Adult · Book review · contemporary

Review: Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

40539165._sy475_Queenie is an adult contemporary novel following a Jamaican-British woman navigating mental illness, trauma, and a breakup.

Queenie is one of the most developed characters I’ve read so far this year. She’s full of contradictions, humor, denial and confusion, obviously dealing with a lot while doing her best to ignore that there’s even a problem (and isn’t that just the anxious person’s experience). Her coping mechanisms and self-esteem issues put her in degrading and sometimes dangerous situations involving men, which lead her to spiral.

Stories that manage to portray what is like to be mentally ill and the recovery progress while being completely honest about all the contradictions mental illness is made of aren’t common, especially ones that are as effortless as Queenie. I flied through it – and don’t get me wrong, for the most part, it’s all but a happy story.
Queenie has to deal with a lot of racist aggressions, in many different contexts, and there are several instances of men pursuing her as a fetish instead of as a person they could date, often while dating or being married to non-Black women. And the only man she’s shown dating – the one she’s breaking up with – was just racist enough to think that the overt racism coming from his family wasn’t a problem.

Queenie spends a lot of time being gaslit, being told that she was overreacting, that everything is her fault. It’s upsetting and infuriating to read, and yet this book doesn’t feel like a chore, because it feels so real and earnest. And it’s not only a story about men being horrible, it’s also about the importance of supportive friendships, and navigating difficult family relationships.
I loved reading about Queenie’s family. It’s clear that they love her, and want the best for her, but can’t always communicate or understand what would actually be best for Queenie. They eventually support her in her journey of dealing with her childhood trauma and mental illness, and I’m always glad to see both that and stories about adult characters in which grandparents have an important role.

What I liked the most about this, though, was the portrayal of therapy. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that quite gets how it feels be told to do breathing exercises while your life is falling apart, or having your therapist truly help you but sometimes say the wrong thing when you’re in a vulnerable state.

There are a few things about Queenie that I feel iffy about – most of which revolving around the character of Cassandra.

There’s a specific coincidence that broke my suspension of disbelief

In a city as big as London, what are the chances of Cassandra and Queenie sleeping with the same Guy, and also those of Guy being the guy’s name, creating the whole miscommunication… eh

I’m also wondering why money-lending was a relevant part of the only Jewish character’s plotline.

Overall, I really liked this, and I’m so glad that Queenie got the ending she deserved. I’m hoping to get more into adult contemporary fiction now – there’s a lot this did that a YA contemporary could have never done in terms of portrayal of mental illness, and I definitely feel like I’m ready to read more stories about adults in the real world.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

44603899._sy475_The Last True Poets of the Sea is a contemporary story about the importance of communication. Having read so many stories that only use miscommunication as a plot device, it’s so refreshing to find something that truly tackles how difficult it can be to open up to others, even when you need it; how easy it is to not understand each other inside a family.

Violet’s family has a history of mental illness. Her younger brother Sam has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt, and she has been sent to a coastal small town in Maine to spend the summer with her uncle. She’s very much not ok: she’s dealing with dissociation and panic attacks and a general feeling of not belonging in her own life, of only existing to ruin everything.
Violet is a kind of YA main character I’m not used to reading about – she tries to distract herself through partying, drinking, flirting, sometimes ending up in dangerous situations, and yet she’s never a cautionary tale. She’s queer but doesn’t have everything figured out. And, more than anything, she’s never afraid to take up space, and likes to attract attention: I’m not used to seeing this, because there’s a stigma to women wanting attention (it’s not a case the most common insult used for people who want attention has a gendered slur in it), and characters like Violet are often seen as “unlikable”. I loved her and her growth.

One of the things I liked the most about The Last True Poets of the Sea is how it handles mental illness. We rarely see books deal with the fact that sometimes (often? more often than fiction would have you think) these things run in families, but present themselves differently depending on the person. At the same time, some parts were weird to read for me, because seeing yourself in a side character can be like that (and, by the way, I really didn’t like how they referred to Sam’s panic attacks as “tantrums”. That’s not what that is), but for the most part I can’t complain: this book is uncomfortably accurate in portraying many things, and I really appreciate its dedication to realism.

