Girl Meets Girl, Girls Fall In Love, Girl Gets Amnesia: Forget Me Not by Alyson Derrick

the cover of Forget Me Not

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Last year, I reviewed She Gets the Girl written by Alyson Derrick and her wife, Rachael Lippincott, and really enjoyed it. So when I saw that Derrick had a new sapphic YA book coming out just in time for the April 4th episode of All the Books, I had to read it. This is an amnesia romance, but while that can sound like a soap opera premise—girl meets girl, girls fall in love, girl gets amnesia and forgets girl, girl tries to win her back—there’s an undercurrent of sadness here that keeps it feeling more grounded than that suggests.

In the first chapter, we meet Stevie. She just graduated high school and has big plans for what comes next… but almost no one in her life knows about them. She has secretly been dating Nora for years, but in their small conservative town, being out isn’t an option. Stevie’s mother is deeply involved in the Catholic church, and her father watches Fox News almost every waking hour. So Nora and Stevie see each other in private, with dates in the woods. When Stevie can’t sleep, she silently calls Nora and just listens to her voice, not wanting to wake up her parents in the next room by speaking herself.

It’s been difficult keeping this private, including having to fake a better relationship with her parents than she believes and even maintaining friendships with people she no longer gets along with, but it will be worth it. They just need to get through the summer before they’re both off to California–Stevie secretly applied to UCLA and got in—and then they can start their life together. They’ve been saving up for an apartment by saving their paychecks, plus Stevie’s job at a coffee shop two towns away is the perfect cover for the time she spends with Nora.

After all that meticulous planning, though, one moment erases everything they’ve worked for. During a date in the woods, Stevie falls. She’s put into a medically induced coma. When she wakes up, she’s forgotten the last two years. She still thinks she’s 15. And she doesn’t remember ever meeting Nora.

Stevie is left trying to piece together the time she’s lost. She’s distant with her parents, and she doesn’t know why. She can’t understand why she was alone in the woods when Nora saw her and rescued her. Any evidence of her relationship with Nora was deleted or hidden, so there’s nothing to stumble on.

Interspersed with these chapters are unsent letters from Nora, explaining her heartbreak and confusion. This version of Stevie doesn’t have any idea that she’s gay, never mind that she’s in a relationship with a girl. She’s worried that telling her will scare her off, but she also feels terrible about lying to her. Stevie thinks Nora is a new friend, someone to hang out with that doesn’t have memories of her that she doesn’t have. Both of them hope that Stevie can recover her memories by retracing familiar things, but there’s no guarantee.

There’s an interesting balance happening here between Nora and Stevie’s perfect relationship (pre-coma) and their hateful surroundings. Stevie is half Korean, and she is startled to find her best friends when she was 15 have grown up to make racist jokes. Her dad has also become obsessed with Fox News in recent years. The threat to her relationship does feel real: both Nora and Stevie’s parents are conservative, so it makes sense that they would stay in the closet until they have somewhere else to live.

There is a heartwarming romance at the heart of this, including that Stevie feels drawn to Nora even without her memories, and it’s adorable to watch her fall for Nora all over again. But the amnesia trope and almost-too-perfect relationship is tempered by the more serious context of the story, including Stevie’s internalized homophobia.

I meant to just read the first few chapters of this and found myself instead reading it in one day. Even though we know the answers, it was compelling to watch Stevie try to piece together what happened in the time she lost and consider whether she really needs to recover it or whether she should embrace the opportunity to start fresh. After all, in this missing time she apparently became more distant from her friends and family and also applied to the local community college when she’s been waiting her whole life to go somewhere new. Does she really want to be that person?

This is a very readable, engaging novel, and though I’ve mentioned that their relationship was almost too perfect, that’s helped by Nora’s characterization. She’s not on the page that much, considering this is mostly a romance, but what we do see of her is charming without being one-dimensional. You can see why Stevie falls for her (twice).

A Bisexual, Magical, Asian American Take on Gatsby: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, Narrated by Natalie Naudus

the audiobook cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful

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In this retelling of The Great Gatsby, Jordan Baker narrates the story from the perspective of a queer, Asian woman adopted by a white couple. Although she runs in elite circles with Daisy and Tom, she is treated as an exotic pet, left on the outside even when a part of their group.

