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.

Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Shannon reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us, the 2019 release from author Kit Frick, is the story of two teenaged girls, both desperate to hold onto their secrets and their dreams, even if it means teaming up to take down their mutual enemy. It’s fast-paced and twisty, but not without its faults.

Amanda Kelly has known she would marry Carter Shaw for pretty much as long as she can remember. It’s one of those things that’s simply part of who she is. No one has ever asked her if it’s what she wants, and though a piece of Amanda struggles with the expectations her parents have placed on her, she’s pretty sure she loves Carter and is ready to get married as soon as they’re both done with school. Sure, Carter’s not perfect. He’s cheated on her a time or two, but Amanda’s sure they can get past his indiscretions. After all, isn’t that what true love is all about?

Rosalie Bell wants nothing more than to keep her head down until she turns eighteen. Once she’s a legal adult, she can leave her ultra-conservative parents behind and finally fully embrace her identity as a lesbian. As it is, she has a secret girlfriend and a fake relationship with the super popular Carter Shaw, the kind of boy her parents have always wanted her to spend time with. Carter’s  nice enough, but Rosalie just isn’t into him that way, but she knows she has to keep pretending to be straight if she wants to have a chance at living life on her own terms.

Amanda and Rosalie don’t really know each other, although each is all too aware of the other’s existence. Amanda wishes Rosalie would relinquish whatever hold she seems to have on Carter, and Rosalie feels a mixture of guilt and envy whenever she thinks of Amanda. But when both girls start receiving disturbing text messages from a blocked number, they realize someone out there knows each of their secrets and is ready to make them known to the world if Amanda and Rosalie don’t follow instructions. Now, these two must team up if they hope to come out of this unscathed, but how can they hope to work together with so much unspoken angst between them?

Rosalie’s character is the best thing about this book. I could feel her inner conflict whenever the story was told from her perspective. She doesn’t enjoy using Carter as her fake boyfriend, but her parents’ religious beliefs pose a real danger to her if she admits she’s attracted to girls. It’s a tough situation, one I don’t see in many books these days, and I applaud the author for bringing it to life on the page in a way that feels so relatable and authentic.

Amanda turned out to be a harder character for me to like. She’s super privileged, and while this in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, her thoughts and beliefs were sometimes hard for me to swallow. There’s a sense of entitlement about her that drove me nuts at times. Her life definitely isn’t perfect, but her problems felt insignificant when compared to the things Rosalie is constantly going through. I wanted her to wake up and take a good look at reality rather than just whining about how hard things were for her.

There is quite a bit of homophobic rhetoric here, most of which comes from Rosalie’s parents and their religious leaders. While this gave me a deeper understanding of the peril Rosalie would be in if those around her discovered her sexual orientation, it could prove difficult for some readers to deal with.

All Eyes On Us is the first novel I’ve read by Kit Frick, and although I didn’t love everything about it, I’m intrigued enough to check out more of the author’s work. She definitely knows how to create a compulsively readable thriller, and I’m always on the lookout for those, especially when they feature characters who are bisexual or lesbian.

Danika reviews Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Follow Your Arrow by Jessica VerdiAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

CeCe and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media stars. They have about a million followers each, and they are #RelationshipGoals. Their ship name is Cevie, and their lives online and off are intertwined. CeCe’s picture-perfect crafted persona begins to fall apart, though, when bickering with her girlfriend turns into fighting–none of which is reflected on the app, of course–which turns into a break up. CeCe isn’t sure what her brand is now that she’s single. To complicate things further, CeCe is bisexual–she’s been out for years–and she’s starting to get a crush on a very offline guy. How will he react to her online life, and how will her Cevie fans react to him?

This is the second of two bi YA books I read that come out today! (Also check out my review of I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre.) I have to take this space to do a little celebration of that fact! I remember when hardly any queer YA got published in a year, never mind two traditionally published bisexual YA books in the same day. Because this is the Lesbrary, I want to make clear that this features a M/F romance with a bi woman main character.

Follow Your Arrow is a coming-of-age-on-the-internet story. CeCe is immersed with “the App,” and her sense of self is wrapped up in it. She was once an outspoken activist–her walls are covered in protest signs she carried in marches–but she has sanitized this aspect of herself online. She used to get into screaming arguments with her Conservative father, until he left them. Now, she tries to make sure that nothing she does online could result in a pile-on. When her online fanbase begins to turn on her anyways, she has to re-evaluate. I appreciate that there’s some nuance here: it’s not a scare tactic about social media or “cancel culture:” the story acknowledges positives and negatives of both.

