Danika reviews I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

the cover of I Kissed Shara Wheeler

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Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have been academic rivals since Chloe arrived in this Christian small town high school with its suffocating rules and homophobic culture. But at prom, as the fight for valedictorian is almost at a close, Shara kisses Chloe and disappears. She soon realizes Shara kissed two others that night: her boyfriend, Smith, and the broody boy next boy, Rory. She’s also left a series of clues for them on how to find her.

If this sounds like the plot of a 2000s-2010s YA novel to you, Chloe agrees, who says Shara has cast herself in a John Green novel. Chloe resents Shara: she’s the golden girl of Willowgrove Christian Academy. She’s pretty and blonde and has a quarterback boyfriend, straight As, and lights up every room she walks in. She’s the principal’s daughter. She can do no wrong.

Chloe feels like the opposite, like an outcast. The only thing they have in common is their GPA. She is out as bisexual in a school where no one else is out as queer. In fact, one of her moms was the first person to come out at Willowgrove when she went there, and it hasn’t seemed to have changed much. Chloe hates this town, this school, and her classmates who seem to thrive there. Her friends are the other rejects: closeted queer kids and theater nerds.

She’s not going to let Shara swan out so easily, not when she’s so close to showing her up. She wants to prove to everyone that she is better. So she wrangles together Rory and Smith to find her. They were once best friends and now can barely speak to each other, especially now that Shara kissed both of them.

Each chapter counts down how many days since Shara left and how many days until graduation, giving the chase the tension of a clock ticking down. Also, who can resist a scavenger hunt? Chloe becomes obsessed with these letters and clues: how they reveal that Shara wasn’t the angel everyone thought she was, just as Chloe always suspected. How Chloe is cracking the code and proving herself smart enough to find Shara. In fact, she’s so obsessed that she stops paying attention to her friends, who she hasn’t told about the clues, and even her schoolwork.

When discussing sapphic characters online, there are some common labels of “disaster bisexuals” and “useless lesbians.” Somehow, the sapphic main characters in this book manage to both be useless disasters. Shara and Chloe are obsessed with each other, and anyone reading will know — even if this wasn’t a romance novel — that they’re in love with each other. But they’re so wrapped up in their rivalry and the lies they’re telling themselves that they can’t see it.

While Chloe and Shara seem to be in their own world, there’s a whole other story unravelling outside of these two characters. This story has a lot of say about growing up queer in a Christian conservative small town. Chloe can’t wait to escape (just like her mom did before her, though she came back), but others find value in this town and want to fight to make it better. Chloe also slowly starts to realize that her view of Willowgrove is limited, and it’s not as straight and cis as she assumed, even if students aren’t out.

I was intrigued by the premise of this one, with the scavenger hunt and mystery element, but it began to drag for me in the middle. I love a flawed main character, but both Chloe and Shara are sometimes insufferable, with extreme tunnel vision. Then the story changed gear, and the ending chunk pulled me back in with the emerging storylines from other characters. It was also fun to see Chloe and Shara bounce off of each other: they are both so stubborn and opinionated that their collision is intense — that is, until they realize they might want the same thing after all.

You probably don’t need my recommendation to read this: it is Casey McQuiston after all, but you have it anyway. If you want a rivals to lovers F/F scavenger hunt YA romance that steadily gets more queer as you go along, pick this one up.

Susan reviews The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge by Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert

the cover of The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge

Clement Vanderbridge is acting suspiciously; he’s a well-known architect in prohibition-era New York and famously teetotal, but disappears every Friday night only to turn up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. Fortunately, Stella Argyle and Flora Fontaine are on the case – reporters working for rival newspapers, competing for the scoop.

