A Hilarious and Sweet High School Love Triangle: Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa

the cover of Belle of the Ball

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In the graphic novel Belle of the Ball, Brazilian author and illustrator Mari Costa treats us to a charming, sweet, and funny story of a high school love triangle between a nerdy wallflower, a charming jock, and an overly driven cheerleader.

When Belle Hawkins (who goes by her last name), school mascot and super shy wallflower, finally works up the courage to ask her crush, the super beautiful, super smart, and super popular cheerleader Regina Moreno, to the school dance, things don’t go particularly well. For starters, she forgets to take off the big cat head she’s wearing as part of her costume. Even worse, Regina has a girlfriend, the star athlete Chloe Kitigawa, who just so happens to show up right at that moment and threaten Hawkins to never talk to her girlfriend again. While both Hawkins and Chloe hope that that is the last time they see each other, fate has other plans. Later that day, Regina finds out that Chloe is failing English, which does not fit in with her 10 year plan for their lives. Regina decides to get Chloe a tutor. She sees Hawkins’s profile on a tutoring service website and comes up with a devious plan: play nice and ask Hawkins to tutor Chloe for free. 

Initially, Regina’s plans work well. Hawkins jumps at the chance to tutor Chloe to impress Regina. Chloe, despite being stubborn and a bit of a jerk to Hawkins, decides to play along. That all changes, though, when Chloe remembers who Hawkins is. Long before Hawkins decided to start hiding who she was (and going by Hawkins instead of her first name), she and Chloe were close friends, with Hawkins perpetually dressed as a princess and leading Chloe on adventures. As their tutoring sessions continue and they spend more and more time together, old feelings between the two resurface and a romance begins to bloom. However, with Regina still in the picture, things are complicated and they can’t admit their true feelings.

I really liked Mari Costa’s writing. For starters, I love the main characters and the journeys Mari takes them on in the book. While they all start as stereotypical high school archetypes, there is so much more depth to them over time. Hawkins starts as your typical shy nerdy wallflower. She sits the other nerdy kids in school, but never has the courage to join in. She’d rather wear her mascot head than be seen. However, as the story progresses, she begins to have the courage to open up and let people see who she truly is, thanks in no small part to Chloe. Chloe appears at first to be your stereotypical jock, but by the end you see that she has her own nerdy side and is actually very sweet and charming. I loved the interactions between Hawkins and Chloe as their relationship develops. The antagonism between them (mostly coming from Chloe) goes from mean-spirited to playful and sweet. They go from being two people stuck with one another because someone else made them do it to two people who genuinely care for one another and want to be around each other as much as possible.

And then there’s Regina. Initially, I didn’t care for Regina. She comes off as very selfish and full of herself at the beginning of the book. Her conversations are often all about her and how smart, beautiful, and talented she is. When talking about their relationship with Chloe, Regina routinely frames it around her own goals and her own needs, putting Chloe’s second. With Hawkins, most of their dynamic revolves around receiving praise from Hawkins or asking Hawkins to do things for her. However, as the story progresses, she slowly begins to realize her flaws and make small changes for the better. While I still didn’t become her biggest fan by the end of the book and I still see room for her to grow, I did come around on her at least a little. 

Mari’s art in this book is also outstanding. I really appreciated the unique color palette of the book, with Mari choosing to keep everything in black, white, and shades of red and pink. The pacing of her panels is also fluid. Not once did I get confused as my eyes moved from panel to panel. Mari uses her art to full comedic effect, with multiple awkward momsents illustrated hilariously. A special mention needs to be said for how she used Hawkins’ mascot head, this giant cat head, in several scenes. For me, though, the best thing about the art in this book was how Mari illustrated facial expressions, from over the top manga-style illustrations to emphasize character emotions to more subtle illustrations to show the character’s inner thoughts. It all really worked for me and made the character’s emotions and thoughts crystal clear. I really think that this helped the most with Chloe, the quietest of the three protagonists. There are pages in which she says maybe two lines of dialogue, but her eye movements and facial expressions say so much more. 

I only have two minor complaints about this book. First, I would have liked to see more of Regina’s arc. I feel like a lot of it gets left to the last chapter and is fairly short. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work or that it’s sudden: you do see how she goes from selfish and stuck-up to a better friend to Chloe and Hawkins, and it does make sense. I just wish I saw more of it. Second, I wish there had been more about what happened to Hawkins that made her hide herself away so much. It’s hinted that something happened that made her go from Belle, dressed like a princess as much as possible, to Hawkins, hidden away in more androgynous clothes. Still, we get nothing more than “high school happened”, which, granted, is believable. 

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this graphic novel. If you’re looking for a sweet, funny, and light-hearted high school romance, I highly recommend it.       

Jamie Rose is a trans woman living in Florida (so you can imagine how that’s going right now). She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and teaches courses in language learning and teaching. A lover of stories, she enjoys reading both comic books/graphic novels and the ones without pictures. Her favorite genres are contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, superheroes, and comedy. When she’s not reading or working, she’s usually playing table-top games or video games, binging YouTube videos, or spending time with her wife and daughter. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads at @jamiegeeksout. 

