A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.

A Quiet & Queer YA Horror Story: A Guide to the Dark by Meriam Metoui

the cover of A Guide to the Dark

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Mira and Layla are trying to make their way to Chicago for the last leg of their college tour road trip when they’re stranded in a small town and forced to stay at the Wildwood Motel. To Layla, this is a minor setback while she’s more focused on figuring out her confusing feelings for Mira. But though Layla doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, Mira senses something dark and wrong about their room and increasingly can’t seem to escape visions of her dead brother. With several days left until their car is fixed, Mira and Layla need to figure out what exactly is happening in Room 9 and how they can survive until the final night.

Parts of this book worked so well. I loved the diverse cast of characters and liked how well-rounded they felt for a book that takes place over just a handful of days. The slow escalation of suffocation from being trapped in a small room in a small town felt tangible. Part of this dread came from the inclusion of real photographs taken by the author interspersed throughout—fitting, since one of the characters is a photographer. I thought it was a wonderful way to convey how things were just a little off even as they weren’t yet noticed by the characters. I think the atmospheric set-up and the use of the haunting of the room as a metaphor for grief are the strongest parts of the book and deeply engrossing.

That said, for a YA horror this book moved a lot slower than I expected. It alternates between three perspectives: Layla, Mira, and the room itself. The result is that the four days spent with these characters takes its sweet time. I found it difficult to keep switching between the Mira and Layla perspectives because tonally they sounded so alike. It also meant that sometimes the same event is described twice over in a way that became a little repetitive. I was caught by surprise when the ending picked up so quickly considering how much it lingered in the set-up and was left a bit unsatisfied by the resolution. I think that if readers go in knowing that this is not going to be an action-packed horror, they’ll have a better time. For those looking to linger for a bit in an atmospheric creepy book exploring grief, I think it’s worth a read.

Trigger warnings: violence, suicidal ideation, drowning, grief, child death, fire, car accident, homophobia

A Con Artist at Grief Counselling: The Fake by Zoe Whittall

the cover of The Fake

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Zoe Whittall is a master at writing broody queer novels, and ever since reading Bottle Rocket Hearts, I just can’t resist them.

The description and first chapter of this might lead you to believe that it’s an action book or at least a mystery. Befriending a con artist sounds like the premise for anything from whacky hijinks to thriller territory. But while the first chapter has the main character hiding in her closet, afraid for her safety, this really isn’t a book about danger or mystery. Instead, it’s more of a character study about these people in awkward times in their lives.

After Shelby’s wife died, she couldn’t seem to find her way out of crushing grief and depression. She struggles to leave the house at all. One day, she finally works up the strength to visit a grief support group, which is where she meets Cammie. Cammie a breath of fresh air. She is energetic and adventurous, pulling Shelby out of her shell. That’s especially impressive given the long (long!) list of tragedies she’s gone through, including multiple family members’ deaths by suicide and her ongoing cancer treatment. And she always seems to find herself in bad situations at work. Shelby takes Cammie under her wing, inviting her to stay at her place. She’s happy to help her and to find something to distract from her grief.

We also get point of view chapters from Gibson, a forty-ish recently divorced man who meets Cammie at a bar and they start dating. He can’t believe this younger, attractive woman has fallen in love with him so quickly. It’s almost too good to be true—especially when she starts to demand more and more from him, guilting him if he refuses or even questions him.

When Gibson and Shelby finally meet, it’s not long before they realize that Cammie’s stories about the other are true, and that’s not the only thing she’s lying about.

I can imagine many people will find this a frustrating book, because the description basically tells you everything that happens. This is only around 200 pages, and it’s more sad than it is exciting. Shelby and Gibson are both lonely and vulnerable. Cammie is hard to pin down: is she deliberately cruel? Does she believe her own lies? We only get a little taste of her point of view in this story.

I especially liked Shelby’s struggle to decide the best way forward. Even when she’s hurt, she wants to help Cammie—but at what point do you have to cut your losses and face that this other person doesn’t want to change?

I haven’t met any con artists—that I know of!—but I think if you have had a relationship (friends, family, or romantic) with someone who is manipulative, you’ll find some uncomfortably relatable moments in the way Cammie keeps the people around her on her side—until it’s time to drop them and move on to the next marks.

The Fake isn’t a perfect fit for all readers, but if you like a glimpse into other people’s complicated psyches, though, I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a slow-paced, thoughtful look at these three characters.

Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

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I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?