Like I Think I Love You, I really liked how this examined bisexuality as a distinct identity: not just gay light or… spicy straight. CeCe feels like she’s not considered queer enough to have pride or have it be an important part of her identity: she has talked herself out of getting a rainbow tattoo, because she doesn’t feel that she can “claim” this, or that people would object because she’s not “queer enough.” I also appreciated that she’s primarily attracted to women. Bisexuality with a preference isn’t something I’ve seen represented in YA before, but it’s very common in real life.

This turned out to be a bit of a personal read, but to explain that, I have to wander into potential spoiler territory–but not more than what’s on the back of the book. CeCe is worried that, despite being out as bi, she will receive backlash online if she dates a guy. To be clear: I have in no way at any time been famous on the internet. But I have been famous on one tiny part of the internet, which is the lesbian books part of it–at least 5 years ago. And when I started dating a guy after IDing as a lesbian for years online, I went through a miniature version of this on tumblr. Seeing people talk about your dating life and identity online, especially in a vindictive way, is very weird and definitely gets in your head (especially if you’re already going through an identity crisis). I cannot imagine being a truly public figure, because I sure couldn’t help myself from looking at that train wreck constantly until people lost interest.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father. I was worried that the trajectory was towards CeCe making amends even though her father was hateful, both politically and personally. (Mild spoiler:) Luckily, I was wrong about that. The narrative showed that she was right to separate herself, and that it is the healthiest thing for her.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Danika reviews I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

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I Think I Love You is a bisexual YA F/F romcom told in alternating perspectives between Emma and Sophia. Emma is a romantic. She loves love, and she’s happy to play matchmaker with her friends. Sophia is the anti-romantic: after her parents split up, she now doesn’t believe in (romantic) love. When Emma tries to make a bisexual romcom to enter in a film contest, Sophia refuses, hoping to direct something artsy and tragic. Their bickering splits the friend group in half–but this is a romcom, so it doesn’t end there, especially when her friends come up with a scheme to try to reunite the groups.

This is a classic enemies-to-lovers/hate-to-love romance story, chockful of tropes. Emma and Sophia get in heated arguments, hurling out insults that cut to the quick–but even when they’re fuming, they’re still absentmindedly noting how the other’s face lights up when she laughs. At first, I was worried that Sophia was too cruel in their arguments, but as the book goes on, they both give as good as they get.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of this story are in its relationship to romcoms: if that’s a format you love, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you’re allergic to romance tropes, though, I’d advise giving it a pass. As much as the relationship between Sophia and Emma is the focus of the story, it’s not what I appreciated the most.

I read this for Book Riot’s All the Books podcast, where Liberty and a rotating crew of cohosts discuss the books out that day. I happened to pick two bisexual contemporary YA novels, both out March 2nd, that both discussed bisexuality as an identity category in a way that resonated with me. (The other is Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi, which I will review soon!) In this one, Emma worries about feeling like she shouldn’t make a big deal of her bisexuality–but it is a big deal to her, and it’s a significant part of her identity. She worries about coming out to her parents. Partly because they have made some offhand ignorant comments in the past, but also because she doesn’t know how to communicate how important it is to her. I think that bisexuality is often downplayed as not significant: when bi women are in relationships with another woman, they’re still seen as basically a lesbian, and when they’re with a man, they’re seen as essentially straight. It’s not often respected as a distinct identity, and one that can be just as meaningful to that person as being gay is. (Which is to say that everyone has their own relationship to labels.)

I also enjoyed the relationship between Emma and her cousin, Kate. Kate is a fatshionista who is unfailingly kind, and Emma absolutely idolizes her. That is likely tied to Emma’s low self-esteem, but I liked seeing this fiercely protective relationship between the two of them: I don’t read a lot of stories with friendships or family relationships that are that intense unless they’re siblings.

I’ll admit, sometimes I Think I Love You verged on the melodramatic for me, but it delivers exactly what it promises. It’s a hate-to-love story with bickering, banter, and heartfelt moments. I was worried that one aspect of the plot was going in a wildly unrealistic direction, but I was happy to proven wrong. If you want a romcom read with a bit of cheesiness, but also a great discussion of coming out as bi, give this one a try!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

Marieke reviews It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

I must say this was a bit of a frustrating read. I went in with the intention to try and break my reading slump (because, you know, I had a review to write, so something had to give), which is why I picked a contemporary YA story – it’s something I haven’t read in a while. Unfortunately, this book didn’t make me much more enthusiastic about picking up another within the genre soon…

Sana is a Japanese American second-generation high school student, and her parents are springing a big life change on her: they are moving from somewhere in rural America (I’m bad at geography for the States, or anywhere really) to California. She goes from being one of three other Asian students in her high school, to a high school where a third of all students is Asian, with another third being made up of Latin American students. It’s a whole new ball game!

