Sponsored Review: Danika reviews The Buddha of Lightning Peak by Yudron Wangmo


Within a few chapters of starting The Buddha of Lightning Peak, I thought I understood where the story was going: Plucky teenager takes on corporation to save the environment! Having been environmentally-focused as a teenager, this was a plot that would have been just fine by me. By the midway point of the book, however, it was obvious this wouldn’t be the Disney Channel version of that narrative.

Dee is a black lesbian teenager with a lot on her plate. Her brother is in jail, her grandmother is abusive, and the place that she feels most at peace is scheduled to be bulldozed. Dee is determined to save Lightning Peak, but no one else seems to care–not even the environmental groups that would usually be the leading the fight. She doesn’t always feel like the different parts in her life meld, but she will have to draw on her family, her friends in the Gay-Straight Alliance, and the connections she’s made through a Buddhist meditation group in order to fight back. Even if that means risking her life.

As you might be able to tell, there’s a lot going on in The Buddha On Lightning Peak. On one level it can be read as a young adult environmental thriller about an activist taking on a suspiciously powerful mining company, but that ignores both the scope of the plot and the other aspects of Dee’s life. She’s also becoming serious about pursuing Buddhism as a life path and trying to incorporate that into her identity (there aren’t a lot of other black Buddhists that she knows, nevermind black Buddhist lesbian teenagers). She’s feuding with her ex, attempting to maintain a relationship with her incarcerated brother, and struggling to maintain her friendships at the same time. There is a huge cast of side characters in this book as well. Though I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the amount of names (a personal flaw of mine), I did appreciate how many side characters became well-developed over the course of the novel.

Dee is an engaging protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She is impatient and often angry, even when dealing with her closest friends. While continuing to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle to save Lightning Peak, Dee also begins, possibly unconsciously, to come to terms with her own more generalized anger. She draws on the lessons she’s learned from her Buddhist mentor in order to have more empathy and understanding for the people around her, and see things more broadly.

This definitely became more complex and had higher stakes than I was expecting. Dee becomes involved in something much bigger than she anticipated, and soon seems to be regularly putting her life at risk for her goals, which definitely kept me flipping pages.

This isn’t a perfect book, however. The major problem I had with it was the use of slang, which often felt dated and awkward to me (“Kicking it at a party”, “check it”, etc). The book is from Dee’s point of view, so it’s not just her dialogue that uses slang, but the entire narration. Even when it didn’t seem dated, seeing words like shoulda, mighta, or ’em in the narration would often throw me out of the story.  There is a lot to do with race and racism covered in this story as well, which I can’t speak to in terms of representation: I’m white, and the book is not own voices. I’d be interested to read a review by a black reader, especially a queer black reader.

I also am not Buddhist, so I also don’t have a lot of context for its representation here, but the author is a Buddhist practitioner. I got the impression that at the core of this series of books was to the representation of Buddhism, but although it was a major part of the story, it didn’t feel pedantic or preaching to me.

Despite my issues with the narration, I really enjoyed both the well-rounded characters and the nerve-wracking plot of this. Not only was there a lot of action, but events kept surprising me (mostly because everything seemed to keep going wrong). If you want a more intense take on the “plucky teen takes on evil corporation” plot, with added Buddhist subplot, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Sekma by Nel Havas

sekma nel havas

Back in December, I reviewed The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas. Recently, the author contacted me about her new companion book to that novel: Sekma. (I say “companion” because this book can be read before, after, or independently from The Apprentice Queen, but they are linked.)

Sekma is a character that fascinated me in The Apprentice Queen, so I was intrigued by the idea of a book with her back story. In this novel, we see her as a young woman, at the beginning of her rise to power. If I expected to see her transformation into the cold, ruthless woman we meet in The Apprentice Queen, I was mistaken. Sekma as a young woman is just as manipulative, power-hungry, and unfeeling as she is as an aging queen. She just has fewer resources accrued.

Although this is Sekma’s story, it’s not from her point of view. It’s from the perspective of Neferkara, a woman who was once nobility, but was enslaved when Egyptians invaded. Now she serves Sekma in Egypt, seething with rage at the king who ordered the invasion–and the entire country by extension. There are definitely parallels between the protagonists in the two books: both are fish out of water, though Mitti is raised up from a commoner’s lifestyle to a noble’s, while Neferkara tumbles in status. Both work closely with Sekma–against their wills–and grow to grudgingly respect her skill while being horrified by her personality.

I found Sekma to be just as compelling in this narrative. She is calculating and cold–not cruel, because that would imply more passion than she possesses–but captivating. This background on Sekma doesn’t make her more sympathetic per se, but it does provide more perspective. We see how she built her network and resources from very little, and the trajectory of how her scheming became so sophisticated later in her political life. More than her capability, it’s her motivation that makes me pause to reconsider my opinion.

