how often do popular things actually live up to the hype?), or maybe it was distraction, but now that I’ve finally read Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, I get it completely.

Simultaneously a complex, epic political fantasy and a beautiful love story, The Jasmine Throne follows Priya, a maidservant who possesses forbidden magic, and Malini, a princess who has been imprisoned in the temple by her brother for her refusal to be burned. When Malini sees Priya use her magic, she realizes she may be able to help her make her escape and enact revenge on her cruel brother, but as the two women start spending more time together, their feelings begin to deepen.

I really thought this was going to be enemies to lovers for some reason, so I was surprised (but not at all disappointed!) by how tender their relationship was from the start, and it only got better from there. I loved both Priya and Malini as individuals, but God, their relationship. From the very first time they meet, it is clear that they see each other, see that there is more than the cover they present to the world, and that more than anything is the root of their attraction.

Priya and Malini are two of my favorite characters I have ever encountered, and my favorite between them was more often than not simply the one whose head I was in at that moment. Malini’s ruthlessness paired with Priya’s kindness gave this book a ferocity that made me devour every page because I just needed to see more. Indeed, every single woman in this book has a ferocity to them, though it takes shape in different ways for each of them.

Multi-POV stories can be difficult to manage, particularly when there are as many as this book has (7+), but Suri balances them impressively. Every perspective served a purpose, whether they were a main character or a single-chapter soldier, giving the reader insight on an attack for which none of the leads were present, for example. Admittedly, some of the POVs didn’t interest me nearly as much as others, but by the end, I was shocked by how much certain characters had grown on me. Even when I sighed to see a name I didn’t know after a particularly tender Priya/Malini scene, for example, I never felt like a perspective was wasted.

Everything in this book is crafted with such care. Based in Indian history, the world of this book is as vivid as Suri’s writing style. With characters hailing from all parts of the empire, I never struggled to keep track of the customs or the religions of any of them. Because of that, the stakes of the rebellion felt immediate. I understood what the world looked like before Malini’s brother stepped in, and I understood what it would become if the revolution could not put a stop to his reign.

If you are thinking about reading this book and have somehow managed to skip it up until now, I highly recommend picking it up. It was somehow both fierce and tender, and it is one of my favorite recent reads (and I’ve been on a roll with some really great ones this month). Believe me, this review undersold the book. I can’t wait to pick up the next one.

Babusha reviews Falling Into Place by Sheryn Munir

Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir cover

HALLELUJAH !HALLELUJAH! THERE IS AN INDIAN LESBIAN ROMANCE NOVEL!!!

First of all, this review will contain rapturous joy on just the existence of such a book. It may even be half of this review and to everyone who points this out to me, deal with it idc.

In the last year or so, India has made such amazing strides when it comes to LGBTQ issues. First of all the Supreme Court stated homosexuality is a fundamental right and then within months legalized it by striking down the old colonial rule that originally deemed it illegal, Section 377. So for me, reading this novel written by a native Indian author with such genuinely compelling writing and relatable characters was the best chocolate chip cookie on the side of a piping hot brownie with vanilla ice cream cheesecake that was the last year.

Okay rapture over, to the review.

After a super unconventional meet-cute involving an actual car hijack in the streets of Delhi, Sameen Siddiqui and Tara Dixit become carpool and foodie buddies. Tara, who is my kind of introverted and cynical lesbian is initially is a little standoffish, mostly because Sameen is too cute and sweet to not have a crush on and unfortunately also too seemingly straight for it not to go wrong.

Sheryn Munir does such a vivid job of describing and showing Delhi around- both from a native Tara’s eyes and also from the Bangalorean Sameen’s using both locations and food. Honestly, Falling into Place uses food in such an intersecting way–like a connecting string and aesthetic between the two characters; it’s almost like a third protagonist of the story. Also, like most desis, I have a special place in our heart for North-South Indian romances and this book is definitely no exception.

As an Indian, in most LGBTQ romance novels I’ve ever read that are centered on Indian or Middle Eastern communities, the elephant in the room is the shadow of physical danger due to a backwards law. The level of fear and cynicism that comes with living under such a law is both realistic and a trope present in this book as well.  Tara’s cynicism has marred her romantic past and also creates obstacles in her initial friendship. But the story does a great job of also deconstructing Tara’s fear when she realizes she has fallen in love with Sameen. She is afraid–of heartbreak, of life-changing love-as are we all.

I swear this book is like every single one of my fave Hayley Kiyoko songs.

Relatable and empathetic characters in a familiar setting with cute and light humour, Sheryn Munir tells a story using all my catnip–grounded, flawed character with a ‘disaster run away’ setting at pretty girls near them lol, a joyfully familiar setting and a story that is grounded in its characters and their personal journey rather than of the struggles and oppressions of the outside world bring with it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that!