Calling Jordan adopted brings up a problematic situation of white saviors. When the Bakers found her in Vietnam, they claimed she had been wandering alone. Wanting to save her from the violent environment, they simply took her back with them to Kentucky. They never even inquired about her parents’ whereabouts.

Throughout the story, Jordan encounters racism at every turn. She endures questions like, “Where are you from?” and when she answers Kentucky, it makes white people uncomfortable. Even in her own group with Daisy and Tom, Tom goes off on racist rants against Asians but tells Jordan she’s “one of the good ones.”

Jordan also encounters that feeling of Otherness amid people who look like her. As the novel unfolds, she interacts with other Asian characters who ask her the same thing: “Where are you from?” When she tells them Kentucky, there’s a disappointed reaction to her seeing herself as American. She embodies the duality of neither belonging among white Americans nor among the Asian community. As she says toward the end of the novel: “Alone I was a charming anomaly, with Kai I was a dangerous conspiracy.”

In certain ways, Jordan uses her Otherness to occupy a space not afforded to her gender at this time in history. As she is an outsider in elite white society, she is not expected to be a proper lady or behave in predefined proprieties. She takes greater freedoms that Daisy does not feel she can.

Personally, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, I hated it. I hated all the characters and thought they were all the worst possible human beings. In this retelling through Jordan’s perspective, it’s easier to see the nuance of what makes these characters so terrible. For Daisy especially, as it’s clear throughout that Jordan is in love with her, there’s much more sympathy toward her position in a society that puts so much pressure on young, upper-class women.

All the queer subtext from the original novel gets brought to the forefront. Jordan, openly bisexual, has relationships with whoever strikes her fancy, including Nick, who is also bisexual. But Nick isn’t as open or accepting about his sexuality. Jordan tries to pull out of him his feelings for Gatsby but it makes Nick angry and she doesn’t bring it up again. Daisy and Jordan have an unspoken desire for each other that never becomes actualized.

The magic woven throughout the story brings another interesting layer to the original book. Jordan has special powers that appear to be an inheritance from her Vietnamese bloodline. She meets others like herself who have the same power, but she tries to deny this part of herself. It plays into her insecurities and how she fights against her Otherness in every way.

Where the classic novel ends with the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg looking upon Daisy’s crime, Jordan confronts the billboard and brings it to life with her magic powers to learn what they saw. She realizes what happened and reluctantly comes to Daisy’s rescue.

SPOILERS BEGIN

Vo also creates mindblowing twists with the added layer of magic. Jay Gatsby made a deal with the devil and when he fails to deliver his end of the deal, his life is taken. And in the end, Nick turns out to be a paper being of Jordan’s making with her magical powers. With all these strings that tethered her to New York gone, Jordan is finally free to go to Shanghai and find out where she really belongs.

SPOILERS END

At times the pacing is slow, but overall, it’s a compelling read that really brings the original story to another level. I listened to the audiobook, so the narrator, Natalie Naudus, brings it to life.

Content warning: racism

Kelleen reviews Patience & Esther by SW Searle

the cover of Patience & Esther by SW Searle

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I don’t know why more people haven’t read this book. I don’t know why I never see this book discussed whenever folks are talking about historical romance, or graphic novels, or the greatest sapphic graphic novel historical romance (is that a genre?) novels ever crafted. 

To be honest, I’m not big on graphic novels (I have a learning disability and read mostly with my ears, so graphic novels don’t always work for my brain), so it never occurred to me that I need a romance novel with pictures. I have a great imagination! And I love narration! And isn’t it maybe weird to write sexy scenes in graphic novel form? But alas, this book is exactly what I needed and so much more. 

This interracial erotic historical Edwardian romance graphic novel (whew, lots of adjectives) tells the story of two women working in service in England—one an Indian lady’s maid and one a new Scottish maid of all work—as they fall in love and navigate a changing world of industry and identity at the turn of the century. It is domestic and comforting and beautiful and I simply could not get enough.