Sekma is unflinching in destroying anyone who stands in her way, whether they are guilty, a potential threat, or inconvenient bystanders, but everything she does genuinely benefits the kingdom (at least in her eyes). She seeks power, but she really is the most capable person to wield it. We see how infighting and pride started wars and sabotaged progress in Egypt previously. No one close to the throne is as good with organization and management or diplomatic relations. Without her seizing control of Egypt, it really seems like the kingdom would be worse off, right down to the common people. Although Sekma is apathetic to their personal well being, the average person seems to be better off under her leadership than her competitors. I found this aspect to be really thought-provoking, and ended up fueling lengthy conversations between my partner and me.

Because Sekma takes center stage in this story, I found that although Neferkara is the main character, she’s often hardly noticeable: just providing the eyes to see Sekma through. Her story line gets less attention. This also means that although there is queer content in the book, it is definitely not the focus. Neferkara befriends another slave who later becomes her lover. Meritaten teaches her to find happiness even in her new, bleak life. It is sweet, but fair warning: this isn’t a romance, so there’s no guaranteed happily ever after.

It’s interesting to see how the two books slot together. There’s enough kept under wraps that you can read this before The Apprentice Queen and not be spoiled, but reading them the other way around reveals how some of the events and reveals came to be, including unforeseen consequences of Neferkara’s actions.

I was impressed with the attention to detail in the setting. I don’t know enough about ancient Egypt to say definitively that it’s accurate, but it certainly appears to be well-researched. The writing is serviceable, and seems a little cleaner than her earlier book, including fewer time jumps. Foreshadowing is used liberally, but it worked for me and kept the tension during slower sections. On reflection, however, I’m not sure that the plot hangs together without context. It was interesting as a deeper exploration of an interesting character from the first novel, but I’m not sure it has a strong arc of its own. The Apprentice Queen seemed to be clearly about how someone can become a monster, which was an interesting psychological premise. I didn’t have a central theme pop out at me in the same way in this volume, except maybe examining what makes a villain and questioning whether Sekma can be both monstrous and necessary? It felt a little more muddied to me.

That’s a minor point, however. I enjoyed learning more about Sekma, and I liked the journey Neferkara goes on. I feel like this is a stronger read as a follow-up to The Apprentice Queen, but that could be my own personal bias. I do recommend both books if you’re interested in the premise!

(Warning: don’t read the Amazon synopsis for Sekma! It gives away most of the plot.)

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Dreamland City by Larina Lavergne

dreamland city

Dreamland City had me hooked from the first page. Lily, a freshman at Duke University, has arrived on a full scholarship despite not having much enthusiasm for academics. Naturally gifted, she’s been launched into a environment of well-off peers while still coming home as often as possible to the trailer park (Dreamland City) she grew up in. The first chapter of the book describes Lily trying to escape a family friend as he tells her–for the millionth time–about her birth. Born in a kiddie pool out back of their trailer to a mother who was drunk and high, hers wasn’t the water birth the parenting magazines had in mind.

I came into this book expecting a young adult/new lesbian adult romance. As it became obvious that Lily has an ongoing sexual and romantic relationship with her stepfather, I realized this was going to be darker than I originally anticipated, but I still enjoyed the ongoing relationship between Lily and Reagan. Reagan is from an “old money” family, and between that, her good looks, and her enmeshment in Greek (sorority) politics, she appears to be the kind of perfection Lily can’t stand. When they’re assigned together for a project, however, they form an unlikely relationship, and I was beginning to think the YA/NA romance angle was back on track. That is rapidly derailed, however, and Dreamland City takes a turn for the grim that I wasn’t expecting. Perspective shifts suddenly to Reagan, and we learn what’s hidden behind the veneer of perfection.

This was definitely a read that surprised me. I actually put down the book halfway through in shock, and then speedread to the end of the chapter to see if maybe it was a dream sequence. Although this wasn’t the narrative I had prepared for, it definitely delivered. Both Reagan and Lily are deeply interesting characters: flawed, judgmental, angry, and desperate to survive, but in completely different contexts.

As for the romance aspect, Reagan and Lily both have ongoing relationships with men, and although they have the closest romance and sexual relationship with each other, there isn’t any label applied to it or to them. This isn’t a feel-good story. It’s a raw account of broken people pulling each other through, but all of the characters’ relationships with each other are bittersweet.

Although this wasn’t what I was expecting, Dreamland City turned out to be one of my favourite reads so far this year. It’s engrossing and compelling. My only complain would be one minor continuity error. If you’re okay with gritty narratives with all the beauty of a broken window, definitely pick this one up.

Trigger warnings for rape and graphic violence.