Or, to put it another way: The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge is a short rivals-to-lovers story from Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert, one that races from one speakeasy to the next with charm and glee. The art is great. The characters are super expressive, and the flat colours really make the details of the outfits pop. The flapper dresses! The hats! The butch musician in a suit! Excellent work on all fronts, especially with how much of the comic is wordless montages. The montages are really effective – see also: how expressive Stella is whenever Flora’s ahead of her – but they’re skimming over quite a lot considering how much the creators are fitting into thirty pages. An investigation, a rivalry, a low-key romance, a suspiciously secretive friend group, and a space that’s warm and affirming of queer people in a historical setting? That’s a lot for one comic!

Honestly my only real complaint is that the story is a little light. Again, it’s only thirty pages long, it’s to be expected, but The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge feels like a glimpse into a series that I’d gladly read more of. Flora and Stella are fun characters, and I’m absolutely here for more queer intrepid reporters.

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Marieke reviews This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Time War reminded me a lot of Good Omens in the sense that two agents–on opposing sides of a high stakes global war that is being fought out across time (yes, time travel) and space and universes, while also only forming a backdrop to the lives of regular unwitting humans–are not as invested in the outcome of that war as they maybe are expected to be by the leaders of those forces. And then they meet, and find they are not indifferent to each other.

Red and Blue maintain communications throughout this story, and their communications are central to the development of both the plot and the characters. These communications are presented in letter form in the book, so it reads like a semi-epistolary novel (in case that is your thing, this is a good book to pick up, as every chapter ends with a letter). Even so, these letters are really steganographical messages (a term pulled directly from the dialogue, that I actually had to go and look up – good thing too, because it was then used again shortly after in another book I’m reading!), i.e. the message was concealed within another form. What shape that form actually took (hah) differed wildly, and includes a few notable instances, but I would prefer for the reader to be surprised by them as each new letter is received.

Both characters self-identify as female, but there is at the same time little indication that sex or gender is a defining factor within their society, especially as agents on both forces are capable of easily altering their own physical forms. Sexual orientation is never mentioned and appears to be pretty much a non-issue in this environment.

The relationship between the two characters grows with each letter they send and receive, and both the letters and the relationship they create, form, and reflect are at the heart of this story. Initially the dynamic between the two characters feels a bit like a microcosm of the war that is being fought out at a macro scale (as the characters themselves observe as well), but they quickly grow beyond and above that. They do not meet physically for most of the narrative, which creates a sense of their relationship structure feeling similar to any modern long distance relationship, where different time zones and few meetings can still be the basis of a strong bond.

The development of their relationship was extremely well written and completely believable. The questions about loyalty to each other versus loyalty to the force they serve were handled quite well, and become major plot points near the end of the tale. The end is also where the story flounders a bit. Without spoiling anything, there are a few time-travel related shenanigans going on and some of it–while presented as a major reveal–can be quite expected if you’re familiar with the time travel genre in general. In that sense the story doesn’t really break any new territory, even though it tries to present the plot twists as unexpected.

Content warning: some battle violence

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com.

Danika reviews Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Because this is the Lesbrary, I’ll start by saying that this is a f/m romance with a bi+ main character (and love interest).

I picked this up firstly because I really enjoyed Dugan’s previous queer YA title, Hot Dog Girl. I was also interested in the premise: two teenagers whose parents own competing comic book shops fall for each other. As the title suggests, these are ~star-crossed lovers~, but it isn’t a Romeo & Juliet retelling beyond that (at least, not as far as I could tell). It ended up being a thought-provoking read for me, one I’m still turning over in my head days after finishing it. It definitely wasn’t what I expected.

Jubilee is a cellist prodigy whose life is consumed by her music, and is currently frantically rehearsing to get a spot (and scholarship) for the summer program at Carnegie. Her music teacher and friends both demand that she takes a break and lives a little, so when she attends a comic convention, she decides to pursue a “con crush” with a guy in a Batman mask. Ridley is there to help out at his father’s booth–except that his dad usually wants nothing to do with him. Ridley is suffering from serious anxiety and depression, and is caught completely off guard when Jubillee flirts with him.