It is so deeply romantic, and so steamy (there are historical sex toys)! The illustrations are exquisite and beautifully detailed, and show real, beautiful bodies. One of the heroines is fat and is drawn with rolls and stretch marks, and it was such a profound experience for me to see a body like that (a body like mine) being loved and desired and sexy in illustrations along with text. 

Because of the identities of the heroines as Indian, Scottish, working class, and sapphic, there was so much interesting conversation about how these women fit into the social political movements of the time. We see the racism, classism, and exclusivity of the Suffragists Movement and the way that the horrors of colonialism strip people of their names, families,  cultures, and identities. The exploration of the changing social and political atmosphere at such an integral, fast-paced time in history was so engaging and was intertwined so well with captivating the emotional span of the romance. 

One thing that I really loved about the romance is that these two are always on each other’s side. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t hard and emotional and conflict-ridden and romantic, but these two are such a good team, fighting for each other and for their relationship every step of the way. 

This book is literally everything I love. It’s like a steamy, sapphic Downton Abbey, and my heart was going pitter-pat the whole time I was reading. I cannot recommend this genre-bending book enough. If you are a sapphic reader (or a reader of sapphics, whichever), pick up this book. You will be charmed, you will be delighted, you will be swooned and amazed and intrigued and you will not be sorry. 

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Nat reviews Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

the cover of ​​Her Royal Happiness by Lola Keeley

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If there’s a perfect time to read about the English monarchy and all its drama, well, it’s probably right now. Her Royal Happiness is low on the angst without glossing over the big ticket issues. Classism, racism, colonialism—Keeley touches on them all, without ever delving too far into serious topics, because let’s be honest, we know how to turn on the news. Bringing up serious themes in this work feels more like a placeholder or an acknowledgement—let’s put a pin in this for another time, but right now, let’s read a kissing book. 

Not that I’m a big follower of the royal family’s comings and goings, but if you’ve seen any news at all in the last several years, you probably know a thing or two about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Let’s be real, Her Royal Happiness is pretty much the queer version of them, but with a squishy royal happy ending. Princess Alice is an Olympic medalist and two tour combat pilot with medals to show for it. Her father was killed in an accident when she was young, while he was running from paparazzi. Sound familiar? Sara is Persian, a single mother raising a child on a modest income in South London. She might not be an American actress, but the tension is mirrored in the form of class differences and her family background.

Sara’s mother fled from Iran to France, but ironically, her mother is not the one who has issues with the royal family and their colonizing ways. Our main character is not a fan of royalty, and not quiet in her criticism. Keeley does a good job at showing Princess Alice being aware of some issues around racism and classism, while pointing out that she’s still been living in a bubble and has some growth ahead of her. Sara notes things along the way that our posh Princess may not have considered, including her views on war, especially from the POV of a soldier of an invading country. Again, we don’t get too deep or dark, but the author keeps us aware that it’s not all corgis and sunshine at the palace. 

Autism and the need for education tailored to different children’s strengths is another key topic of this work. But for those of you who don’t particularly like reading romances featuring children, I’ll note that one thing I really appreciated is that although some of the conflict (not to mention the meet cute and much of the motivation) is centered around the kids, the kids’ points of view don’t feature heavily and there isn’t a lot of kid-centric description. 

Overall, Keeley masters the balance between real world issues and a modern fiction fairy tale. If you need a bit of a warm blanket in the next few months, or just want a bit of a do over of current events in the multi universe, here’s a good place to find it. 

Danika review Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

the cover of Burn Down, Rise Up

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I have to say, although I love the illustration of Raquel, I don’t think cover does justice to this being a horror novel. I got sports vibes from it. I didn’t notice the little monster claws/legs in the background on first viewing. But this is definitely horror, with some blood and gore, so be prepared for that going in.

This is a YA horror novel about a nightmare version of the Bronx where people are infected with mold until it consumes them, where fires burn endlessly, and where giant centipedes roam the streets and eat anyone they can catch. It’s bloody and has some serious body horror. But it’s also about the history of the Bronx, the racist policies that led to real-life horrors, and what it takes to try to rebuild when the fires still aren’t completely out.

