Danika reviews Frenemy of the People by Nora Olsen



This is the third Nora Olsen book I’ve read, after Swans & Klons and The EndBoth of those I felt had great premises and some strong elements, but they fell a little short of my expectations. Frenemy of the People is a different genre (contemporary) than those, and I had heard good things about it from the Bisexual Books tumblr, so I was cautiously optimistic going into it. Bisexual Books said that it was like The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George, which I enjoyed for the most part, but without the biphobia. I can understand the comparison. These two books have very similar storylines: popular bisexual girl and outsider activist lesbian navigate between being rivals and love interests. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the story nearly as compelling as The Difference Between You and Me.

For one thing, I thought the main characters were absolutely insufferable, Lexie (the activist) especially. Both of them say offensive things, including Lexie using the slur “r******d”, though she’s called out on it and apologizes. She also says some pretty biphobic stuff. It may be realistic that there are teenagers that act as irritating and superior as these two do, but they definitely felt like the least likable characters I’ve read in a long time. On top of this, the writing feels weak, and the dialogue clumsy at times. [spoilers] There was also one part, when Lexie and Clarissa have just started going out, when Clarissa finds out her horse has been sold and that Lexie’s parents bought her a horse. Obviously, it’s the same horse. Realistically, this is an awesome coincidence. Now you can go ride your old horse whenever you want! But no, instead Clarissa blows up at Lexie (even though she had nothing to do with it) and they break up. It was such unnecessary drama for the sake of it. [end of spoilers] A lot of the plot also revolves around mortgages, and the explanations got a little over-the-top at times for this young adult novel.

There are some strong moments, though. Desi, Clarissa’s sister with Down’s syndrome, was probably my favourite character in the book. She’s a well-rounded character, and I liked how she used people’s misconceptions of her to her advantage. One of my favourite lines of the book was when she convinces the pizza place to have a Desi for Queen special. When Lexie calls this strategy brilliant, Desi responds with “That’s why I should [spoilers] drive the bulldozer. Brains, beauty, and pizza.” The subplots to Frenemy of the State and side characters seem to be stronger than the central ones. There were minor characters that seemed intriguing, and details that worked very well (like Lexie being passionate about butterflies, to the point that she performs “surgery” on injured butterflies so they can fly properly). I found that with Nora Olsen’s other books as well: the things in the background seemed to be working well, but the main storyline didn’t.

I did like the ending, however. It was definitely not what I was expecting. And I found that Clarissa and Lexie’s irritating qualities definitely lessened as the book went on. They did improve each other. After reading three of Nora Olsen’s books, though, I think have to accept that this is not the author for me.

Anna M reviews Frenemy of the People by Nora Olsen


Frenemy of the People is a YA novel by Nora Olsen, who wrote the YA science fiction novel Swans & Klons (also on my to be read list).

Lexie, the daughter of two disinterested business executives, spends her time doing all she can to resist The Man. She’s a self-styled punk rock rebel–a vegan out lesbian and dumpster-diving, sheeple-loathing activist. She hates everything so much that she’s doing her best to get into a college that accepts kids who want to skip the end of high school.

Clarissa’s family exceeded its modest income by purchasing a luxurious house with a bad mortgage and compounding it with more ill-conceived debt. As a result, Clarissa’s seemingly idyllic life is now crumbling. Her beloved horse is sold without her knowledge and her sister with Down Syndrome is single-mindedly pursuing a campaign to be homecoming queen. She’s also had the sudden realization that she’s bisexual, which prompts her to found a gay-straight alliance at the high school.

The narration alternates between the two girls’ points of view. The reader is told by both Clarissa and Lexie that they dislike one another intensely, but their antipathy doesn’t really seem that strong, and it’s pretty easily overcome after they start working together on Desi’s campaign. Soon, Lexie and Clarissa find themselves developing feelings for one another. Lexie uses knowledge gained from her investment banker parents to advise Clarissa in the face of the bank’s imminent foreclosure on her family’s home, but (naturally) obstacles arise in the path of their romance.

On the whole, I enjoyed the story and was interested in seeing it through to the end. I appreciated that Desi seemed like a real, three-dimensional character rather than a handy plot accessory. The scenes where Clarissa was thinking about or interacting with her sister were among my favorite, along with those where the characters were allowed to air their quirks. I’m not sure the story was believable, but I didn’t end up caring too much. There was an oddly detailed amount of information about the mortgage crisis and foreclosures and so on, so much that it sometimes seemed to veer into nonfiction. If you like this type of YA setting, try Sister Mischief by Laura Goode.

Danika reviews The End by Nora Olsen


I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. First of all: “Five queer kids save the world”. What better tagline is there? And I love the cover. To begin with, we meet each of these kids briefly in 2009. Each scene ends with an intriguing line something like “They wouldn’t see ____ again until 2014.” After that, we skip to 2014, when nuclear war has broken out. It is wiping out most of the human race. But, of course, our main characters are survivors, partially to do with some of them having magical amulets. Which is interesting, because it turns out that The End is a Fantasy novel. The nuclear apocalypse is caused by a squabble between two gods. The tone shift between this and the destruction on Earth is a little bit jarring, and overall it didn’t quite match up for me.