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Colossus of Arms by Madeleine Lycka

colussus of arms

Colossus of Arms is a sci fi story that has just as much to do with marble sculptures and polyamory as it does with space travel. From the first chapter, it reads as a story about a space expedition–but the exotic locale the spaceship is hurtling towards is Earth. The crew mostly consists of the offspring of Earth emigrants. Post-global warming, the environment became hostile enough that most people who could leave, did. Now they’ve returned to gather biological samples to bring back home, and to visit the place where their species began.

Despite initial impressions, though, this is not the story of the spaceship’s crew. It’s Nix’s story: a sculptor rooted deeply enough in her art to have never left Earth. Nix is visited by these human/alien guests, who bring enough high quality marble to justify the inconvenience. More inconvenient than company, however, is the arrival of Torrance: the leader of the group, and Nix’s love of her life that she was separated from decades before.

I found the premise of this story really interesting: it mixes together the alien and the familiar, with Earth as an alien planet both to the visitors and to the reader. The climate has changed drastically, making it a very different world. The visitors are human, but they’re humans from a completely new culture and environment, bringing technology and attitudes that clash with Nix’s sensibilities. Despite the sci fi framework, though, this is primarily a love story. It’s the tension between Torrance and Nix that drives the story forward. How do you face seeing the love you left behind? Can you ever go back?

The other love story is with Nix and her artwork. It makes perfect sense that she works with stone. Her no bullshit attitude comes across as hard and abrasive, but like the painstakingly detailed sculptures she creates, there is tenderness underneath. I enjoyed Nix’s gruff attitude, and I especially appreciated having a 60+ year old woman as a protagonist.

Unfortunately, the centrality of Torrance and Nix’s relationship doesn’t leave much room for character development in the rest of the crew. In the beginning, I found it difficult to remember who was who, and even by the end, I didn’t feel like I had much of a sense of who Derthan and Gantu were (though Jansee did come into her own by the end of the story).

It’s always interesting to see how different cultures can influence each other, but one aspect of this that felt unnatural was the insistence on non-monogamy throughout the novel. The visitors live in a culture where monogamy is unheard of, and they’re horrified at the idea. This makes sense from their perspective, but Nix–who (theoretically) practices monogamy–seems to agree completely with them that it’s a terrible system that only hurts everyone involved, which made it seem more like A Message than a natural part of their interactions. This also leads to several scenes that are not entirely consensual–the crew regularly tries to pressure Nix into sex. And even after she establishes how her views on sexuality differ from theirs, Torrance still pushes more than felt comfortable for me as a reader, especially if I’m supposed to be invested in their romance.

The spaceship’s crew is made up of different races (supposedly for maximum genetic diversity, but considering that Africa has the most genetic diversity, I would have though that would make for a mostly black crew). Unfortunately, the descriptions of their races were uncomfortable, from the black character being described as having “espresso brown skin” (here’s why you shouldn’t describe skin colour using food) and “overly generous” lips, to Jansee being described as having “classic East Asian features”.

I did have a few other complaints about the writing. It’s heavy on the adjectives and similes, and when these sneak their way into dialogue, it feels unnatural. I just can’t image someone saying that when they look at their lover, they feel like they’re looking at “deep sapphire blue ocean water”. I was also looking forward to seeing how the central conflict of the novel would conclude satisfyingly–would Torrance and Nix find a way to stay together?–and was disappointed when a new conflict was introduced and wrapped up in the last chapter without addressing the main tension. (There’s also another detail I felt was left unresolved: why were there only single women living in the land surrounding Nix?) There were some plot developments that surprised me, but I would have liked to see an epilogue tying the loose threads together.

I was fascinated by the concepts that Colossus of Arms introduces, especially delving so deeply into the creation of artwork within a sci fi story, though I was hoping for a little more from the mechanics of the storytelling. It is always interesting to see authors explore different ways of writing within genre.

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas


The Apprentice Queen is a story about how an ordinary person becomes a monster.

Mitti grew up in a happy, not particularly well-off family in ancient Egypt. When she was ten, she found herself suddenly whisked off into the royal court, a snake pit of deception, betrayal, and political games. She is trained by the queen herself to become an expert at maneuvering in this toxic environment. Mitti is horrified by Queen Sekma’s callousness, her willingness to sacrifice innocent people for the greater good, or even just to further her own power. But as Mitti becomes the princess Kham, she develops an aptitude for the same manipulation that she always resented in Sekma. Eventually she finds herself making an impossible choice between her beloved and the safety of both her son and the kingdom.

I found The Apprentice Queen to be a little overwhelming at first: we are plunged into this story and have to quickly find our feet. The novel also bounces back and forth in time often, usually beginning a chapter with a dramatic scene and then backing up to explain what lead up to it. I was immediately intrigued by the world of court politics, however. The intricate machinations are fascinating to read about. At its heart, this is about how Kham becomes corrupted by her environment, or at least how she is forced to make impossible choices. As a child, Mitti is horrified to realize that on some level she in enjoying this intrigue and manipulation, and I felt the same way reading it. The options are laid out so that something like sentencing a person to death for a minor offense can seem reasonable while I’m immersed the story, and it only after I’ve put the book down that I realize how reprehensible it is.