People keep disappearing from the Bronx, and even the white teenagers who get a full police investigation aren’t found. It’s just background noise in Raquel’s life, until one day her mother goes into a coma after coming in contact with a patient covered in strange mold who then fled. Her crush, Charlize, confides in her that she saw her cousin Cisco before he disappeared, and he was covered in that same mold. If he was the one who infected Raquel’s mother, maybe finding him will be the key to helping her.

Aaron, Raquel’s best friend who also has a crush on Charlize (Awkward.), agrees to help, and the three of them try to research what happened to Cisco. Meanwhile, Raquel has started having disturbing visions and dreams, including one that leaves her with a burn on her skin. After going down some Reddit rabbit holes, they learn about the Echo game, also known as the Subway game. It involves going into the subway tunnels at exactly 3 A.M. and chanting, “We are Echobound.” The rules are strict, and it’s said that if you break them, you will never come back. Forums online are full of people’s stories of this Echo place, a nightmare version of their city.

The Echo game sounds a lot like the sort of creepypasta horror stories that get passed around Reddit and other forums, with just enough specificity to have you questioning whether they’re real or not.

Between a school assignment and the Echo research, Raquel learns about the darkest time in the Bronx’s history, which is taken to the extreme in its Echo. She learns about the racist policies that led to low income houses burning down constantly, killing many residents. She identifies the villain at the centre as the Slumlord who profited off the Bronx’s unsafe living conditions. I did feel like this got a little bit didactic at times, but I think that’s a complaint coming from being a 32-year-old reading a YA novel and not necessarily an issue with the book itself.

Charlize, Aaron, and Raquel gear up to enter the Echo to find Cisco and bring him back, but despite their research, it’s much more than they were prepared for. To find Cisco, first they’ll have to find a way to survive at all.

This is being marketed as Stranger Things meets Jordan Peele, which I think is a fair comparison: it definitely has social thriller elements, and it has the weirdness of Stranger Things, but with a little more gore. If you want an antiracist sapphic YA social thriller and can stomach some body horror, give this one a try.

Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, gun use, police brutality, discussion of cannibalism, fire injuries/burns

Marieke reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

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This book has been on the edges of my radar for a long time, and I’m not sure why I never got to it before now. Luckily I picked it when I was browsing through my ereader for something that might help to break my reading slump, with no idea what the book was about beyond it being a YA story. If I had known before starting that it was about schools integrating in the South during the 1960s, I probably would have skipped it, assuming something with such serious and intense subject material would be too much for me to keep going. I was very wrong about that, and hopefully I’ll be able to bear that in mind when picking future reads set during turbulent times.

This story follows Sarah and Linda, two girls starting their senior year of high school. Starting their senior 5 months late, because the governor of Virginia closed all schools in a bid to prevent them from integrating as was ordered by the Supreme Court five whole years before. When the schools are eventually forced to open and allow Black students, Sarah is one of the first Black pupils to attend. It does not go smoothly. I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen footage of the abuse Black children suffered as they walked up the path to enter their now desegregated schools, and this book does not shy away from the reality of the situation.

I found it extremely interesting to see that all of the students and their families were cherrypicked, and they were coached on how to handle this and any other situations they might find themselves in over the course of the school day and the year ahead. One of the main messages in this book is that despite all their goodwill and good intentions, the people on the outside can never understand what goes on inside the school grounds. It isn’t pleasant or pretty, and Sarah learns that in order for the whole movement to grow and move forwards, individuals will have to make personal sacrifices that are likely to go unnoticed by history.

Sarah is very good at self denial, but never loses sight of her own identity – even when she’s not sure how to define that identity. She knows she’s always had certain feelings for other girls, and she learned relatively early that those feelings are ‘sinful’ and ‘against God.’ When she has to join with Linda – a very popular white girl and daughter of the very conservative editor of the local newspaper – for a French group project, that self denial and testing of identity become very prominent. Linda is a staunch segregationist, but she’s also intelligent. She doesn’t want it to come out (and she especially doesn’t want it to come back to her father) that she’s working on a school project with a Black student, so they find a quiet space where no one will see them. While this escape from the public eye is for clearly racist reasons, it provides both Sarah and Linda with a space to speak more freely, even while they know they can’t have this kind of open discussion outside of closed doors.

