Thais reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

I hadn’t been super into romance before I had Olivia Waite’s Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. I sought sapphic representation when I chose books, but I was mostly a reader of literary fiction, so understandably a lot of what I was read didn’t have a happy ending. I didn’t even realize that was something I craved, and I was so giddy when I cracked open this historical romance and found myself enthralled.

I was very eager to read the sequel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, another regency sapphic tale. I was intrigued by Agatha in Lady’s Guide and definitely detected queer vibes coming from her, so it was no surprise when she turned out to be one of the protagonists of this book. A no-nonsense small business owner who always seemed to entangled with artists, scientists, and subversives of all kinds, Agatha was intriguing when she was introduced as a side character, but she is delightful here—grumpy and direct, but also caring and cautious when it comes to her own romantic feelings.

I also loved Penelope from her very first moments on the page, which is something I appreciate about Waite’s books. I always struggle to stick with a lesfic romance when I dislike one of the main characters. Waite always write heroines who are quirky and not necessarily traditionally likable, but they hook me completely exactly because they jump off the page as whole human beings, with flaws and unique perspectives. I loved Lucy and Catherine when I read Lady’s Guide, but I think now I love Agatha and Penelope more.

A beekeeper, Penelope comes to Agatha’s aid when the printer finds a beehive nesting inside her warehouse. After Penelope manages to carefully remove the bees and suggests placing their new home just outside Agatha’s business building, the two start corresponding.

As Agatha and Penelope started exchanging letters, I found myself nearly racing to finish the book, because I just wanted these two to be happy already. I had to read it again to appreciate some of the story beats and I’m sure I will read it one more time to swoon over the beautiful prose Waite writes, but the first time had me breathless with anticipation, and even the promise of a happy ending that comes with a romance couldn’t make me relax and slow down.

I don’t usually enjoy characters who pine for each for very long. One of the reasons I loved Lady’s Guide was that there was little wait before the main characters got together and the focus was on their burgeoning relationship and past wounds. I wasn’t sure if I would be the audience for a book that withholds the payoff for so long, since I tend to resent when there are too many misunderstandings and obstacles and people just won’t talk to each other. This book is unabashed about the pining and the silly misunderstandings. But it’s so well-done, with Penelope’s hesitation to come out and Agatha’s resentment of Penelope’s marriage and assumptions about what that means, that I was captivated.

I did miss the diversity from the first book, however. Lady’s Guide has more than one character of color and really came alive for me for painting a portrait of what Regency Britain might really have been like. Waspish Widows has several queer characters instead, which is nice, especially as Agatha and Penelope spend a lot of time supporting and conspiring with the other queers, but I still craved more diversity from the book, probably because I know Waite can deliver it and do it well. I assume Mr. Biswas is Indian, but can’t remember him being that big of a presence in the book, and that’s a pity.

I also really appreciated the side story with Queen Caroline and the real danger it brought to the characters that we cared about. I just wish the plot had been wrapped up a bit better. I felt like we heard way too much about this historical context in the beginning and then interest seemed to wane and narrow on the fictional plots that sprouted from it, but that too is sort of set aside at the end, and we only get an assurance that it was resolved by a certain character moving away. I was a bit disappointed.

The middle of the book has amazing tension due to Waite weaving so many threads exceptionally well and creating explosive confrontations. The writing is well-paced, so it propels you forward, making you want to know how it will all come to a head. So I felt a bit cheated that main antagonist in the story disappears off-page and the political tensions are resolved by people just losing interest.

Nevertheless, none of that ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s a testament to Waite’s brilliant storytelling that even when my brain is picking on tiny things and I’m frustrated with bits and pieces, the whole narrative is still impactful and satisfying. Her character work in particular shines. All these people she creates stay in your imagination. Those characters live outside the page, leave a mark on the reader. When Catherine appeared briefly for a cameo in this book, I nearly shouted in excitement. When Mr. Frampton was mentioned, I felt nostalgic and sad that we hadn’t seen him in this book yet. And I would pay any amount of money for a book focusing on Joana Molesey and Aunt Kelmarsh, because there are so few sapphic romances between older women, and after reading Waspish Widows, I would love more.

I certainly can’t wait to go back to this mini world and see them once again, and while I know that Waite has only planned one more book for this series, I can’t help but hope she will pen many more historical sapphic books. I would certainly read them.

Thais is a Brazilian WOC queer. Her degree in Media Studies has slowly grown useless, even though she literary Majored in how to be good at social media (but can’t understand it better than twelve-year-olds) and she currently lives with her parents. She is an Editor and has too many opinions on books she should be reading for fun.

You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@ThaisAfonso).

JB reviews Something To Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

Hello everybody! My name is JB and I’m so excited to be here.

Who doesn’t love a good slow burn romance? The slow burn romance trope is literally my favorite trope in existence. All my favorite ships go through some sort of slow burn/mutual pining stage. Something to Talk About has a slow burn romance AND a fake dating. It feels like it was made for me, and I can tell Meryl Wilsner knows what the lesbians want. And yet this novel did not fully satisfy my itch for slow burn romance.