I liked the premise of this book (though the gods bit was unexpected, especially Muldoona and her Frotress of Despair), and most of the characters. Skilly is over five thousand years old, thanks to his amulet. He is bisexual, and has had to watch everyone he’s ever loved die. The concept is interesting, and he seemed to be a realistic result of that background. Then we have Julia, who I can’t seem to describe succinctly, but I really liked her. And Marley, who was locked in a juvenile detention facility when the end of the world started, and is another favourite character of mine. Vikki is a childhood friend of Julia’s, and is a survivor of not only the apocalypse but also eating disorders and a dysfunctional home. And then there’s Ginger, who seemed completely underdeveloped. She is the other bisexual character. After reading the Bisexual Books tumblr, especially their review of The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the portrayal of bisexuals in the queer books I read. Unfortunately, I’m not sure The End handles this representation very well. Ginger ends up almost completely unlikeable, and [spoilers, highlight to read] her magical power is “sex appeal”. Oh wait, never mind, it’s “persuasion”. So she’s really good at manipulating people. Worse, she betrays the whole group, though she goes on to sacrifice herself for them as well. [end spoilers] Skilly also ends up pretty unlikeable.

Other than that, I felt like the ending was a little anticlimactic, and also left with some unanswered questions. I loved the premise and the beginning, but between the tonal shifts, the representation of bisexuals, and the lackluster ending, I felt disappointed. I still liked it, but not as much as I wanted to. (Which is similar to how I felt about her other book Swans & Klons, so it makes sense.)

Danika reviews Swans & Klons by Nora Olsen


Teen dystopian is a huge genre right now, and I’m used to getting engrossed in giant trilogies contained in it (like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Chaos Walking–sadly, all nonlesbian). Compared to that, a 186-page novel is practically a short story. And Swans & Klons definitely has enough going on that it could have been stretched into several books with a little padding and expanding on concepts, but there is something refreshing about the conciseness of this book. First, we are introduced to the world. Rubric lives in a dystopian future society populated entirely by women (men of the past were all struck with “cretenism”). People are grown in vats in a laboratory, all picked from 300 “Jeepies” (from GP: genotype/phenotype), which are sets of DNA. Society is divided into further types, however: Pannas (women) and Klons: non-human slaves. The beginning couple of chapters set up the world, and then the action begins. This is definitely a quick read.

I’m still not sure exactly what I think of Swans & Klons. It sometimes felt like more of a parody or though experiment than a world to itself, especially the description of men. For instance, a description in a textbook is “The Barbarous Ones . . . [are] peopled by drooling, hairy Cretinous males.” At first I thought the idea of “cretinous males” was hilarious, like men just became more and more distasteful until no one wanted to have to have sex with them to reproduce. [mild spoilers] But when we are introduced to “Cretinous males,” they are men who have severe mental disabilities. The “Barbarous” society they live in don’t describe them or treat them in this way, but there is lots of ableist language and attitudes expressed in the book. Even when Salmon Jo is trying to be understanding, she says that she sees the value in these men because they help you discover more about yourself, and that’s why they’re an asset, it still seemed pretty dismissive of these people’s value in themselves. I’m not sure about their role in the “Barbarous” society, where all men have these disabilities. In some ways it did seem respectful, but I still felt a little uncomfortable–I guess because they’re still seen as a separate class, perceived as innocent, childlike, etc. I’d like to hear other people’s opinions about this aspect. [end spoilers]

I did like that Rubric and her “schatzie” (or “girlfriend”; there is a lot of slang in Swans & Klons, which for the most part I liked, other than “cretinous males” and “barbarous ones”, which doesn’t sound realistic) struggle with their newfound disgust with the way their society is structured. They wonder whether it’s worth fighting a seemingly impossible battle, whether things are really as bad as they think, whether the “other side” is really any better, etc. Revolution is not an easy or peaceful process. Even trying to imagine or work towards it is messy and exhausting. I liked that Swans & Klons didn’t offer easy answers.

There were a lot of things to think about brought up in this book, and because it’s so short, they aren’t addressed in depth. For example, everyone in Society is cloned from one of 300 sets of DNA, meaning that many people have identical DNA. It is assumed that this will determine your personality to a large extent. Once a Panna (woman, not Klon) turns 16, she is paired up with an older person of her same Jeepie. The older Panna mentors the younger one. Jeepies usually are grouped in the same jobs. Klons have the same Jeepies, but they are second-class citizens, altered to not be human, to be less intelligent, more hardworking, etc. They do all of the manual labour and child rearing, leaving Panna to artistic and prestigious jobs. Society definitely reinforces that your genes determine your future, but it is unclear to which extent the book as a whole agrees with that assessment. I do feel like Swans & Klons has a whole world imagined, but we do just see glimpses of some part of it.

[vague spoilers about ending, highlight to read] At first I really thought we were going to get a 1984-esque ending, which actually would have been pretty cool. Some part of the end might seem a little too neat for some people, but I was surprised. And at the very end, I liked the none-of-the-above, open-ended conclusion. It left some questions, and there is definitely a whole other story ahead of them (not one that’s going to be, or necessarily needs to be, written, but still), but I found it to be satisfying, especially considering how ambitious it is to fit a story about a whole dystopian society into such a slim book. [end spoilers]

Despite some reservations, I did enjoy this book, and I would recommend it with those caveats. I would love to hear other people’s opinions on this one! It is nice to have a lesbian teen dystopia, that’s for sure. Hopefully there are more on the way!