It is the first time either of them can speak so freely with someone of a different ethnicity, and Linda especially is forced to reconsider some of the party lines she has been parroting all her life. As soon as someone asks her to use her mind and actually consider the implications and internal contradictions of her arguments, that starts a process within her that can’t be stopped. She carries her questioning mind into other conversations, with white peers and white figures of authority. This is not a straightforward journey, and for every step she makes forwards, she will make some kind of step backwards as well. It’s confusing for both girls, and the fact that they are both developing feelings doesn’t make matters any less confusing.

The relationship development between these two characters is the core of the book, and it is very strong and thoughtfully written. The author adds plenty of (well researched) historical background and notes, and fleshes out all main, side, and background characters well. This book makes you think a lot, about the insidious ways racism and other forms of bigotry work and interacted, with small throw away lines occasionally making you sit down and think through the various implications.

Content warnings: racism, homophobia, internalised homophobia, general bigotry, violence, physical abuse, domestic abuse, bullying, racial slurs, hate crime, religious bigotry

Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Mo Springer reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Trigger Warning: This book has scenes of sexual assault.

Gilda starts out her journey as Girl, running from a plantation in which she was a slave and her mother died. She is taken in by a vampire, who gives her her name and gives her longevity, a life without end. Her journey takes her from her birth as a vampire in the 1850s, to 1870s, 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 2020, and finally to 2050. Gilda learns what it means to be a vampire, part of a vampire family, the importance of mortals but also of herself, but most importantly what it means to truly love.

This was an enjoyable, episodic story that did not have a central villain or character arc, but through the different eras Gilda lives we experience different conflicts, characters, and mini-arcs that make up her whole journey. There were some recurring characters and plot threads that helped give the story cohesion and narrative flow. The different time periods were interesting to learn about from the point of view of the same person, learning and changing with society.

Gilda’s arc feels very much like it is based around the idea of found family. She runs away from the plantation when her mother dies and finds the original Gilda who turns her, and Bird, the vampire who will teach her and then leave on her own journey of self-discovery. Gilda then finds family in other vampires, Sorel and Anthony, then later in one who she turns, and in another, more ancient vampire that I won’t spoil the name of. At the beginning of her story she is alone and in danger, but through the many decades she learns to find ways to connect to the world around her.

I almost wanted to have chapters from the other vampires’ points of view. There is Bird, a Lakota woman who spends her immortal life working to help and reclaim land for indigenous and native peoples. Sorel and Anthony, a couple who spend their lives together, but one of which is scarred by a decision to turn the wrong person and the destruction they wreak. There are many more characters whose stories we are given glimpses of through Gilda, but I would have rather have seen them myself than be told about them.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but once we reached the 1970s and on I felt the story was missing opportunities to explore more of the time period. I would have really liked to have seen a discussion about how vampires would have approached the AIDs epidemic. There is a lot that goes into how and why to turn someone, and we are shown what happens when the wrong person gets turned. Gilda herself struggles with the decision of who to take into immortality.

Gilda mainly enjoys and has relationships with women. She takes on several lovers during her long life, and we do get to engage with those storylines, this book is not a romance. It feels realistic in how it approaches romance, how most people love more than once, if not several times, and for vampires with immortality this would be true as well.

I do want to note that Gilda is described as a lesbian by the blurb, and I won’t gatekeep labels. However, I do feel it would be negligent not to mention that Gilda does have some erotic involvement with a man during one time period. This relationship is not described as romantic, and Gilda makes it clear she is not romantically involved with this man after they share a bed. This falls into an interesting part of the vampire lore of this book, in which vampires are described as having familial connections to one another but there are also these erotic scenes between them.

Overall, I will be honest that I am conflicted on this book. There were parts that left me feeling confused about the choices that were made in the narrative and description of relationships. Having said that, I did enjoy reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a story about a black, queer vampire as she explores her long life and the people she meets.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.