The teens in this book feel like actual teens. They have acne and ugly feet and questionable taste in clothes (…this is the first time in my life I’ve seen a book with a love interest who has acne), they drink and smoke even though there are times in which they wish they didn’t, they’re reckless and immature and can’t communicate, they have almost nothing figured out. All of these things shouldn’t be so uncommon, and yet I found myself surprised again and again by how real this felt, when its overarching plot is about a group of friends looking for a lost shipwreck of all things.
It also has a very realistic queer love triangle ending in a very sweet romance! And it’s one of the few books in which I’ve seen someone apologize for unintentionally walking over another person’s feelings in this context. It’s… such a gem. And it’s really atmospheric as well: Lyric, Maine doesn’t exist but it sure felt like a real place.

The only thing that didn’t make it feel as real was the audiobook narration, because all the characters, the majority of which are under 17, sounded like middle aged women. (I often couldn’t distinguish them or Violet’s narration from her dialogue.)

I’m giving it four stars mostly because around halfway through I was kind of bored and felt like not much was actually happening, but the last 20% managed to almost make me tear up, which doesn’t happen often.

My rating: ★★★★

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: You Must Not Miss by Katrina Leno

41139049._sy475_You Must Not Miss is a contemporary fantasy revenge story, and one of the most unique YA novels I’ve read in a while. Unfortunately, I’m individuating a pattern with me and Katrina Leno’s novels: I really like their premises, fall in love with the first half, and then everything falls apart in the second one. It’s true for this, and it was true for Summer of Salt as well.

I want to start by saying that You Must Not Miss is the kind of book that starts out slowly, very slowly, until suddenly everything happens at once. It does pay off, but I spent some time around the middle wondering whether something was ever going to happen. It’s a revenge story, yes, but far from a planned, slow-burn one.

I absolutely loved the main character Magpie. She’s a young teen – a sophomore in high school – and her life has fallen apart because of her father’s cheating, her mother’s alcoholism, sexual assault, and a lot of other reasons. She’s in an objectively horrible situation, and she deals with it like someone her age would: she’s barely surviving. She treats the people around her increasingly worse as the story goes on, and seeks refuge in the fictional world she invented – Near – which is consuming her in turn. This book never treats her with anything but empathy, and not only it makes you understand her, it also allows her to be bad without ever turning into a cautionary tale.

The way escapism is a double-edged blade – as much a refuge as it is a trap – is a theme that is really important to me, and I think this is one of the reasons the ending didn’t work for me.

The spoiler-y bit:

Magpie ends up leaving this world for Near, a fictional world she can control almost every aspect of. And maybe I’m over-interpreting things, because while she’s happy, the message of the only way you can be happy if your life is difficult is to leave this world is one I’ve spent… ten years fighting against? It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s that I believe it too much, and to me there’s nothing as dangerous as an echo chamber when it comes to that.

At the same time, I think this is more about me than the book. I think that for some people, this ending could be comforting or liberating. I would like to read a book about escapism vs. real life in which the main character for once finds a balance. This is not that book, and it makes perfect sense for it not to be. Also, it’s not like I ever saw a book end like this before, so it was really interesting to read as well.

42052420._sy475_One thing I really appreciated was how this book explored how terrifying the concept of a teen with magical powers inherently is. I know that if I had had magic at 15 I would have used it for revenge as well! This doesn’t shy away from any of that.
This book also underlined just how important it is to have supportive friends in high school, and just how much a bad friendship and a friendship break-up can make things difficult. A lot of YA is focused on the coming and going of romantic relationships, with friends as reliable but not-so-relevant sidekicks, and this is pretty much the opposite. There is a sweet romantic element – and I really liked Ben as a love interest (queer m/f is great! Ben is trans) – but don’t expect this to be a romance.

It’s also really atmospheric, which I liked a lot. It’s not that it’s set in a particularly remarkable place, it isn’t, but I could see it, and I could see why Magpie felt the need to leave.

