SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

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Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.

Mars reviews Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jaqueline Koyanagi

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi cover

Please be aware that although I’ve tried to keep it minimal, this review contains spoilers.

Alana Quick is one of the best starship surgeons the non-gentrified City of Heliodor has to offer, or she would be if only someone gave her the chance to prove herself on a real starship. Unhappily trapped in the dusty chop shop she shares with her Aunt Lai on the planet Orpim, and bankrolled by her wealthy spirit guide sister, Alana and Aunt Lai struggle to make ends meet by working on whatever ship rolls their way. The two are desperate to afford the medication that keeps the worst symptoms of their shared condition, Mel’s Disorder, at bay, even to the degree that Aunt Lai would take extra hours working a call center job for the shady Transliminal Solutions, an “outsider” business whose mysterious, advanced technology has wiped out the local ship economy. Though she loves her aunt, Alana can’t shake her thoughts of escaping into the Big Quiet, and is consumed by her dream of making it off-world.

I can’t really get more into it without spoiling some awesome twists and turns, but suffice to say that Alana doesn’t stay grounded for long. One thing I can definitively say is that Ascension is a standout amongst its peers. Compelling characters meets space opera meets a uniquely metaphysical marriage of technology and astro-spiritualism. Our main protagonist breaks the mold as a queer, disabled woman of color. Breaks the mold in a genre sense, I mean, because Koyanagi gives us a lovable and diverse cast of characters to connect with, and Alana is only one of several significant characters who is affected by a disability, although none of them are defined by it.

This book hits the mark in so many ways, so I’ll try to give an overview of those to the searching reader. Non-traditional families abound here, including a rare accurate and healthy look at a functioning polyamorous relationship. Alana’s deep and true love for starship engines has spoiled many a human relationship for her. She suffers from the same condition that my favorite Law & Order: SVU detectives do – namely that she is married to her work. She will always, always choose the rush and thrill she gets from starships, for which she has not only a passion but a deep spiritual connection. Alana is burdened with the idea that traditional romance is over for her. Or so she thinks.

Also noteworthy is the exploration and growth of the sibling relationship between Alana and her sister Nova. There are few bonds in media that I feel are as underexplored as the one between siblings. Siblings can be complicated – they can be the greatest of allies or the greatest of enemies, or both at the same time – and the potential for such complexity and nuance is a device that is slowly gaining more traction among writers and media makers. Complex and contradictory is certainly a way to understand the Quick sisters.

A few things I should mention: there are super meta breakdowns of reality and conceptual universe-hopping at some point, so please be aware if that is going to be an existential red flag. There are descriptions of the painful physical symptoms Alana experiences with her Mel’s Disorder, dissociative experiences from another character, and descriptions of violence which are not gratuitous but may also be uncomfortable for certain readers.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book for anyone drawn to intergalactic adventures. As a sci-fi lover who is more than aware of how patriarchal and sexist traditional science fiction can be, I am very comfortable describing this book as not like that. If you enjoy this book, I would recommend Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a similarly sweeping, queer space opera.