A Queer, Angry Take on Doctor Who: The Infinite Miles by Hannah Fergesen

the cover of The Infinite Miles

This was such a let down.

I used to be a big fan of Doctor Who (see my review of Queers Dig Time Lords) and am currently trying to catch up on the newest seasons. So when I saw a queer sci-fi book coming out that drew inspiration from Doctor Who, it sounded like the perfect entertaining audiobook listen. 

When I read the description, it seemed even more fun. The Doctor character, the Argonaut, doubled as a David Bowie-esque singer! Instead of the Tardis, there’s Argo, a shapeshifting sentient spaceship that is often a muscle car. The main character, Harper, and her best friends Peggy, were huge fans of the TV show Infinite Voyage, until the real-life Argonaut swept Peggy away for adventure, leaving Harper behind. When Peggy is taken over by a dangerous alien parasite called the Incarnate, Harper has to join the Argonaut to save Peggy and the universe with the power of love!

Each of these components sounds like a wacky space adventure that matches the fun of watching an old Doctor Who episode. The problem is that despite all of this, the tone is decidedly dour. Harper is an angry, resentful main character. She hates the Argonaut for getting Peggy into this situation. She is still angry that Peggy left to go on an adventure with their shared hero without telling her.

The Argonaut brings no more levity to the situation. He feels guilty for what happened to Peggy, and he’s given up on being able to help anyone. When Harper and the Argonaut meet, they have one conversation before he abandons her in the 1970s “for her own safety,” to Harper’s fury. She then scrambles to survive, try to find a way out, and search for answers of how to help Peggy.

This ended up feeling like a slog to me, especially because I was expecting a romp through space and time. Maybe this is better suited to Doctor Who fans who preferred the Matt Smith run. 

Then, because this is the Lesbrary, we have to address the queer content, because I spent 80% of the book not sure if it had a queer main character. We do get a single chapter from the Argonaut’s perspective, where we see his background, which was my favourite part of the book. Miles (his actual name) was a queer kid growing up in a small town where he didn’t fit in, and as a young man, he’s taken in by the Argonaut Jason (as Miles dubs him). He later becomes his own idol, the David Bowie-esque singer, to inspire his younger self. He also changes sex and gender with Argo’s help several times, in a similar way to the Doctor’s regeneration, but by choice.

As for our main character, Harper, we don’t get confirmation that she’s queer until near the end of the book. It’s kind of treated as a big reveal, that she’s in love with Peggy and could never admit it, but I don’t subscribe to sexuality as a plot twist, and besides, this being reviewed on the Lesbrary tells you there’s eventual confirmation the main character is queer. Treating this as a reveal felt weird to me, especially because we’re in Harper’s head almost the entire book. The last time Peggy and Harper saw each other before Peggy went missing is referenced throughout, but we only get the flashback at the end, which is when Harper (almost, kind of, but not quite) admits her real feelings for Peggy. To be clear, I don’t mean this in a This Author Is Problematic way, just that it personally rubbed me the wrong way. Miles and Peggy’s queerness is present from the beginning.

This paragraph has spoilers for the end of the book. In some version of this story, I think this reveal maybe could have worked–especially if we already knew Harper was queer/bisexual from the beginning, but it was her feelings specifically for Peggy that she was repressing. Then, the power of queer love could save the universe at the end–I’m definitely not above that story! But while the universe and Peggy are saved at the end, when Harper wakes up at the hospital, Peggy has left. We spend the whole book waiting for Harper and Peggy to get back to each other, and then there is precisely zero interaction between them after the climactic battle between good and evil. There’s no resolution to their relationship (whether friendship or romantic relationship), even though it was the core of the entire story. And Peggy ends up feeling kind of disposable to the narrative: the “happy ending” just involves Miles and Harper going on adventures. We don’t know anything about post-Incarnate Peggy (and only a little about Peggy in general). Why did she leave? Where did she go? Is she happy? (End of spoilers)

I ended up finishing this audiobooks on about 2.6 speed, because I just wanted to get to the end. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver for me. This has a high average rating on Goodreads, so I appear to be alone in this, but it was the mismatch between tones as well as the treatment of Harper’s feelings for Peggy that didn’t work for me. Maybe if I had been prepared for it to be a heavy read and not a fun space adventure, I might have liked it more—but in my defense, the description for this book calls it a “wacky time-traveling sci-fi odyssey wrapped in an elegiac ode to lost friendship and a clever homage to Doctor Who,” so I think I can be forgiven for thinking it would be fun and not bleak!

This was one I was so excited for and ended up feeling disappointed.

The Enthusiastic Ally to Bisexual Pipeline: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Now that I’m twice the age of many of the protagonists in Young Adult books, I have a different relationship with them. I still read YA, but I find myself feeling protective of the main characters instead of relating to them. Nothing exemplified that shift more than reading Imogen, Obviously, where I just wanted so badly to give Imogen a hug as I read it.