Sekma makes for a fascinating character. She is brutal, but incredibly intelligent and skilled. Relentlessly practical, she has a clear worldview and is willing to sacrifice anything in order to make the kingdom stronger. She sneers at the idea that war has “honor” over poisoning a single person in order to prevent thousands of deaths on the battlefield. Kham struggles with her own feelings towards Sekma, loathing her at most times, but growing to respect her as she struggled to fill the old queen’s shoes.

It is Kham’s relationships with the key women in her life that form the core of the emotional arc of the story. Although she is motivated by the love she has for her son, he does not demand the attention that Sekma, Nyserra, and even her sometimes lover Tasima do. I loved the rapport that Tasima and Kham had together as friends and lovers while not in the context of  a romantic relationship. It’s also always nice to have a story that integrates lesbian relationships seamlessly. This isn’t a “lesbian romance”, but it does include one.

I did feel uncomfortable about the attitudes around disability. Although I liked that Kham and her husband had a friendly relationship, most of the discussion around people with disabilities in this novel is about preventing their existence. At some point Kham contemplates what a “miserable” existence Oskhama, though we never have any indication that he is unhappy.

Aside from that, I did have some minor quibbles, including a few typos and that one of the sex scenes has one of the women say “Stop! Oh Stop!” to no response, though clearly the scene is supposed to read as consensual. Other than that, the writing is serviceable and communicates an engrossing narrative of one person’s gradual transformation into someone remarkably like the person they most detest. This conceit is captivating and so well executed that I would definitely recommend picking this up regardless of the minor flaws I found with it.

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas


Mitti is only ten when she’s taken from her family to be trained as an apprentice to the queen of Egypt. Her parents, having grown up in this political world and escaped it, are horrified despite the huge gain in stature for their daughter. As Mitti grows up and becomes more and more embroiled in vicious court politics, she struggles to find the balance to survive in this environment without losing herself completely.

Apprentice Queen was an interesting read for me. I was immediately intrigued by the premise, which places the main character in an excruciating position. She is basically held prisoner by Sekma, the queen, who controls the political climate of Egypt from the behind the scenes and would have Mitti killed instantly if she were to disobey or try to escape this life. Mitti has to learn these lessons on politics by heart if she is to survive, but despite being exactly the protege Sekma is looking for, she loathes the queen and the position she has put Mitti in. In order to keep herself and her loved ones safe, though, she needs to use these same tactics that she has been taught.

Sekma is a dictator and is ruthless towards anyone who stands in her way, but as Mitti is taught how to navigate the political arena and the repercussions of every possible action, I found myself accidentally getting swept up in her logic, mentally nodding along to the sentiment that of course it makes sense to assassinate one person rather than allow a civil war that would slaughter thousands of innocent people. I had to abruptly pull myself out of the story when I realized the I was getting sucked into this tangled logic trap. It really show you how people become indoctrinated into this life.

This is a setting that I know very little about–the Ancient Egyptian royal court–but I felt completely immersed in it. I’m not usually someone reads political thrillers or books that deal with court intrigue, but I was interested in the directions that the book went in terms of political maneuvering. And it was nice to see the relationships between Mitti and other women seamlessly integrated into the story, neither the entire focus of the book nor swept under the rug. Mitti’s attraction to women is a driving force in her life, but it’s not the only one. It’s nice to read a story that balances those so well, not reducing her sexuality to a single line or paragraph, but also giving us something other than a romance or coming out story.

I did also have some issues with the book, however. The writing was overall functional, but there were some awkward sentences, and it has a habit of jumping back forth in time–first describing an event, then describing the lead-up to the event, then continuing from the middle again–and although it worked sometimes, I think it was overused. At other points, large periods of time are skipped, and there were some relationships that I would have liked developed more. My biggest problem was with the conclusion. I was enjoying Apprentice Queen‘s slow build, which establishes Mitti as a character and how she changes over time, and establishes all the nuances of the final conflict. As the pages began dwindling, though, I started to worry that it was not going to wrap up satisfactorily.

[spoilers, highlight to read] And sadly, I didn’t think it did. I had understood that she was likely going to kill Nyserra, but I was left still confused by why she did it, which was the mystery I had been waiting the entire book to find out–what could drive someone to do something so monstrous? Was the answer really just “To serve as a distraction”? I didn’t get enough explanation to see why that was necessary. I also felt like the disconnect between Nyserra and Kham happened abruptly. I would have liked to see their growing tension, instead of straight from blissfully in love to saying “I hate you”.