Obviously, with this big a shift in demographics, racism is one of the major themes explored throughout the story, and unfortunately Sana does not come off well. On the one hand she is very much aware of microaggressions and overt racist statements when they’re directed at her (quite regularly by her own mother). On the other hand, she somehow doesn’t compute that people of other ethnicities might have similar experiences, even if the specific aggressions and racism directed at Black and Latin people looks completely different from what Asian people tend to receive. She dissects the ways racism touches her so much that it comes off as almost unbelievable for her to not bring up the motivation or energy to even listen to others when they try to explain what their situation looks like – let alone trying to figure out those patterns by herself.

This is an important point, because Sana’s main love interest, Jamie, is of Mexican heritage. There is a scene where some pretty overt and frankly scary racism is directed at Jamie and her friends, while Sana receives relatively moderate racism (if there is such a thing). Afterwards they all discuss what just happened, but Sana doesn’t even attempt to suss out the differences in experience, even though they come with entirely different baggage and (potential) consequences. She ends up parroting some anti-Mexican phrases from her mother, and just generally really digs herself a rather deep hole.

The worst part is that she still holds on to these beliefs once she has some time to herself. She does make an effort to think critically, but somehow doesn’t compare the two different forms of treatment they received to see how similar patterns can lead to such differing outcomes. She’s so strongly entrenched in her own beliefs that she needs others to repeatedly point out where she’s wrong when shit properly hits the fan before even considering she might not be in the right.

Her friends aren’t always helpful in this regard, as they make for a bit of an echo chamber on some of the issues Sana is being called up on, and some of them find it hard to accept her exclusive romantic interest in women. The high school they attend seems relatively progressive, in light of the demographic split plus sporting a Gay Straight student alliance. Of course, everyone can be okay with anything until they’re directly faced with it themselves, and not all of Sana’s friends handle her coming out equally well.

This behaviour has a big impact on her relationship with Jamie: Sana’s friends believe Jamie is not good enough for Sana for a number of bad reasons, and one of them is that maybe Sana just hasn’t been with the right guy yet. It doesn’t help that Sana is insecure in herself and so finds it hard to trust Jamie to not cheat with someone else, something especially high on her mind because she suspects her own father is cheating on her mother. All of this combines for the perfect storm that forms the story’s climax, where Sana makes a lot of bad decisions, and not all of them are resolved in a satisfactory, sufficient, or believable manner.

The novel tackles a lot of really heavy subjects, and they’re all being interrogated from different angles, so intersectionality is clearly important for the author in these considerations. Sometimes that whole combination is just too much, and I feel the story could have benefited from streamlining some of these discussions, or possibly being told from an entirely different character perspectives: Sana’s mother and Jamie’s friend Christina were two of my favourites, both well written and complicated – sometimes more so than the actual main character – even while they are not perfect.

Content warnings: mild homophobia, racism, emotional manipulation, generally bad life choices (so lots of second hand embarrassment)

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha NganAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Shannon reviews The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

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I’ve been a thriller fan for years, but I’ve always felt a little let down by the lack of queer representation in the genre. In recent years, things do seem to have gotten a bit better in this regard, but fast-paced, hard-hitting thrillers with female protagonists who aren’t straight still feel more uncommon than I’d like. So, I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I was to stumble upon the gem that is The Girls I’ve Been, the latest young adult thriller by Tess Sharpe. Nora, our main character, is bisexual, in love with a girl while still nursing complex feelings for her ex boyfriend.

In many ways, Nora’s life is messy. Her ex boyfriend walked in on her making out with her girlfriend, and although she and Wes haven’t been together that way in quite some time, Nora can’t help but feel bad for the surprise seeing her with someone else must have been for him. Plus, the three of them have an important errand at a nearby bank, and it’s something none of them feels they can back out on. So, Nora, Wes, and Iris meet early in the morning to deposit the money they’ve raised for a fundraiser. Nora figures the errand might be a bit awkward, but she hopes those feelings can be worked through pretty quickly.

Things go from awkward to downright dangerous when two armed men enter the bank and announce they’re robbing the place. Nora is terrified, but she also knows staying calm is the very best thing she can do. You see, Nora’s early life was anything but ordinary. Up until she was twelve, Nora lived with her mother, a very successful con artist who thought nothing of making Nora a prop in her various scams. Through these unconventional and dangerous experiences, Nora has learned a ton about what makes people act in certain ways, and she’s confident in her ability to get herself and those she loves out of this in one piece, just as long as she can come up with a workable plan.

Over the next few hours, Nora fights desperately to escape the bank, using all the skills she learned from her mother, skills she hasn’t used in the five years since she and her older sister managed to have their mother put in prison. Fortunately for Nora, the skill of the con doesn’t wear off, and it doesn’t take long for her to once again comfortably inhabit the skins of all the girls her mother taught her to become.