Imogen is a high school senior who is a very enthusiastic queer ally, even though she’s, as Imogen puts it, “hopelessly” straight. Her sister and two closest friends are all queer. She goes to every Pride Alliance meeting. Her favourite movie is But I’m a Cheerleader, and she collects editions of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston.

Her best friend Lilli is a year ahead of her and has already found a queer friend group in university—the same school Imogen will be joining in a few months. Imogen is happy for her… even though she feels out of place. She doesn’t want to intrude, as a cis straight person.

When Lilli finally convinces her to visit, she drops a bombshell when Imogen arrives: Lilli felt insecure about not having a serious relationship with a girl before, and she lied about Imogen and her being exes. So now everyone thinks Imogen is bi, including Tessa, who gives Imogen butterflies, which is obviously just Imogen queerbaiting inside her own head.

Imogen as a character broke my heart, to be honest. She’s a people-pleasing overthinker who analyzes herself to death, twisting herself into knots until she loses sight of the very obvious. The very obvious like: she’s not straight. The very obvious like: her friend Gretchen isn’t the authority on all things queer, and can be pretty toxic when she acts like it.

In a social media graphic for the book, the author describes Imogen as having queer discourse brainworms, which is a good way to put it. She tries to educate herself about queer issues, but just ends up thinking that there’s only one right way to be queer. She doesn’t feel the same way about girls as she does in her crushes on guys, so she concludes that means she doesn’t like girls at all. Even when faced with obvious evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself that she’s just trying to be bisexual for clout and that she’s a bad person for appropriating queerness.

“Queerness recognizing queerness. It’s kind of beautiful when you think about it. I really do wish it was mine sometimes.”

Imogen longs to be part of the queer community, and while I’m sure there is some 100% straight and cis person this applies to in the world, it’s such a relatable queer experience. I was in middle school when I excitedly talked about looking forward to joining the Gay/Straight Alliance in high school, and how if I could choose, I’d be pansexual and panromantic. But, of course, I was hopelessly straight…

Gretchen was a difficult character. Some people will absolutely hate her, which I understand. But I found myself thinking that my high school self was somehow right between Imogen and Gretchen: an anxious overthinker who also was so deep in queer discourse that I thought I knew it all. Gretchen is going through some things and lashing out at other people—I hope that this is just the beginning of a journey of processing her trauma, because she’s not in a healthy place now.

I haven’t even mentioned the Tessa/Imogen romance! It is adorable. Tessa is a lesbian and Imogen (spoiler?) is bisexual. Both are Jewish. Poor Imogen takes a while to understand she’s falling for her, but it’s a fun ride, including college shenanigans with her and their friend group.

I loved reading this, even if being inside Imogen’s head could be a little too relatable at times. This is actually my first Becky Albertalli read, but I can now confirm the hype is justified. I highly recommend it to any queer person who once also thought they were hopelessly straight.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

the cover of Perfect on Paper

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Darcy Phillips secretly runs the relationship advice service that comes from the mysterious locker 89 at her school. When Alexander Brougham discovers her secret, he enlists her help in getting his girlfriend Winona back. Everything becomes complicated when her secret gets out, including how she used the locker for selfish reasons. While Darcy prides herself on her 95% success rate, she still has a lot to learn about people, relationships, and herself.

There’s so much teen drama that could easily delve into cringe territory. But Gonzales uses great finesse to illustrate how complicated and messy emotions can get. The characters all make frustrating mistakes, but her deft writing leaves room for compassion. At every turn, she gives her characters the chance to learn and grow.

The back and forth enemies to lovers between Darcy and Brougham is absolutely delicious. Perhaps calling it enemies to lovers is a bit strong. It’s more like moderately annoyed with each other to smitten. Still, seeing each character unravel to one another with every moment they spend together does a great job portraying how hard it is for some people to let others in. These are both characters that don’t let many people see their true selves often, so to do that for each other creates a beautiful romance you can’t help but get wrapped up in.

A cast of queer side characters makes it all feel like a family within this school community. There’s Ainsley, Darcy’s sister who’s transgender; Ray, the other out bisexual in their school; Finn, Brougham’s gay best friend; and a bunch of other students and their teacher Mr. Elliott part of the Queer and Questioning (Q and Q) Club.

While Darcy spends the majority of the book doling out relationship advice, both romantic and platonic, she has a hard time seeing herself and her relationships. She puts her best friend Brooke on a pedestal and calls it love. She fails to see her own shortcomings. She jumps to conclusions about Brougham and sees what she wants to see. But throughout the whole story, you keep wanting her to get better. And she does.

Gonzales creates moments that touch on tough subjects like divorce and fighting parents, and how those relationships at home affect the people these characters become. She also weaves in confronting biphobia, both from fellow queer characters and internalized by Darcy. She begins to question her bisexuality and if she belongs to the queer community if she has feelings for a cishet boy.

There’s a lot of angst and anxiety, but always a glimpse of hope for these characters.

Trigger warning: Biphobia