Danika reviews Fresh by Margot Wood

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I picked up Fresh when I was in a bit of a reading slump, and in the first few pages, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It definitely has a distinct voice. It’s a first person point of view, and it sure sounds like a college freshman telling you a story–which is exactly what this is. It’s Elliot’s first year of university: how she messed it up, and how she tried to rebuild. She’s a little ridiculous, and she has lots of silly asides, including footnotes. It’s a style that will immediately turn some people off and pull others in. Once I bought in, I loved it, and I ended up reading it in two days–so much for that reading slump.

This is loosely inspired by Emma–if Emma was a bisexual girl with ADHD who went to an artsy college but is mainly interested in getting laid. Her family is wealthy, so she’s not too concerned about getting the most out of her education. She likes sex–but not commitment. Her high school relationship ended in heartbreak and humiliation, so she’s strictly casual now. The only assignment she puts any real thought into is an essay for her Sex and Intimacy class (did I mention it’s an artsy school?), where she embarks on a personal quest to sleep with a ton of people to try to find truly Good Sex–and then write about it.

A lot of people (especially on TikTok) are looking for more queer new adult books: books about the beginning years of college and/or just leaving high school, when you’re not quite a fully-fledged adult, but YA no longer reflects your experience. This definitely isn’t my experience with university, which involved still living at home and working to pay for tuition, but it’s certainly somebody’s! It’s got classic sloppy partying scenes and, as mentioned, a lot of casual hookups. Although there is a lot of talk about sex in Fresh, it’s not an erotic or steamy read. Sex is treated very matter of factly, and Elliot doesn’t give it a lot of weight.

I really enjoyed reading about a character who messes up so much. That’s where the Emma comparison comes in: she tries to set up her friend, determined that she knows what’s best for her, without realizing that her own life is very much not together. She’s afraid of intimacy and has no direction. She has no goals for her future, she’s not trying in any of her classes (and also not signing up for serious/useful classes), and she’s also not being a great friend. It doesn’t take long before it all blows up in her face.

I do want to give some clear content warning for both sexual assault and slut shaming. Elliot isn’t treating people well–she’s ghosting her hookups, and they’re not always aware that she only wants something casual–and that gets tangled up in general cultural shaming around women having casual sex (especially bisexual women). It’s clear from context that the slut shaming sentiment is wrong, but it’s not clearly defined. Similarly, while one character treats the attempted sexual assault very seriously (as does Elliot), not every character does, and it also gets mixed up with other things. I don’t think that’s a fault of the writing, necessarily, but I think readers should be aware of that going in.

Despite Elliot’s intimacy issues, there is also a romantic subplot, full of yearning, miscommunication, and a touch of the enemies to painful crush pipeline.

Overall, I thought this was such an absorbing, entertaining read, and I think it’s much-needed for new adult readers. Meanwhile, us older and wiser readers will be shaking our heads fondly at the rollercoaster of college relationships. I definitely never stopped hating the term “tender chicken,” which is used a lot in this book, and really spotlights how not erotic the descriptions of sex are, but I managed to get over that, and I’m grateful for it breaking through my reading slump. If you’re looking for a fun, silly, fast read–or queer new adult about college!–I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Mallory Lass reviews Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko TamakiCW: teen pregnancy & abortion, minor homophobia.

I fell in love with Tamaki’s writing in female helmed superhero comics like She-Hulk. I was over the moon to hear she had a queer graphic novel coming out, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is packed with queer representation.

Frederica “Freddy” Riley is an average high school student in Berkeley, CA and is in a relationship that reminded me of my first year of college, to the dawn of Facebook’s “it’s complicated” status. As it says on the tin, her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her.

Laura Dean is aloof and popular–actually, she might be the most popular girl in school. I would also call her a player. Our first introduction to her is Freddy walking in on her making out with another girl at a school dance. She is always dropping in on her own timeline and jetting off in a hurry without regard for anyone else. But there is just something about her Freddy can’t quit.

I find graphic novels often are an easy to read and quickly consumable format. Coming from the colorful world of comics, the black and white illustration style of this took a touch to get used to, but Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations are gorgeous and full of diverse bodies, races, and personal styles. The one complaint I have about the formatting is sometimes the dialogue bubbles are hard to track and there is a lot of directional gymnastics, which slowed me down and detracted from the story. That said, the intrigue and page turning quality came from wanting to know how Freddy was going to resolve the mess of a relationship she had with Laura.