Overall, I did like it, but I’m still not completely sure about my feelings on the ending. I recommend it, especially as an audiobook – it was a really good audiobook – but I don’t know if I will reach for more by this author.

My rating: ★★★½

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

34522727._sy475_The Grief Keeper is a contemporary story with sci-fi aspects following Marisol, a Salvadorian lesbian who fled her country for her life, together with her younger sister Gabi. To legally stay in the US, she is forced to take part in a program in which she’ll have to bear the weight of someone else’s grief, all of this while dealing with her own trauma.

I feel weird about calling this a sci-fi book. It is one, because it features technology that doesn’t exist in our reality, and it’s not like sci-fi isn’t made for commenting on current, relevant issues. It’s just that I’m used to having more layers of unreality between a sci-fi book’s reality and our own. What makes The Grief Keeper so heart-wrenching is knowing that if this technology did exist, this is exactly what would happen: less privileged people would have to bear the weight of more privileged people’s trauma.
There is a part of this book in which a character says that if this program is successful, it will “ease a lot of suffering.” Marisol’s well-being is barely considered, and if it is, it’s just to ensure that she still exists to protect the other subject, the privileged white American Rey, from her depression.

It’s a painful read, a necessary one, and yet it’s so hopeful. This is not a tragedy, even though some of the characters are forced to endure things no one should have to. The circumstances are horrible, but the relationships between the characters are the light in the darkness for them. Marisol and Gabi’s sibling bond was so well-written and layered: Marisol wants to protect her sister and her sister is what she is surviving for; Gabi loves Marisol but also wants to break free, to rebel like someone on the cusp of teenagehood would.
I also loved the romance. I didn’t know if I would, because Marisol is falling in love with the other subject, Rey, the girl whose trauma she has to re-experience over and over. This could have turned ugly really easily, and it didn’t. We see this connection build slowly, help Marisol with her internalized self-loathing about being a lesbian, help Rey in many ways the technology she didn’t consent to either could have never, and it’s beautiful. Their scenes in the last 30% of the book were everything.

There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a “romance cures mental illness” story, and it wasn’t; it could have had an ugly power dynamic and it didn’t. There was only one thing I didn’t like, only one thing in the whole book – this book didn’t shy away from psychiatric medications’ side effects like many YA books dealing with mental illness do, but it does somewhat fall in the opposite cliché with one quote: medication turns you into a zombie. Marisol says that the medication she’s taking is working as intended, which means that she is still anxious and depressed, but has no will. While it could be that this is a sci-fi medication meant to do exactly that, the book says that Rey is taking SSRIs, and implies that her and Marisol are taking the same pills. That’s not how antidepressants are supposed to work. Maybe some people experience this as a side effect and the book meant to show that, while also implying Marisol doesn’t know she’s experiencing side effects? I don’t know. I really would have liked more clarification about this.

One of the things that meant a lot to me was how The Grief Keeper talked about bilingualism. The main character is a Spanish native speaker, and English is her second language. Across different first languages, it was interesting to see how our feelings about English were similar, and for once, it’s so great to see a main character who has gone through the same things I do with language: struggling with idioms, with figures of speech; feeling like she has to be perfect because anything less than perfection in an ESL speaker is a sign of ignorance to monolingual speakers who don’t know a word of your language; the way we both have a relationship with language that people who don’t have to be fluent into two languages can’t understand. The amount of Spanish in this book, and the way it isn’t necessarily translated every single time, made me happy.

Another thing I loved was how Marisol and Rey connected over a (fictional) TV show, and how their understanding of their own queerness was also shaped by that show. I think that fandom has an important place in many queer people’s journey of self-discovery in a way that goes deeper than pop culture references built into a story to be relatable, and I love when books reflect that.

I was also surprised by several things: a slight twist in the ending I won’t talk about for obvious reasons, and the character of Indranie. She is an Indian-American woman, and I thought that what this book did with her and the way she is complicit in Marisol’s suffering and yet not portrayed as a fully bad person was such an interesting direction to take.