Something to Talk About features Jo, a mega-successful showrunner, and her assistant, Emma, and their journey from coworkers to friends to lovers. Jo is photographed making Emma laugh on a red carpet and rumors start a-going. Though the gossip threatens to interfere with both their personal and professional lives, Jo decides to not comment; she’s never before, so why start now? The novel is told from both of their perspectives, which I enjoyed because we got to see that sweet, sweet mutual pining. I enjoyed seeing both of them get flustered about each other or giving meaning to small interactions. I love how much unspoken care was already in their relationship, even before they realized they could be more than coworkers and friends. Emma and Jo know each other’s favorite foods, how they way sleep on the plane during business trips, and more.

While I enjoyed reading from their perspectives, there was not a lot of difference in their voices. I had to turn back to the beginning of a chapter more than once to remember who I was supposed to be. A major conflict happens in the middle of the novel that didn’t really make a lot of sense to me, and I almost put the book down because of it. I also thought that there were one too many real world issues trying to be addressed between the romance. Racism and sexism against Jo, sexual harassment in Hollywood, and nepotism (somehow) were either mentioned or part of the plot. It’s completely possible to experience all of these at once, but, to me, it felt out of place in a novel that markets itself as a fluffy romance.

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. I realized I enjoyed and related to these characters more than those in YA WLW romances. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a WLW romance featuring adult women, mutual pining, and yeah, of course, slow burn romance.

Trigger warnings: racism, sexual harassment

JB (she/her) teaches junior high history by day and reads lesbian fiction by night. Her favorite genres are fantasy, speculative fiction, historical non-fiction, and memoirs. She loves all things history, RPG podcasts, and watching longform video essays with her gf. You can find her on Instagram at @readingrhythms.

Landice interviews Anna Burke about her book Spindrift

Spindrift by Anna Burke

Anna Burke is not just one of my favorite lesfic authors—she’s one of my all time favorite authors, period. I love her dystopian lesbian pirate debut novel so much that I’ve convinced 6+ different friends to read it, essentially turning my Sapphic Bookstagram group chat into the unofficial Compass Rose fan club, and I credit Burke’s 2019 Goldie Award winning book, Thorn (an F/F Beauty & the Beast re-imagining), with reigniting my long dormant love for reading.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Burke about her newest book, Spindrift. A contemporary romance, Spindrift is definitely a departure from her previous work, but I found it to be equally delightful!

Landice: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, Anna! Would you like to introduce yourself to readers not yet familiar with you or your work?

Anna Burke: Sure! I am predominately a speculative fiction writer. My first book, Compass Rose, is a dystopian high-seas lesbian pirate novel, and my next two books, Thorn and Nottingham, are retold fairytales (Beauty and the Beast and the legend of Robin Hood, respectively). But most people know me as Artemis’s dog mom.

Landice: That’s certainly how I know you! [laughs] But, speaking of dogs, Spindrift is a romance between two dog moms, which I loved. I mean, there’s a lot more to Emilia and Morgan than their dogs, but Nell and Kraken do play an important part in the novel! Is Kraken (a German Shepherd) based off of your own pup? These are the sort of hard-hitting questions Lesbrary readers are here for, obviously.

Anna: Kraken is absolutely based on my GSD, and another dog, who will appear in later books, is inspired by my Cocker Spaniel. I couldn’t resist! I love writing animals into my work–and not just because I love animals, though that admittedly might have a lot to do with it. From a craft perspective, how characters interact with their pets can reveal a great deal about them, and they can also serve as a humanizing influence on characters who might otherwise be irredeemable. And, let’s face it—us queers love our pets.

Landice: Very true! Emilia is definitely a bit of an ice queen at first—or, we can tell that’s how she wants to be seen, at least, because she’s still very fragile and sort of cagey post-breakdown. But her interactions with Nell and with other animals in the first part of the novel really help us glimpse past the emotional walls she puts up! And as someone who also struggles with anxiety and other mental illnesses, I really appreciated the care you took in writing Emilia’s own mental health issues. What, if any, were some of the challenges you faced in writing that aspect of the novel?

Anna: This is a great question. Mental health is a topic that is close to my heart, and is something that I–as well as most of the people I know—struggle with. Not only is it a major issue in the veterinary profession, but it also is something that the queer community faces disproportionately. I’m queer and married to a veterinarian (laughs). By far the biggest challenge I faced in writing Emilia’s character was figuring out how to faithfully portray her struggles while also conveying a sense of hope. She’s faced some tough shit, and will continue to deal with that, but she’s also learning how to live with it, and that’s where I wanted to put the focus of the novel. Sometimes surviving is the bravest thing we can do. Emilia is brave, and because I write fiction, her reward is new friends, old love, lots of dogs, and, well… a few boat scenes, let’s just say.

Landice: And what excellent boat scenes they are! The steamier sections of Spindrift are stellar, some of the best I’ve read in a long time, but honestly, the mental health aspects were what really stood out to me. You know that meme that’s gone around lately, “Sure sex is great, but…”? Spindrift reminds me of that. “Sure, sex is great, but have you ever read a romance novel that also has phenomenal mental health rep?” [laughs]

Anna: Omg, that’s amazing. And then there’s Morgan, who is in total denial about her own issues… As a reader (and a writer and a human), I really do think that the deeper the emotional connection, the better the sex/the bigger the payoff. For these characters, an emotional connection isn’t possible without navigating the emotional depths they’ve both sunk to, which also offers such good potential for conflict. And, you know. Some good flannel ripping.