Their romance continues in text form, until Ridley tells his dad he’ll scope out the competition and report back to him in order to not get sent back to his mother’s house–and in order to live in the same town as Jubilee, who is oblivious that Ridley is also the mysterious Batman cosplayer and that he’s supposed to be spying on her for his frankly villainous father.

So that’s the premise! But what struck me about this story isn’t the machinations of the plot, but the details. Ridley is a character that I have not seen in a novel before. Top Ten by Katie Cotugno (another bi f/m romance) has a socially anxious main character, but Ridley’s thought spirals are disturbing, especially if you have any anxiety or depression yourself. He catastrophizes. He picks apart and criticizes every one of his own words and actions. It’s unnerving to be inside of his head. He also has suicide ideations, including a previous attempt. His family is abusive, from an emotionally absent mother to an openly insulting and even frightening father. He makes bad choices, but they are understandable because of how much we see into his reality. At the same time, I would warn anyone with anxiety or depression to approach this cautiously, especially because he sometimes feels like a burden to his loved ones because of his mental health struggles.

The beginning of Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship was cute: I could see how they both hit it off, with their similar senses of humour and love of fandom. (Ridley is a huge fan of Jubilee’s stepmother’s comics.) [Minor spoiler:] I was also surprised at how early on in the story Ridley came clean about his deception. I’m used to stories like this dragging on the deception, and I much prefer that Jubilee and Ridley get on the same page at a reasonable point. [end spoilers] Unfortunately, even after that, it isn’t exactly a healthy relationship. They are both good people, and I see why they’re attracted to each other, but it doesn’t work. Jubilee begins to spend much of her time trying to take care of Ridley, neglecting her own life. Ridley is dependent on her, and also feels guilty about keeping their relationship (and his family) a secret from her parents. They love each other, but it’s not making either of them very happy.

Of course, check the title again: did we really expect a riff on Romeo and Juliet to be a happy story? It’s the ending that left me thinking the most, however. [Major spoilers, highlight to read:] They don’t end up dead, but this R&J-inspired couple do have a suitable tragic and dramatic ending to their relationship. As shocking as it first felt to have Ridley steal his sister’s car (without a license) and try to drive them both out of town, it did follow from the rest of the story. Ridley is completely panicked, and feels like there’s no way out. He can’t give up Jubilee, the only good thing in his life. He can’t go back to his mother, and his father kicked him out. He is spiraling. And although Jubilee knows this is a bad idea, she loves Ridley and is afraid for him. She worries that he’ll try to kill himself if she leaves him alone during this crisis. She feels like if she can only say the right thing, go along with it just for now, she can buy enough time to save him. I understand this impulse, and I’ve been in relationships where I felt responsible for my partner’s safety, so it felt discomfiting and realistic.

The car crash also felt surprising, but makes sense. He doesn’t know how to drive! And maybe this is what needed to happen to make them both understand how serious the problem was. Surprisingly, the happy ending for this Romeo and Juliet is not being together. It’s in getting therapy. Ridley realizes that he needs help, and reaches out to his sister, who is eager to do anything that will keep him safe. He ends up going into inpatient care in a centre specializing in anxiety and depression in teens. Surprisingly, Jubilee also begins attending a support group for codependency. [End spoilers] It’s interesting to think about this in conversation with Romeo and Juliet retellings, which usually glorify an all-consuming, doomed love. Why do we keep coming back to these stories? What do we want from them? And what do they look like in the present day?

And, of course, to booked this Lesbrary review, I have to talk about the queer content. On tumblr and twitter, people often are looking for m/f romances where both characters are bi+. Jubilee doesn’t identify with a label, but she is attracted to multiple genders. She feels like an impostor because she’s only dated boys, though, so she doesn’t feel like she can say she isn’t straight. Ridley’s last relationship was an “almost boyfriend” who blackmailed him, leading to his non-fatal suicide attempt. Jubilee and Ridley aren’t the only queer characters, though. Jubilee’s best friend, Jayla, is a Black lesbian, and there is a little bit of discussion of how she is treated by the comics fandom because she’s Black, including when cosplaying white characters. Jubilee also has two moms, and her stepmom is Latinx.