Four stars all around!

Please note: This does involve “toaster-oven- converting the straight girl” plot-line.

Mehek Naresh reviews Falling into Place by Sheryn Munir

When my friend Shira Glassman was asked to review this book for The Lesbrary, she immediately thought of me, thinking that an own voices review would serve the review reading community better. While I may not be the perfect person to review this book, Falling into Place is one of the rare books I read through and enjoyed with no frustration about cultural inaccuracies, largely in part to the authors Indian heritage and her living in India. Sheryn Munir grew up and currently lives in Dehli, so her ability to write authentically about her own culture is unparalleled. But beyond that, is this book any good?

When Sameen barges into Tara’s cab on the way home to her boyfriend’s birthday party, she has no idea that their second run in will turn into something more. Tara, a journalist living with her mother, is resisting a marriage arrangement her mother is prodding her toward, and Sameen, a commissioning editor living with boyfriend Rohan, is wrestling with her draw to Tara. When the meet cute of jumping into another woman’s cab turns into regular carpooling, that’s when the story really begins.

Set in Delhi, this book has the familiarity of winters spent in India when I was a child. I grew up here in the states, and immigrated here as a baby, so my brief, fleeting memories of Mumbai are of taxis between my grandmother and aunt’s apartments and eating cheese toast at my grandmother’s country club. My ability to compare this book to real life in India or adult interactions with Indian people is minimal, since the last time I visited India I was eleven.

What I love about this book is how authentic it is. The author doesn’t shy away from simply stating that the characters are getting a specific food and doesn’t feel the need to explain things. What is frustrating about so many books either set in India or featuring Indian-diaspora characters is the author wanting to explain everything to the reader. There are context clues, but for the most part, reading this book felt like being amongst my Indian friends, where I didn’t have to suffer through long descriptions of what exactly a samosa is.

Tara coming out to Sameen and the subsequent romance doesn’t hit the same usual notes of this sort of story. Imagine Me and You comes to mind, in which a married woman falls for the florist at her wedding and subsequently she cheats on her husband with this woman. Rather, Tara and Sameen naturally build up a close, honest friendship, and as Tara grows closer, the more her closeted life plans start to come apart. The last third of this novel does follow the pattern stated above, but genuinely, this novel is different because of how the first two thirds are developed. This book made me feel all of the feelings I could have about a romance, and as one of those stony people who doesn’t cry at much, I did tear up just a tiny bit at the end of this.

I see so much of myself in Tara, vowing to myself in younger years that I would just marry a man for the sake of making my parents happy, or simply refuse to get close to anyone in an effort to just bypass the issue entirely. But that isn’t a way to live a life, and in truth, that’s what Tara learns over the course of this novel.

Ultimately, this is a meet-cute that offers so much more than the average. Are there parts of this book I’d change? Sure. This book skims over large swaths of time, tells instead of shows, and the pacing can be a little odd, but these are blips of imperfection in an otherwise smooth diamond. Go get this book, go read it, and go encourage this writer to write more, because I want more Indian F/F romance, asap.

Mehek Naresh in an Indian-American writer living and working in Florida. She is a graduate of the University of Florida with a B.A. in Political Science. She has previously written for The Rainbow Hub, The Mary Sue, and The Fandomentals. Follow her on Twitter @MehekNaresh.

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: More books I got in the mail!

I got a box of books in the mail this week that I’m very excited about. (Thanks Bookmooch!)

This is one of those really specific titles that I always find fascinating. In its defense, this isn’t actually all about lesbian hair (though you probably could write a book about it). It’s a humour book that sounds similar to So You Want to Be a Lesbian?, which I liked despite it being fairly outdated now. The History of Lesbian Hair a slim little book, only a little over 100 pages, so I’ll probably tackle it pretty soon.

As for fiction, I got a well-loved copy of Babyji by Abha Dawesar. It won the 2005 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and the 2006 Stonewall Book Award for Fiction, so that’s definitely promising. It’s set in India in the 1980s and has a 16-year-old protagonist with a love for quantum physics who has affairs with three different women while critiquing caste politics. I love reading lesbian books that stray from the usual all-white cast, set in the U.S. norm. Plus, a smart, adventurous heroine? I am completely on board!

And finally, I got Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation edited by Arlene Stein. I’m really interested in knowing more about not just present lesbian culture and politics, but also what has come before. This book explores the fall from the dream of a “Lesbian Nation–a sisterhood with a shared identity, a common agenda” to a more splintered, multi-faceted culture, split along ideas about marriage, butch/femme dynamics, and class differences. It looks fascinating.

Have you read A History of Lesbian Hair, Babyji, or Sisters, Sexperts, Queers? What did you think of it?