Landice: Flannel ripper! Oh, my god. That is the best possible way to describe this novel, honestly. Why aren’t flannel rippers a thing in the lesfic community, yet? Can we make them a thing? Anyway, I know you’re currently working on the second Seal Cove romance, Night Tide. What are the biggest differences, you’ve found, between writing both speculative fiction and contemporary romance?

Anna: I feel like #flannelripper has to already be a thing, but it clearly needs to be a BIGGER thing. Let’s make it happen. Honestly, I love hopping genres. It’s like solving different puzzles, and it lets me explore different storylines and settings. It also keeps me from getting stuck—I work on multiple projects simultaneously, and working in different genres often gets me out of writer’s block.

It’s funny—I thought there would be larger differences. I did enjoy not having to create entire worlds and societies, and there was less research involved (though again, being married to a vet made the veterinary research component easy). But characterization and world-building are the same regardless of genre. [laughs] Probably the biggest difference is that I wanted the characters in these stories to be happy. Anyone who follows me on social media knows this is a big departure from the norm!

Landice: It’s a nice change from your other books, I must say. I love the others, but they definitely hurt. [laughs] I’d love to have you back once Sea Wolf (Compass Rose sequel) is out in the world, that’d be a very different conversation. But to wrap up, how would you describe Spindrift to a potential reader in a couple sentences or so? Aside from #FlannelRipper, what’s your elevator pitch?

Anna: [laughs] Okay. Butch bottom falls for femme top/flex, plus dogs.

Landice: Yeah, I’d say that pretty much sums things up! [laughs] Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Spindrift’s official release date is August 25th, but you can snag your copy now, exclusively through the Bywater Books website!

Spindrift Description:

Can a hot summer fling mend the hearts of two broken women?

Morgan Donovan had everything she ever wanted: a dream job as a large animal veterinarian, awesome friends, and a loving and supportive fiancée. But it all comes crashing down when her fiancée dumps her after realizing that Morgan’s job will always come first. And, while Morgan still has the job and friends, her heart is broken into a million tiny pieces.

Emilia Russo is a burned-out shelter vet. When the unexpected death of her father triggers a mental breakdown that hastens the end of her relationship, she retreats to his house in Seal Cove, Maine. She plans on spending the summer renovating it while she figures out how to pull the pieces of her life back together. But when she runs into Morgan at the dock where her father’s sailboat is moored, her plans for a quiet summer of healing and reflection sink like a stone—the attraction is immediate and obvious, and Emilia finds herself slipping seamlessly into Morgan’s world.

Each woman knows this fling will end when Emilia returns to Boston at the end of the summer, but they’re unprepared for the intensity and depth of their attraction. And, as the gales of fall begin to drive leaves like spindrift upon Seal Cove, Morgan and Emilia must each come to terms with how much they’re willing to give up to stay together.

Content Warnings: past suicidality, death of a parent (off page), mentions of animal euthanasia

Anna Burke with her dog!Anna Burke was the inaugural recipient of the Sandra Moran Scholarship from the GCLS Writing Academy and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. Her queer feminist novel, Thorn, was named 2019 LGBTQ+ book of the year by Foreword Reviews. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can usually be found drinking tea or playing with her dogs.

You can find her as annaburkeauthor on Patreon, Instagram, Twitter, or on her website, annahburke.com.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Danika reviews Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen

Codi is in a rut. She has two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, and they’ve been doing the same things since they became friends in the 6th grade. Now she’s 17, and she’s sick of sitting in the basement and watching movies. All three of them are determined to make a change this summer, and maybe get their first kisses (Codi is a lesbian, Martiza is bi, and JaKory is gay). The only problem is that Maritza and JaKory seem to still see the shy, homebody Codi that she was as a kid, and don’t seem to believe that she can be anyone different. When Maritza calls Codi, drunk, and begs her to pick her up from a party, Codi reluctantly agrees. She doesn’t expect to run into one of the “cool kids” kissing another guy in the shadows outside. Ricky asks Codi to not tell anyone about the kiss, and she is drawn into his friend group–including Lydia, who she immediately crushes on. Now Codi is having a whole different summer, with partying, drinking, and skinny-dipping–and not telling her best friends anything about it.

I had a bit of a conflicted relationship with this book. I love that it’s a queer YA book about friendship, including having a bunch of different queer friends. I don’t think we see enough stories where queer people are friends and not just love interests. Codi’s attitude is completely understandable: she feels trapped by her best friends’ expectations of her, so she breaks out of them and doesn’t let them in. At the same time, though, Maritza and JaKory both encourage her to break out of her rut and she refuses, but then she gets angry at them for thinking that she’s in a rut.

She also judges herself for not partying, being a “real” teenager. Maybe me being a 30 year old teacher hurt my enjoyment of this book, but I was frustrated by the idea that the only right way to be a teenager is to act out a teen movie. Maybe I’m defensive because I’ve never been a drinking or partying type. This isn’t a flaw in the writing: it is acknowledged later in the book that there is no one right way to be a teenager, and that you shouldn’t feel like you have to act out some image of being a teenager.