There were other details that I appreciated, including Mitti’s surprisingly positive relationship with her husband (though I didn’t like that she later thought his life was worth less than an animal’s and like it was cruel for him to be alive, considering he always seemed happy when she saw him)  and some of the interesting side characters that populate the book. On the other hand, I hated that the first time Kham and Nyserra have sex, Nyserra repeatedly tells Kham to stop and pushes her away. That’s not romantic, that’s rape. I know it’s not meant to be, but that’s how it’s written, and I hate when sex is described in that way. [end spoilers]

Overall, Apprentice Queen is a fascinating read for its exploration of how people adapt to a political life, but it also has some flaws that detracted from the reading experience for me. If you’re intrigued, I still think it’s worth picking up and giving it a try, but I wish the ending especially was a little more of a payoff.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews All the Devils Here by Astor Penn


If you’re like me, you have observed the dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA trend and thought “Yes, great, but where’s the lesbian version of this?” Don’t worry. It exists. All the Devils Here takes place after the worst has already happened. The majority of the population has been wiped out in a massive pandemic, everyone else is on the run, avoiding both the infected and the mysterious governmental (?) units roaming in vans–promising safety but delivering gunshots and kidnappings.

I thought it was interesting that the book starts here, with Brie already having been on the run for a while, and having adapted to this new reality. I would have expected to start at beginning of the outbreak, following her as she escapes New York, but instead we get this backstory summarized later. It shifts the focus from how this happened to the process of surviving. And that is what the narrative revolves around: not any specific goal or path, just the relentless determination to survive at almost any cost. Despite the genre, I didn’t actually find this a fast-paced book. It is short, but although Brie is a survivor and active in her perseverance, the plot revolves around things that happen to her and then her attempts to deal with it. Through no fault of her own, she is a passive agent with very little control over her life in this cutthroat landscape.

The arc of the story is not so much the plot as it is Brie’s understanding of how she has changed as a person in order to survive, and her relationship with Raven, who begins as an extremely reluctant ally and becomes a vital person in her life. There is a bit of an element of insta-love in this, but it’s more understandable in the context of a dystopian future where any human contact is unusual. I do wish that we got more from Raven as her own person as opposed to Brie’s perception of her, however. She permeates the novel in Brie’s fixation on her, but we don’t actually get to learn a lot about her. In fact, my biggest problem with this book is how Raven is described. She is referred to constantly by her (dark) skin color, which is once compared to mud. She is repeatedly described as a “wild thing” (when she’s not the “prettiest thing”). Brie makes a lot of assumptions about her based on her appearance, which considering that she knows pretty much nothing about her other than her skin color, seem pretty racist: she assumes that Raven is a “lost girl” with no relationship with her family, who left home too young. She contemplates whether Raven was a sex worker in her former life. There is absolutely no context as to why Brie is making these assumptions about her other than her appearance and the fact that she is alive and alone (which, of course, Brie–a pampered boarding school student–also is).

I found the governmental agency to be the most interesting element of the story. We know that they are taking people in vans against their will, and there are rumors of camps that are being set up, but we don’t know the motives of this organization. I couldn’t help but think that these people very well could have a cure and be trying to help survivors, but there would be no way to know this as a person hiding in the woods. Because of the lack of any source of media, these people in hazmat suits are a complete wild card. [vague spoilers, highlight to read] Even as we learn more about this group of people, they remain morally grey, which I thought was interesting. In some ways they are the villains of the piece, but they are also the only reason humanity has any hope of a “civilized” future. [end spoilers] 

I found All the Devils Here to be an interesting concept, but it wasn’t the fast-paced thrill ride I expect from this genre. I did like the examination of what it takes to be a survivor in situations like this, and how it affects a person’s perception of themselves, and I’m happy to have a queer addition to this genre, but I was looking for a little bit more from this in terms of plot. And I found Raven’s depiction disappointing. This was a mixed bag for me, but if you’re interesting in a survival story with a bit of lesbian romance thrown it, All the Devils Here is worth the read!

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Just Girls by Rachel Gold


Just Girls is one of the new releases that I was most excited about reading, because I found the premise very interesting. It tells the story of two women in college: Tucker, an out cis lesbian, and Ella, a bisexual trans woman. The book cycles between their perspectives. When Tucker finds out that people are speculating about who the trans woman is in the dorms and being generally hateful, she angrily defends the anonymous student and spontaneously “outs” herself as trans in order to take the brunt of the hate herself. The idea of a cis person pretending to be trans for any reason could go very badly, no matter how noble the intentions (not to mention that the author is also cis), but I still wanted to see where the story would go–not to mention that lesbian fiction is severely lacking in trans women characters.