The Girls I’ve Been is so much more than an action-packed thriller. Sure, it’s the kind of book you’ll hate to put down. The action is nonstop, and the author’s writing is incredibly engaging. However, if you look beneath the surface of the story, you’ll soon realize there’s so much more than just survival going on. Nora has been struggling to come to terms with her past for years now, and it’s only through her desperate fight to come out of the bank robbery alive that she realizes just how complex and multi-layered a person she is.

I loved Nora as a heroine. I found myself cheering her on, even when the tactics she used felt less than up front or honest. The traumas of her past have definitely left their mark on her, but Nora is determined to be a person in her own right, no longer subject to someone else’s whims. She doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay. So much of the joy I took from this novel came from watching her come into her own, even when she had to make serious mistakes along the way.

Parts of the book might be difficult for some readers. Nora experienced some terrible things as a child, and although the author doesn’t go into graphic detail about the abuse she suffered, neither does she completely shy away from it. It’s dealt with in a sensitive way, but it’s still something potential readers should be aware of before diving into this story.

The Girls I’ve Been really is one of the best thrillers I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. I literally read it in one sitting, and now that I’ve reached the end, I kind of want to go back and read it again, just so I can spend more time in Nora’s head.

Danika reviews The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

Nora was raised by her con artist mother to be many girls: whoever their mark needed her to be. When her mother falls for the criminal, abusive man she was supposed to be conning, though, Nora made a risky escape. Now, she’s been trying to live a normal life. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have that option anymore: she, her ex-boyfriend, and her girlfriend have been taken hostage by bank robbers.

I was immediately hooked by this premise. First of all, there is the awkward social situation of Nora, Wes, and Iris being trapped together: Wes walked in on them kissing and is not impressed that they’ve been keeping this a secret–they’re all supposed to be friends. Add a potentially deadly hostage situation, and you’ve got a guarantee of tension and drama. All I really needed was for this bisexual heist/con YA novel to live up to its premise, and did it ever.

When picking up a YA thriller, I wasn’t sure what to expect: some of the darkest books I’ve read have been YA, while others keep the blood off the page. This book definitely does not shy away from violence. In fact, there is a long list of serious trigger warnings attached to this. It also hits the ground running and never lets up: the bank robbery takes place on the second page of this novel. Nora is trying to find their way out of this situation, but she hasn’t told Iris about her past.

Interspersed with this tension are the stories of who Nora used to be. They don’t feel out of place or slow down the action, though: they are always relevant to what is currently happening, and the hints we get of her backstory makes me just as eager to find out about her past as reading about the hostage situation. Nora is an amalgamation of all the roles she’s had to play as a child: she doesn’t know how to be herself, and she’s not sure who she “really” is.

I also loved the supporting characters, who have been forged into this chosen family through their own trauma. Nora lives with her older sister, who she met later in life. Lee escaped from their mother, and she comes back to help Nora escape, too, when Nora is ready. Lee is also queer, though it’s not specified whether she’s bi or a lesbian. She is a badass private investigator who will do anything to protect Nora, including playing hostage negotiator.

Wes is Nora’s ex, but he’s also her closest friend, and the only one who knows her whole story. Wes is abused by his father, the mayor, and he spends most of his time with Nora and Lee. They bond over their shared experiences, and once Nora confronts his father with her own scheme to stop the violence, Wes realizes what she’s been hiding–she didn’t give that information away freely.

Nora’s girlfriend is an intensely memorable character. She loves vintage fashion, wants to be an arson investigator, and is fearless enough that she’s been banned from dares in truth or dare. She can hold her own against Nora, and they clearly adore each other–through Iris is angry that she’s been hiding things from her. She also has endometriosis, which I don’t think I’ve seen represented in a book before. A note in the back of the book explains that this is own voices representation and gives some resources.

I was completely absorbed into this story. It’s fast-paced thriller about misogyny, power, and abuse. Though Nora’s life is exceptional, she points out that misogyny and being threatened by men as a young woman is not unusual, and that it’s something she learned outside of her con artist upbringing. In fact, all of the main characters have been abused by someone with power over them. I also appreciated that therapy is openly discussed: Nora still is working through the trauma she’s gone through, but she’s made progress through therapy, and it’s how she’s able to open up–even a little.

This is one of my favourite reads in a long time. It’s one of those rare books that I was counting down the time until I would be able to read it again, and I stayed up to finish it. It’s hard to enthusiastically recommend a book that is so much about child abuse, but if you are a fan of thrillers that don’t shy away from darkness and violence, you won’t regret picking this up.

Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, gore, murder, rape, child sexual abuse