Mostly, I just found it painful to watch Codi make these long, drawn-out mistakes. Her motivation is understandable, and it’s believable, but watching her sabotage some of her most important and long-lasting relationships wasn’t fun, especially when they could be solved with a few conversations. Codi and her friends are all complex and flawed characters, which means that they do hurt each other and make mistakes. I just didn’t find it personally enjoyable to go through chapter after chapter of Codi lying (or lying by omission) to her best friends.

My favourite part was the romance. Codi and Lydia become closer as friends, and then we see that dance around each other of not knowing if the other is interested or even if they’re straight. It felt real to me, seeing the slow, nervous progression of their relationship, including misunderstandings. Codi’s flustered reactions are all-too-relatable. They also have sweet, meaningful conversations–just the kind of exchanges I’d expect from the beginnings of a flirtation between two teenage girls. Their romance was definitely what I enjoyed the most.

The ending felt a little neat to me, especially considering how messy and drawn-out the tensions were between so many characters. There’s a bit of a time jump to explain this, but even still, I would have liked to see this honest conversation earlier so that we had more time to deal with the fallout. I understand why lots of people enjoy this one: it’s a great friendship book, it has a sweet romance, and it looks at the expectations and social pressures of being a teenager. Unfortunately, that plot element of Codi continually choosing to mislead her best friends soured the reading experience for me.

Carolina reviews The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

“People who say change is impossible are usually pretty happy with things just as they are.”

In today’s world, amidst the ongoing tensions caused by the fight for racial equality, isolation from the Coronavirus, and political dissent in the aftermath of a negligent administration, it seems that humanity is more divided than ever. N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became erases those arbitrary borders, and reminds us of the power of diversity and togetherness in the face of adversity and prejudice.

Each city is born, lives and dies. Now, it is New York City’s time to shine. Five individuals, all of varying creeds, races and identities wake up as the manifestation of New York’s boroughs: Brooklyn is a Black rapper turned politician, who fits in time as a single mom alongside her never-ending work for her community; Bronca, or the Bronx, is a Native lesbian who’s not afraid to use her steel-toed boots to protect her love for art; Aislyn of Staten Island is a troubled young woman, weighing her personal worth against her family’s traditional, conservative values; Padmini of Queens is a tech-savvy, happy-go-lucky South Asian immigrant; and Manhattan, or Manny, for short, has fallen head over heels for his city, and is determined to save his love. Brooklyn, Bronca, Aislyn, Manny and Padmini must put aside their struggles to become one New York City. Their task? Defeat a Lovecraftian ‘Karen’ who uses her xenophobic tentacle monsters to infect everyday New Yorkers with contemptuous paranoia, and drive citizen against citizen. This novel is a love letter to New York City, and what it represents: community, dreams and a can-do attitude.

Personally, the characters and their relationships are what makes the novel great. N.K. Jemisin creates characters that you can root for, but also criticize for their flaws, channeling inspiration from Sense8 and Good Omens. Characters clash and connect, and must put aside differences to understand and help one another. The diversity in this book allows the characters to feel like genuine New Yorkers, evocative of the melting pot of the city. Almost every character in the novel is a person of color and/or queer, and their identities influence their borough of the city, and the fight as a whole.

Bronca, the lesbian grandmother of our dreams, is bad-ass, ambitious and impassioned, determined to take no shit and pay it no mind. Bronca is a deeply flawed individual, prone to picking fights with others as a coping mechanism. She stood her ground at Stonewall, at Act-Up, and during today’s rise of right-wing ideology, she becomes the victim of a white supremacist smear campaign over the course of the novel. It is not until she realizes those around her love her and want to help her that she is able to rally her community around her and find justice in their compassion and empathy, demonstrating the importance of queer community.

N.K. Jemisin takes H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled horror monsters, and makes them her own, utilizing the Cthulu to dramatize the insidious nature of injustice at the heart of modern society. Jemisin’s subversion of Lovecraft allows her to topple a racist institution, and build a new one in its place. Today’s bigotry is dramatized in the form of The Woman in White: a wealthy white woman who gentrifies neighborhoods and disregards those who actually call them home. Jemisin calls out modern day prejudices in all degrees, from internet doxxing, to sideways glances and microaggressions, to outright disrespect and violence.

This is one of the most unique science-fiction novels I’ve read in a long time; it feels fresh and innovative, and dissects real, harsh truths in our society. It describes not only what it means to be a marginalized New Yorker, but what it means to be an American: the desire to fit in and band together as a diverse community, but having to face discrimination at your front door. N.K. Jemisin is THE science-fiction writer to look out for, as she combines the classic hallmarks of the genre with allusions to current events, imbuing her narratives with humor and candor. So, queue up Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer and buckle up for a wild romp around New York City.

Trigger Warnings: Racism, homophobia, hate crimes, use of slurs, gaslighting, white supremacist ideology, Nazi ideology

Landice reviews Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten

“I care about you, Alex. […] Part of me says you’re too good to be true, but the greater part of me says that if I give you a chance, you’ll be worth it.”

Remember Me, Synthetica by K. Aten is a fun new lesfic novel with sci-fi elements, available now from Regal Crest!