Surprisingly, though the premise should have been much more of a minefield than Gold’s previous book, Being Emily, I ended up really loving this one. Emily and Claire (her girlfriend) do make appearances in this one, but they are minor characters, and you don’t have to read the two together or in order. The two things that really struck me in this narrative were the realism and the scope of the novel. While Being Emily is narrowly focused on the experience of being trans, its successor weaves this in with other issues of sexism and being queer. It also shows a different reality than the previous book: while Emily experienced a lot of push back from her coming out, Ella had a supportive family and community. She was able to access the hormones and surgery that she needed, and she had a strong support system. That isn’t to say that it was easy for her, but it was definitely different from Emily’s experience, and I appreciated the acknowledgment that there isn’t just one trans experience.

Again, I can’t speak to how accurate the portrayal of being a trans woman is, but the depiction of the LGBTQ crowd on campus definitely rang true. The drama, the friendship, and [spoiler, highlight to read] yes, even the abuse [end spoiler] seemed to mirror the community that I participated in during university. I had to laugh at the paragraph

Tucker pulled a piece of paper out of her notebook and scrawled on it: Are Vivien and Summer still together? Yes. No. Cal was sitting next to her and she put it in front of him. He looked at it for a minute, then picked up his pen and circled both Yes and No.

Ella also has to deal with sexism on a daily basis, especially as a woman in science. She has several great moments where she reacts against these microaggressions, including when she’s questioned on her gaming prowess and says

“All my high scores are in Pretty Princess Magical Rescue Adventure,” I deadpanned back.

“Me, too,” Shen said in mock surprise.

“I bet my unicorn would own yours,” I told him.

There is also quite an array of diversity in Just Girls; I was especially glad to see that Ella is bisexual (although she doesn’t necessarily identify as such yet, the word “bisexual” is actually used in text, which shouldn’t be worth nothing but still is), and there are PoC characters, though both Ella and Tucker are white. Nico, Ella’s friend/ex is genderqueer and Ella describes per/yo (Nico changes pronouns fairly regularly) as looking, in one outfit, like an “Afro-Asian god/dess”. One of Ella love interests is Shen, who is Chinese, and his cousin Johnny, who is Chinese-American, also a significant side character. Shen is quiet and subtle, and may have come off as stereotypical if he was the only Asian character in the novel, but Johnny’s boisterous personality balances them out.

As for my original concerns with the premise, like If You Could Be Mine, I thought that it managed to navigate that minefield pretty well, but I recognize that other people might disagree. (Hang on, why do this book, If You Could Be Mine, and Adam all feature cis characters pretending to be trans? And written by cis women? That’s an alarming trend. Though this book also features a trans woman main character, of course.) I was worried about it: there is a moment where Tucker attempts to look more masculine to fit the trans persona, and at some point Ella looks at her with tears in her eyes and says she’s “so heroic”, which screams “cis saviour” to me (like “white saviour“). Another character also says that Tucker is being brave for pretending to be trans, and Tucker says that more people should do so.

At the same time, it made me think about the various protests where straight people have “played gay” as protest to anti-gay demonstrations, and this generally viewed positively. Is “playing trans” to protest anti-trans sentiment a similar action? What really changed my mind, though, is that Tucker faces consequences for this action. (More on this in the spoiler section.) And Ella acknowledges the difference between Tucker saying she’s trans and the reality for trans people, when she thinks that sure, if a cis woman tried to use the men’s room as protest they’d just be told to stop, “but what if she’d been a trans student?” As a cis person, Tucker can step away from this, at least to some degree, if she chooses to.

I really think this book has so much packed into it. As I started to write this review, I realized how much I want to say about it. If you’re curious about Just Girls and wanted to remain unspoiled, I definitely recommend giving it a try. The characters are complex, the story is compelling, and it’s packed with things to think about. Highly recommended, though I would definitely put some trigger warnings on that recommendation (transphobia, violence, rape).

Lots of the things I want to discuss happen in the latter half of the book, so spoilers below.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was how the idea of community was handled. There is an LGBTQ community, but that community isn’t necessarily safe. Ella (and Tucker, when she is “playing” trans)  is rejected by both feminist and queer community members (though they are accepted by others in that community). Nico has yos gender interrogated by LGBTQ community members. The TA in Tucker’s Gender Studies class is openly transphobic. In contrast, when she outs herself to Shen, he is completely supportive. That isn’t to say that there isn’t positive queer communities, only that Ella is able to find community in a range of places: through select queer people, cis/straight people, and even supportive strangers.

Shortly after Tucker “comes out” as trans, she is attacked because of it. It’s an odd mix, because Tucker faces the physical effects of this, but Ella deals with the personal effects of knowing that she was the person who that attack was meant for. Later, Tucker is raped by her ex-girlfriend, a woman well-respected in the Gender Studies field and part of the school’s LGBTQ community. Ella tells Tucker that since she protected Ella earlier in the semester, she would protect Tucker now.  When she goes to the administration, she doesn’t get a lot of support. Ella realizes “So she could end up having to walk to class every day on the same campus as her rapist”–which instantly reminded me of the Columbus student who is protesting her rapist’s continued presence on campus by carrying her mattress as a visual sign of the weight of her trauma.