Freddie has a fantastic squad. Eric and Buddy, friends who are also a gay couple, best friend Doodle, plus other queers like newfound friend Val, and her boss at Gertrude’s cafe make up the lovely supporting cast. I enjoyed how the story explored how relationships that have toxic elements end up having a ripple effect throughout your life, and that Freddie has the opportunity to change the course she’s headed down.

Along Freddie’s journey to resolve her relationship issues, Tamaki seamlessly works in relevant teen topics such as: consent; contraceptives; what it means to come out and the consequences queer people have faced for living life openly; teen pregnancy & abortion; and friendships as primary relationships. Tamaki integrates cell phones and texting into the story in a way that reflects reality but doesn’t seem like social commentary on technology.

The dialogue felt real and lived in, and I would have loved to find this book at 17. If you like graphic novels, and/or Tamaki’s other work I would definitely give this a read. If you know anyone under 20 who has come out or is struggle with navigating their late teens, this would make a great gift.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Danika reviews Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

juliettakesabreathI don’t usually buy new releases. I acquire so many books that I tend to stick to used books and the library for new acquisitions. But when the reviews for Juliet Takes a Breath began to pour in, I couldn’t resist! I bought it brand new and moved it to the corner of my dresser, ready to be the next book I picked up. And then it sat there for about six months.

In that time, I heard more and more of the book blogs and vlogs I follow mention Juliet, almost always positively. But somewhere along the line the hype began to have the opposite effect. What if I was one of the few that didn’t like it? And then how would I even talk about it? I wanted to like it so much that I was afraid to actually read it in case it disappointed me. It wasn’t until booktube started the #diverseathon that I decided to finally take the leap and pick it. (“Finally!” My partner said. “I  feel like I’ve been hearing about that book every day for our entire relationship!”)

As usual, my nervousness was completely unfounded. I can see why so many people fell in love with this book, and I can only agree. It may not be for everyone–its focus on feminist politics and how they intersect with race and other factors will feel unfamiliar to some readers–but I thought it did a fantastic job with that focus.

This is a coming of age story about Juliet, who’s just had her eyes opened to feminist ideals by a book titled Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind. She’s so blown away by this book that she writes a letter to the author and lands an internship with her. She hops on a plane and arrives in the alien world of Portland, Oregon: a very different place from the Bronx.

There are lots of things going on in this book, but what stuck with me is its recognition that people are complicated and flawed. You can have some things figured out and get others completely, devastatingly wrong. And it’s up to us to decide which people are worth sticking with despite their fuck-ups and which people are toxic for us despite the things they get right. I think that’s such an important and affirming thing to see in a book about social justice.

This also really captures the feeling of diving into feminism and social justice and just getting hit with waves of information that are counter to what you’ve been taught to believe, and the overwhelming process of trying to sift through all of these ideas and find what makes sense to you, what you’re not able to wrap your head around yet, and what’s actually hate wrapped up in the right vocabulary. There’s a lot of theory and discussion in this book, and that makes sense for what it’s addressing.

I loved this book, and I can’t wait for Gabby Rivera’s next one.

Danika reviews (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki

YouSetMeOnFire

This is a story about college, about fire, and also about love.

Before going to college at the age of seventeen, I’d been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad).

From the first two lines of (You) Set Me On Fire, I was hooked. This reads like how a college student really would tell about their disastrous first year. It’s casual, but compelling. The main character, Allison, has had a rough time in high school, and is relieved to find a friend (and possible romance interest?) in her new school, even if that friend is kind of a jerk.

I’m conflicted about this book because I loved the writing style, and I found Allison an interesting main character, and I thought the relationship between Allison and Shar was realistic–but that was the problem. Allison has this toxic friendship (relationship?) with Shar that felt so true to life that it was painful to read about. I desperately wanted better for her, but Allison isn’t a perfect person, either.

I don’t think that I can properly articulate my reaction to this book. Much like my experience reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (though they are very different books), I found the reading experience uncomfortable because that experience is so skillfully described. If you’re willing to experience some second-hand discomfort and a reminder of the horrors of being 17, pick up (You) Set Me On Fire.

Also check out Casey’s (more well thought out) review!