Normally I begin a review with my thoughts, but there’s so much to unpack in Remember Me, Synthetica that I decided to lead with the synopsis, for context.

Synopsis:

What happens when a woman loses her memory but gains a conscience?

Dr. Alexandra Turing is a roboticist whose intellect is unrivaled in the field of artificial intelligence. While science has always come easy, Alexandra struggles to understand emotional cues and responses. Driven by the legacy of her late great-uncle, she dedicates her life to the Synthetica project at her father’s company, Organic Advancement Solutions (OAS).

Her life is rebooted when she wakes from a coma six months after being struck by a car. Traumatic brain injury altered Alex’s senses, her memory, and her personality. Despite the changes, she feels reborn as she navigates her way back into her old life. Part of her new journey includes dating the alluring Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Emily St. John.

Emily is enamored with the hyper-intelligent scientist, but there are things about Alex and OAS that don’t add up. With Emily’s prompting, Alex undergoes testing that leaves her with more questions than answers. What she discovers changes more than her life, it will change the world around her.

Even with context, where to begin? Synthetica is unique in that it truly toes the line between romance and genre fiction without ever fully leaning in to one of the other. Yes, the adorable butch/femme relationship between Alex and Emily–which I couldn’t help but root for from the moment they met–gets a lot of “screentime,” but we also spend a lot of time learning about the various scientific ventures at OAS.

It’s obvious Aten put a lot of time and effort into her research into the more academic/scientific aspects of the novel, which I can definitely appreciate. Not all of the technology referenced or explained in Remember Me, Synthetica exists yet, but I couldn’t identify what exists vs. what Aten came up with herself if you paid me, which shows how seamlessly she managed to weave the science fiction elements into the story. At times the story did feel a bit weighted down by jargon, but I think the use of scientific terms was important for Alex’s characterization.

That being said, I would still be more apt to shelve Synthetica as a f/f romance than as a science fiction novel, if I had to choose between the two. I’ve begun describing Synthetica and other books in the same vein (like The Lily & The Crown by Roslyn Sinclair, which I also loved!) as “lesbian fiction novels with sci-fi themes/elements” because it feels more accurate.

In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that I had a lot of mixed feelings about Synthetica at first. It was definitely fun to read, but I found myself annoyed by some things that I thought were strange stylistic choices on the author’s part. At about 70% in, I began to panic. I’ve enjoyed much of Aten’s past work, and it felt like Synthetica was lacking her usual spark. My worry completely evaporated not long after, when she served up a plot twist of truly epic proportions! I won’t go into detail, because this is a book I wouldn’t dare spoil for potential readers, but I will say that once the plot twist hit, all of the things I’d disliked about the novel made complete sense, and no longer bothered me.

All of that is to say, if you pick up Synthetica, keep an open mind, and read it through to the end! Everything will make sense in time, and honestly, this book had the best ‘pay off’ of any novel I’ve read in a very long time. If you enjoy romance novels that are plot driven and thought provoking, Remember Me, Synthetica might be the book for you!

Remember Me, Synthetica At A Glance:

Genre: Lesbian Romance, Sci-fi/Speculative

Themes/Tropes: Butch/Femme, Opposites Attract, Second Chances

Sapphic Rep: Butch Lesbian MC, Bisexual Femme Love Interest

Own Voices? Yes

Content Warnings (CW): Head trauma/amnesia/other medical trauma, gaslighting

ARC Note: A huge thank you to Regal Crest and K. Aten for sending me an advance copy to review! All opinions are my own.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!

Danika reviews Red Rover by Liz Bugg and Land of Entrapment by Andi Marquette

I decided to review these in the same post because I have similar things to say about both of them.

My favourite thing about Red Rover is the queer elements. Not only is the main character a lesbian whose relationship is a side story in the novel, she also has ties to the queer community. Her best friend is a drag queen, and she looks for evidence in the queer community, including the queer clubs. She also asks for help from her ex-girlfriend. It’s nice to have a book that features queerness, not just in the individual, but in the community. In fact, I liked the descriptions of her neighborhood overall, which is unusual. I usually dislike a lot of descriptions of scenery and setting.

Although I liked most of the neighborhood description, I found some of the other descriptions a little long-winded. A pet peeve of mine in writing it when the author takes you by the hand to show you things, and this shows up sometimes in Red Rover, like explaining the emotions the protagonist is feeling when the dialogue pretty much speaks for itself.

I don’t read a lot of mystery because I tend to completely miss the hints and get lost halfway through. The plot of Red Rover kept me interested, so I never got to the point, but I predicted the “bad guy” very early on, which was a little disappointing.  I did like the plot overall, though the ending seemed fast-paced compared to the rest. I also liked the back story of Calli and her father and how it related to the plot.

Overall, I liked Red Rover, but I felt like it could have been better with some minor changes.

I liked the characters in Land of Entrapment. They were interesting and seemed really organic. The romance and friendships in the novel were complex and just seemed… natural. I really liked that.

I did have the same pet peeve crop up in this novel as in Red Rover, however: over-explaining. At some point, I remember every street and exit being named as the main character drove. This may be a flaw completely particular to me, however.