Ella rallies support around Tucker, partly by rallying a crowd through Johnny and Shen’s gamification of a protest, and partly by coming out to said crowd and indicating that Tucker had put herself on the line in order to protect Ella. This protest as game is ingenious as a strategy, and it also is heartwarming. I found myself tearing up as I read about this group of people willing to protect victims and protest the school board’s lukewarm attention to this. Again, I was reminded of the follow-up protests in Columbia, in which other students helped to carry the mattress in solidarity. In this community, Tucker is able to feel safe as she is escorted to classes. When she finds out that Lindy’s previous girlfriend was also abused, she is able to access that rage and act on it, not to protect herself, but to protect others. Both Tucker and Ella grow a lot throughout the book, and are able to support each other to get through it. I think that is what saves it from being a “cis saviour” narrative: first, Ella is just as big a part (if not bigger) of this story than Tucker is, and second because the support is mutual, and they end up on even ground.

I do have some complaints. There are some remarks through the book that I disagree with, but I acknowledge that Ella and Tucker are not perfect, and that doesn’t mean the book supports their views. (For example, Tucker pities the plight of women in far off countries who are being oppressed, and wishes she could take them to the US to be saved. Ella, when being concerned about having sex, thinks that some people fetishize the “hermaphrodite” look.) One point that I couldn’t dismiss, though, was the ableism: Lindy’s abusive actions are chalked up to some indeterminate mental illness, as if neurotypical people cannot be abusive, or people with mental illness are more dangerous (instead of the reality, which that they’re more likely to be victims of violence and abuse). Also, when Ella meets Lindy she muses that maybe she has “high-functioning, undiagnosed Asperger’s” (which doesn’t even make any sense: how would you know whether she’d been diagnosed?) Also, as a small complaint, I’d rather that Lindy hadn’t been a plagiarist. The truth is that there are people who are well-respected in their field and who are also abusive. It seems too simple to say “Well, she was a terrible person, therefore that paper than was so acclaimed must not have actually been written by her”.

Another minor point, but I also thought the depiction of the Gender Studies class was pretty unrealistic. In one, the teacher asks how many people think sexism is over and feminism is no longer needed, and half the class raises their hands? Maybe it was the hippie left coast university I went to, but in my experience, almost no one takes Women’s Studies or Gender Studies who isn’t already feminist-leaning. People who disagree with feminism tend to have very little interest in those classes. Also, the teacher (who is supposedly trans positive) takes on an openly transphobic TA, and then doesn’t correct her while she is spouting off transphobic, ridiculous arguments to a student? And then says “I want you to learn to stand up to an opposing viewpoint on your own,” though she acknowledges that she wouldn’t expect that if it was anti-feminist criticism? Again, maybe it was just my hippie university, but I have never seen a Women’s Studies teacher do that, at least not one who’s well respected.

I do have some complaints, and I definitely think that other people could get completely different things out this book (I would love to read some reviews by trans women in comparison), but I would definitely recommend this book, if just for the sheer amount of discussions it raises. As a beginner to trans issues, I’d recommend this over Being Emily, and I think it would be a less triggering read for trans readers as well (though it does deal with transphobia, violence, and rape), because the main characters begin the novel already trans positive. I’m really glad this book is out there, and I hope it gets a lot more attention.

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

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Very Civil Wedding by V. T. Davy


What an interesting book. A Very Civil Wedding follows the announcement that the Princess of Wales has gotten engaged… to her girlfriend. (This is set in 2014.) Following this is the media frenzy, the backlash, and the planning involved. The book is structured in all kinds of different snippets, arranged chronologically. These includes descriptions of a meeting of politicians, a blog post by an anti-gay activist, a news bulletin, a description of the princess and her fiancee having a conversation, etc. It reads less like a novel and more like living through a few months in the future. It felt surreal to read because it was so realistic. It really feels like the mishmash of information you would get if you were actually living through this, especially as, say, a family member of the people involved.

My favourite realistic element was the description of the media, which seemed extremely accurate. The sensationalizing Daily Express headline “UNAPPROVED SPERM DONOR MEANS QUEEN WILL NOT CONSENT TO ALEX AND GRACIE’S MARRIAGE” was especially, hilariously apt. It is this realism, however, that can also make A Very Civil Wedding a tough read. There is a lot of homophobic comments in this book from detractors, ranging between the pseudo-accepting “I love homosexuals, I just don’t think they should get married” to the openly hateful. Most of it, because it is mostly major media, is closer to the beginning of that spectrum, but that is painful enough to read, especially when it echoes things you can actually hear on the news right now.