Verona Comics was definitely an interesting and unexpected read. It’s one that left me thinking, and I think acts as a good counterpoint to all-consuming, unhealthy teen romances that are often glorified, especially in YA/teen movies. It isn’t one that I would recommend freely, though, because of the intense mental health issues, including a suicidal main character. If you’re able to safely put yourself in that head space, though, this is a compelling read that will definitely stick with me.

Danika reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars by Adiba JaigirdarThe Henna Wars was my most-anticipated 2020 release. First of all, look at that beautiful cover! Plus, rival henna shop owners fall in love?? Who can resist that premise? As with many books I have high expectations for, I was hesitant to actually start it. Luckily, it lives up to the promise of that cover and premise.

Actually, I was impressed from the first pages. The dedication page reads: To queer brown girls. This is for you. After that, it has content warnings! (For racism, homophobia, bullying, and outing.)

We start the novel with Nishat contemplating coming out:

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

She is a second generation Bangladeshi immigrant living in Ireland, and it’s not the best environment to come out in. She knows that her (private, all-girls) school will not take it well, and her family likely won’t, either. She has, however, already told her sister, who she is close with. The relationship between Nishat and her sister Priti was one of my favourite parts of the novel: they begin this story with an unshakeable bond, telling each other everything.

At the wedding, she bumps into Flávia, who she hasn’t seen since they were elementary classmates. Now, there’s an instant spark, and she’s pleasantly surprised to see her at school the next day. Complications arise in Business class, however. They all have to start their own business, and Nishat plans to do henna–she’s been practicing for years, learning from her grandmother, and feels like she’s beginning to be able to do justice to this art form. Unfortunately, Flávia noticed the henna at the wedding and comes up with the same idea–teaming up with her (white) cousin, who has spread racist rumours about Nishat.

Nishat tries to talk to Flávia about appropriating henna, but Flávia (who is Black and Brazillian) says that it’s just art, and that it’s actually really easy! Cue a painful rivalry for Nishat, who is determined to win this competition.

Okay, that’s more plot summary than I usually give, but it’s really just the first chapter or two. The Henna Wars is a fascinating book on several levels. One is that it grapples with cultural appropriation from another woman of colour, which I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before. Flávia is clueless to why Nishat is upset, and says that maybe Nishat doesn’t understand because she’s not an artist. It’s a mess.

But what really caught my attention is that this story manages to seem hopeful and joyous while dealing with dark subject matter. Nishat is trying to survive in a profoundly homophobic environment. She is not safe within her family, within her school, and doesn’t even feel sure she can tell her friends. She is harassed for her race, and the counselor can’t even get her name right. Even the pockets of joy she finds in a new crush and doing henna are complicated by this appropriation and competition, and Flávia’s teaming up with her racist cousin.

Despite all of this, though, Nishat never seems to lose herself. Even if her family doubts her and she faces pushback at school, she knows who she is, and she refuses to be ashamed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if she wins the Business competition or gets the girl: “Because I’m still here and I have my friends, my sister, and my family. And things will be okay.” [Spoiler, highlight to read:] Her parents earnestly watching Ellen is perfect. [End spoiler]

I can only imagine how difficult it is growing up as a Bangladeshi lesbian in Ireland. The Henna Wars suggests it’s a gauntlet. But Nishat is a model of steadiness and strength within the storm. She’s not perfect–she has flaws, makes mistakes, and sometimes is so embedded in her problems that she forgets to look around at what other people are dealing with–but she is inspiring.

I’ll leave off with a quote I couldn’t help but include:

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and it’s true; I’ve never really thought about having a type. I guess my type is… beautiful girl. Which is a lot of them. Most of them? Pretty much all girls.