The subject matter is definitely interesting: neo Nazis. Drama! Suspense! But the plotting is a little uneven. It takes a little while to really get started. Once it does, however, Marquette seems to really know her subject matter, and the plot is engaging.

Again, this is a novel I liked overall, but there were some minor points that detracted from it.

Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde was kind enough to read Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with me, and then we discussed it together. I tried to mark the spoilers (ones just marked “spoilers” are just for Down to the Bone, and spoilers for other books are indicated) so that you have to highlight to read them. I’m sorry if you read the unedited version; it posted too quickly!

Danika: Hmm, I guess I’ll just throw out some general impressions and we can expand from there. Well, I was stunned by how fast-moving it is. The first chapter could stretch the whole novel for most of the lesbian teen books I’ve been reading. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a positive or negative for me. Not only do a lot of things happen in the book (which I like), but they all happen very quickly. There’s not really any room to absorb what’s happening. Of course, if she had spaced out the action, it would be a very, very long book.

I loved the culture in Down To the Bone (what’s with the title, anyway?). I’m so used to reading the same sort of story over and over (middle-class white girl come out), so I really appreciated getting this glimpse into Cuban culture in Miami (is that right, Miami?). The Spanish phrases thrown in flow perfectly, and I didn’t feel the need to consult the glossary at the back (actually, I didn’t realize it had one until I finished it).

It was also interesting to see the family dynamic. I spent the book hating her mother so much that I couldn’t understand why she would want to be around her. It’s also unusual that we have a story where the protagonist is thrown out of the house (which is something that happens way too often in real life, but is rarely represented in our novels), but she’s not actually homeless. She has these competing forces of a completely intolerant mother and classmates, but fantastic friends who are willing to take her in and take care of her, not to mention the brother that adores her.

I was on the fence about the representations of trans people in Down To the Bone. I appreciated that there was some mention, but at times it seemed disrespectful. I wish I could remember specific instances now, but it really was a whirlwind.

This is definitely completely different from Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin, and I’m really happy to see that diversity. I think its strength and weakness is that it does seem more true to real life. There’s so much going on, and a whole fleet of characters being introduced and leaving at any given point, which can be hard to follow and overwhelming, but it’s also more honest and relatable, maybe even more interesting.

Rie:Isn’t it just? I can’t believe how fast it moved, for how long it was, but I also didn’t want it to end. Some plot threads (whatever happened to El Gringo?)  did seem to wander off into the blue yonder, but life’s like that; sometimes your friend has a new boy for the blink of an eye. What struck me about the novel as a whole is that it’s very, for lack of a better word, teenager-y. Sure, they are excellent novels that have an authentic teen voice, this book really immersed me in the worldview of an actual teenager. Their days fly by, they love things passionately, they describe themselves by what they like. It’s a very endearing quality, though I do agree that sometimes I would have liked to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit.

In the very last paragraph, Laura says that she feels loved down to the bone. 😀 The original title was Act Natural after the scene where Tazer is talking about his friend’s screenplay. Mom discovers her daughter in bed with another girl, and one of them yells “Act natural! Act natural!” It’s a good title, but too subtle for teen readers, I think.

Doles got some criticism for the book, that the emotions ran too high and the story was too dramatic. What did you think? I can speak from personal experience, raised Italian-Roman-Catholic, that no, that’s not an exaggeration, not at all. My family is a little bit more open-minded:  they want me to ” Mother of God, Mary most holy, please marry a nice Italian girl, no more  mamadell’ puttannas [skanky bitches].”

Speaking of, wasn’t it interesting to read about a queer teen with such a strong support network? I read another coming-out book whose climax was much like this book’s opening, but she ended up in a home for gay teens that had been kicked out–even the school guidance counselor had a vendetta against her! There was something really comforting in reading about Laura making a new family with people who aren’t blood family. I also think it’s important to have a narrative where friend-family picks up when your blood family can’t be trusted because they stop loving you.

And how awesome was it that Laura [spoilers] stuck up for herself and said she’d continue her relationship with her little bro, no matter what? [/spoilers] They were so cute together and it broke my heart when he talked about how it was terrible that he couldn’t see her or her puppy, and he was being punished even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Regarding trans folk in Down to the Bone, when I got a little cranky about certain words and how they were used, what helped me was thinking of the story through Laura’s eyes instead of immediately thinking OMG MAYRA LAZARA DOLES IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. 😛 She’s 16 and completely new to the Miami queer scene, of course she doesn’t get that feminizing a genderqueer dude could be really disorienting for him. To his credit, Tazer took it in stride, and having him want to change for her showed his youth; don’t we all have the experience of wanting to be different for someone we really care about?

Also, how hot is Tazer? It’s been a couple years since the book came out, he’s legal now. 😀

Danika: I felt the same. When I picked it up I was like “Wow… that’s a big teen book”, but it really whipped along, and it could have even been longer. Yeah, exactly: it felt very true to real teen experiences, though that can be a little intimidating to rad.

Oooh, okay. That makes sense, I must have just missed it. I think I would have preferred Act Natural, but Down to the Bone works too. I thought that scene was hilarious.