The narrative presents both pro- and anti-gay protestors, including Christians on either side of that fence. I do, perhaps naively, think that the backlash presented is more extreme than I imagine would actually happen… Or I really, really hope it is. Of course, as a story, it is obviously in favour of this couple and their marriage.

I was surprised by this book. The format is so different from anything I’ve read before, and I really think it worked well. As I’ve said, it felt hyper-realistic: more like catching up on the news than reading a fictional narrative. That did sometimes work to its detriment, because there wasn’t a really fast-paced plot to pull me along, and the constant switches of perspective and medium could slow down my reading pace. (There was this little bit of mystery in someone’s journal entries that keep appearing throughout the book without having them named, however, and I thought that was a nice touch with a good reveal.) But I don’t think it was meant to be a quick, breezy read. It almost seems like a thought experiment. And I really think that A Very Civil Wedding succeeded in what it aimed to do.

That isn’t to say there weren’t some faults. Because of all the different people you encounter, I found that names ran together (especially when they were referred to by title or first name or last name). There were a few typos. The word “transsexulity” is used a couple times a catch-all term, instead of transgender. And towards the end, especially, there is a lot of religious speeches, if you’re not into that. One thing I was most worried about was the civilian (as opposed to politician, media person, etc) homophobic protester was a Muslim woman. I still think it’s a questionable decision to make the most prominent homophobic character a Muslim (there aren’t really many other people of colour characters that I can think of), but she does get to be a three-dimensional person by the end, so there is at least that.

I would definitely recommend this book, especially if you’re interested in the Royal Family, or like the idea of the different format choice, or are from the UK (though to be fair, I’m not, so I can’t say if there are any big inaccuracies). At the same time, if you’re not able to stomach reading homophobic comments and a sort of bittersweet depiction of the progress of gay rights, this probably isn’t the book for you.

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

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews the Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit

courage of outliers

The Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit is a collection of ten mystery short stories, all with some gay or lesbian content, usually with a lesbian protagonist. I don’t read a lot of mysteries: I tend to be terrible at spotting clues, and usually I end up not only surprised but confused by the big reveal. This is the first collection of mystery short stories that I read, so I can’t claim to be familiar with the genre. I found it to be a very different experience that a full-length mystery, because there isn’t really any space to subtly drop clues and misleads. I felt like it was impossible to figure out the culprit more than a paragraph or two before the protagonist because of this. As a result, it didn’t have that mystery feel to me, because it was less a puzzle to solve, and more of a traditional narrative, but one that features a crime. I also felt like so much information and so many characters had to be packed into a story to fulfill the mystery element that I began to find it difficult to keep track of names, though that could just be my own bad memory.

I definitely think that the biggest strength of this collection is the characters. Samit is great at quickly establishing a character’s personality in each short story, and they feel very believable and interesting. There is also a big variety of protagonists between the stories, of different ages, sexualities, races, and backgrounds. Most of the protagonists were people I wish I could spend more time with, and even though they only lasted a dozen pages or so, their lives seemed to be fully imagined.

Unfortunately, I did also have some issues with the collection. Although the characterization was strong, personally I found most of the plots not very compelling. This could be because I’m not a big mystery reader, but again, I felt like it was missing that slow reveal of clues that I relate to mysteries. Most of the time, I just wasn’t very invested in the solution to the murder, because the victims weren’t characters that I knew or cared about, and the circumstances weren’t puzzling enough to make me compelled to find out how it was done. I also did find the writing a little clunky at times, including the odd use of quotations around words that I would consider pretty well established, like ‘ex-girlfriend’ or a police ‘statement’. Although the main characters were believable, sometimes the characterization of minor characters seemed rushed, such as with this description: “Raised in a tough South Boston neighborhood, Officer Valerie Hawkins–whose daughter had committed suicide–had been briefly assigned to assist another officer in the new cyber-crimes section.” That’s a pretty big aside. Another sentence that made me do a double take: “That night, it was on the eleven o’clock News that Mercedes Vega, the ex-wife of Paul Farnsworth and former piano teacher, had been discovered robbed and fatally attacked by her daughter.” To clarify, she was discovered by her daughter, not attacked by her daughter.

There were also some questionable moments in the stories, such as the word “transvestite” being used without context, and a (non-Romani) main character describing herself as a “gypsy” because she travels a lot. One story mentions, again without any more context, that a woman has an affair with a “married man whose wife was disabled.” Also, one story involves the murder of babies born with disabilities, and another has a child with disabilities who is (or was) very violent. Combined, those don’t make for the best representation of people with disabilities. Though, there is also one protagonist who was in a psychiatric ward. Those were moments that made me uncomfortable, especially since this collection does seem to be actively trying to be diverse.

As you can tell, I was a little conflicted on this one. I would still recommend it if you are a fan of mystery/crime short stories, especially with queer characters, but there are definitely some flaws as well.

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