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.

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.