Hmmm, it’s funny, because apparently Beth Goobie got some criticism for her book Hello, Groin (the last joint review I did) for being too cheery, which it really isn’t, since she spends the whole book struggling with her sexuality. I really don’t think you can win. The problem is that idea of the problem of one story. If you’re taking any book to be a representation of all people’s experiences, than it’s never going to live up to that. But if you take it as just one story of many, it makes more sense. I think that it’s an exaggeration for some people, but totally accurate for others, and since we so rarely see those stories (being kicked out when you come out, having a Cuban and Catholic family), I think it’s really important to represent that side of things. Some people are genuinely that emotional, and there’s no reason that their story shouldn’t be told. Besides, I got a definite semi-autobiographical scent off Down to the Bone, so I doubt Dole’s story is far off from her own (she’s also originally from Cuba and moved to Miami).

Yes, I thought that was really interesting. It was a good balance, because we got the story of “What if your parent/s don’t take it well? What if you get kicked out? What if they never come around?” without having it turn to utter despair. And considering how sickeningly often that happens to queer kids, I love that Down to the Bone offered an alternation to “blood” family, showing that there is more than one place to find safety and community. I’m definitely of the belief that “blood” is not nearly as important as how you are treated. I see stories about people who just keep coming back and begging for their intolerant families to accept them, and it makes me sad, because they deserve better. You’re right, it’s a good representation of chosen family, and of how you can find acceptance and community where you aren’t expecting it (Soli’s mom has a similar religious and cultural background as Laura’s mom, but doesn’t think it’s in opposition to accepting Laura).

Aaaww, I know, the little brother part was so hard, because I wanted her to just ditch her mom, but she loved her little brother so much! [spoilers] I’m glad she refused to compromise there and realized her own strength. [/spoilers]

It’s true, it does make more sense when you realize that Laura is unsure of what she’s talking about, but it still was a little flinch-worthy at times. Yes, it totally makes sense that Tazer would be willing to compromise a bit because he likes Laura. He was really laid back about everything, actually, far more than I would be. (You don’t want to be seen with me in public?! No, I’m not going to just put up with that.)

Rie: It’s funny–if you go back over the text with the original title in mind, you can see characters making comments about acting natural or what is natural and what’s good, and why people believe different things.

I’ve just read Hello, Groin myself (and Annie on My Mind is an old friend), so I’ve been thinking about the three protagonists, all lesbian, all around the same age, and how they approached their sexuality. It’s remarkable how much of a difference almost 30 years makes, no? But at the same time, how sad that teens still struggle with the same issues. Laura, for all of her insecurity about her sexuality, seems to be the most self-aware of the three. She has a very solid sense of who she is, and what she wants. Her comments about how Tazer is too sexually and emotionally agressive, and how she wants an equal partnership in bed and out of it, just floored me. It’s a very mature distinction to make in a relationship. Dylan has a healthier, more progressive awareness of queer sexuality itself, but Laura is more mature overall, more than likely from dealing with the death of her father and taking care of her family while her mother worked three jobs.
 
Speaking of, I saw the death of her father being one of the main reasons why she wanted to go back to her family, that unspoken feeling that her family was broken enough, and she didn’t want to lose what she had left. It does not excuse her mother’s behavior, but I understand why Laura was so desperate to seek her approval, especially since it seemed like she had a pretty decent relationship with her Mami before she found out.
 
Can we talk about Laura, Liza, and Dylan, and their choice in partners? [spoilers for Hello Groin, Annie On My Mind, and Down to the Bone] All three books end with the protagonist happily paired off, and [/spoilers] the relationships themselves have some striking similarities, but also key differences. Laura, for all her maturity, has a very [spoilers for Down to the Bone and Annie On My Mind] Liza-and-Annie storybook relationship with Gisela [/spoilers], while Dylan [spoilers for Hello, Groin] got together with her best friend, only now they kiss. [/spoilers] To be honest, I never quite saw what Dylan saw in Joc; she’s an old and true friend, but Dylan is such a curious, intelligent girl and Joc is kind of a flake (though I much admire her bravery and championing of the underdog, which happened a few times in Hello, Groin.).

Danika: Ooh, I’d like to re-read it with that in mind. Fascinating.

Oh good! I’m glad we can compare them, then! Hmm, I’m not sure which one I would consider the most mature… Laura does seem very self-aware, but all three of them are pretty introspective. Dylan is more aware of queer sexuality than Liza and Laura, maybe, but I think Laura is the only one to really find any sort of home in the queer community. Yes, Liza [spoilers for Annie On My Mind] has mentors in the teachers [/spoilers], but other than books, the community doesn’t really get any larger than that. Dylan is aware of the queer community, but rejects it, and never even seeks out queer media. She and Liza both seem to come at it from a place of “this is just who I am, it’s a very personal thing”, whereas Laura starts out that way but then becomes more aware of the queer community and seems to begin to reconcile that individual nature of being queer with being part of a queer community. I think that integration, the individual approach, is a perfectly valid thing to do, but I did like that Laura had a better opinion of the community aspect as well.

I hadn’t considered that, but that’s a very good point. That would definitely influence how her and her mother reacted. Her Mami would be trying to cling onto some semblance of a “normal” family and balk at any violation of that, and Laura wouldn’t want to further splinter her family. That makes a lot of sense.

[spoilers] Yes, I think the happily-paired-off ending is still mandatory in queer-positive teen books. We’re still getting over lesbian pulps’ endings. [/spoilers] I also was sort of puzzled by Dylan’s adoration of Joc. She has her moments, but she could also be pretty harsh. I think I just decided that the Joc featured in most of the book was different from the Joc that Dylan had started liking, because Joc was so deeply closeted (it really can eat away at you), and Dylan could still see the real Joc through that. [spoilers for all three] It’s funny, I think in all of the endings, you’re not really sure if it will work out. I mean, Joc seems pretty unstable, Annie and Liza went through this big traumatic experience and stopped speaking to each other for a while, and Laura just has this mysterious attraction to Giselle. We’re told characteristics about Giselle that seem like they would fit with Laura, but we don’t really get a chance to see them acted. It makes sense to end them that way, though, because most of us don’t end up with our high school sweethearts, but it is interesting. [/spoilers]

Rie: Community is something I thought about rereading this book, and thinking back over the lesbian YA lit that I’ve read. Down to the Bone really shines in showing that a queer community can be a really positive and empowering to experience. A lot of teen books have protagonists that are very “Oh, I’m a lesbian, but I’m just normal,I don’t need to hang out with other queer folk.” I can see how this is important to teenagers, who want to be just NORMAL, but I think that it also perpetuates the idea that hetero culture is what’s normal/the default. My outlook vastly improved when I discovered media about woman-loving women, and I think that having friends that are queer and connecting with other queer youth is a healthy and good thing. Laura was skeptical, of course, because of her upbringing, but she did seem to respect (and be a little jealous of) Tazer’s strong community bonds, and how well Soli slipped in as an ally and friend to the gay scene in Miami.

One really cute line was when Laura mentioned that she wished there was a club for lesbians to hang out and talk about books, art, activism and the environment in a really chill setting. I often wish the same thing!

A plot thread that I wish had some resolution was [spoilers] the fate of Marlena. She’s now presumably stuck in a loveless marriage, trying her damndest to be somebody that she’s not to keep her family’s love and acceptance. And she’s so young! You’d think that Paco would have brought up how their marriage was going, seeing how close he was to Marlena’s dad, so it’s odd that she’s never mentioned again after the wedding.

What did you think about Laura  dropping out of school to become a full-time gardener? I very much liked an alternative narrative (that Laura could have a fulfilling job without going to college), but wonder if it could build false hopes for young readers. After all, Laura was lucky in that she was close to Paco because of Marlena, and that she had a gift for landscape design. [/spoilers]

Danika: Yes, Down To the Bone’s positive portrayal of queer community is really one you don’t see much in other teen lesbian books. We’ve heard that line “We’re just like everyone else” so much that I think it can be damaging when we try to form queer communities, but “we’re the same as you” isn’t really true, for a variety of reasons. And you’re right, whether you find queer culture through the internet, books, movies, other media, or real life, it is often one of the first steps in really coming to terms with being queer. It’s hugely important (hence my obsession with lesbian books).

That was adorable. My girlfriend tried starting a lesbian club once… it quickly imploded in lesbian drama, which I wish was always just an inaccurate stereotype.

[spoilers] Yeah, it is odd that Marlena drops off the face of the planet, but I don’t what else could really be done with her character. She refused to talk to Laura anymore, and the rest of her story is implied: she fakes it in a loveless marriage. It is odd that the author decided to keep Laura connected to Marlena’s family, though. It creates this sort of suspense the whole book that never really amounts to anything.

I was surprised that she never went back to school, but Down To the Bone has so many “alternative” stories that I don’t think any of them can really be taken as something the author is pushing; they all just seem to be Laura’s individual life, not an experience that can be generalized. [/spoilers]

Any final thoughts on Down To the Bone? I’m really glad you recommended we read it. Thanks for discussing it with me; this was really interesting!

Rie: I think that’s a good note to end on!

Have you read Down to the Bone? What did you think of it?

 

Danika reviews Crocodile Soup by Julia Darling

The blurbs and back cover of this book, I think, completely misrepresent its tone. The back cover seems to imply zany fun times, but though Crocodile Soup is written with humor, I wouldn’t really call it chipper.

The main character, Gert, is a lesbian and the present time plot of the story is mostly about her trying to woo a coworker, but this definitely takes a backseat to Gert’s childhood and family. Crocodile Soup is told in very short chapters, usually only a couple pages each, switching between the present and flashbacks leading you through her childhood. Gert and her twin brother were mostly left to their own devices as kids, leading them to both spiral out wildly in different directions. When present-day Gert starts getting letters from her mother, she has to deal with old memories.

Crocodile Soup deals with a lot of fabulism. Some small, magic-ish things happen, and it’s unclear whether they actually happened, or if they’re metaphors, or if–as suggested by her brother at some point–Gert just has a tendency to exaggerate.

Gert, both in her childhood and in her present life, has difficulty finding direction or purpose. It gives the book a bit of a melancholy feel, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I was liking it most of the way through. By the end, though, I think I did find it worth keeping. Crocodile Soup is definitely intriguing; it was one of those books that when I finished it, I immediately wanted to re-read it from the perspective of what I then knew.

Have you read Crocodile Soup? What did you think of it? Have you ever read a book that was completely different in tone than what you were expecting?