My rating: ★★★★¾

content warnings: on-page suicide attempt, depressive thoughts, rape threats and threats of homophobic violence, homophobic slurs in both English and Spanish, detention, psychological abuse of a minor at the hand of a doctor, discussion of trauma and grief, and the main characters have to deal with racist and xenophobic rhetoric and with the way the US treats latinx immigrants.

Adult · Book review · contemporary

Review: Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

43199360._sy475_This was suspenseful, intoxicating, queer, and incredibly fucked up; I loved every moment of it.
Bury the Lede is a contemporary graphic novel following Madison, a bisexual Asian-American intern at the newspaper Boston Lede, as she gets drawn into the investigation of a murder that will end up having political implications.

One of the first things to draw me to this book was the art. Stark and beautiful, with a lot of blues, purples, grays – it sets the dark atmosphere right from the beginning, and it’s dynamic and detailed without becoming overwhelming. I loved it before I started to love the story, which – I have to admit – took me a little to warm up to; there are a lot of names I needed to remember to be able to follow this, and during my first read I was somewhat confused (it was also late at night, because I needed to finish this, I needed to know the truth; I was confused but I could tell it was great). However, during my second reread I understood that this was one of the best graphic novels I had ever read.

Books like these remind me how often queer women in media aren’t allowed to be full, flawed human beings. Madison is all of these things, and so is her sometimes-lover Lexi, or the mysterious alleged murderer Dahlia, also queer like so many other side characters. They all choose to pursue what they believe is justice, and to do so, they do some incredibly unethical things. As Madison gets more and more entangled in the case, she finds herself breaking the law multiple times, using people with barely any remorse, and yet the story never treats her like a villain.

Books like Bury the Lede also remind me that portrayals of queer women as sexual beings that are neither predators nor meant to be entertainment for men are not as common as they should be, especially in graphic novels and outside of stories that are specifically meant to be romances. This isn’t in any way a romance, and I loved that about it – and it still has a sex scene between two women on the page, one that is explicit and drawn in a way that cemented my feeling that yes, this was really written with queer women in mind, and not heterosexual men (as most graphic portrayals of queer women are).
It’s a story that portrays queer women engaging in casual sex, having multiple partners, and it’s not fetishizing in the slightest. Madison sleeps with a woman and kisses a man (who is also bisexual) and is in a relationship with neither; about this I also recommend reading the author’s post about bi representation, stereotypes, and who she writes for.

I don’t know if this is meant to have a sequel, but I really hope it does; I want more. More from Madison but also from “Harold”, from Dahlia, even from the reporter of the Trombone.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content Warnings for: murder (on-page, bloody); talk of suicide that might not be suicide; mentions of pedophilia and people covering for child predators (no on-page sexual abuse); roofied drinks; on-page sex scene.

Book review · contemporary

Reviews: Two F/F Romances

Because apparently, lately I review books two at a time.


41734205Looking back, there are many things I didn’t love about Her Royal Highness, but the book was entertaining enough to make me forget about that for most of its length, so does it really matter? Sometimes all you need is a quick read that won’t require that much of your attention and I’m glad that there are traditionally published queer YA books that fit this requirement.

Her Royal Highness is an f/f royal romance set in Scotland with an American main character. One of the first things that stood out in a bad way, to me, is how much this is specifically an American’s wish fulfillment story. I am not Scottish, so I might be wrong about this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were significantly annoying to read if one were; I have read books in which my own country was on the end of an American main character’s weird obsession-borderline-fetish and it’s the worst kind of unintentionally unsettling. I have a lot of feelings about Americans and their portrayals/interpretations of other cultures (which gets listened to and exported over everyone else’s, even said culture’s) and they’re definitely not wholly this book’s fault, so I’m not going to get into this, but it’s still relevant because it’s the only thing that the book never managed to make me forget (it’s far more difficult to ignore in a contemporary book than in the fake fantasy versions).

Maybe this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if everything about this book hadn’t been reliant on it being wish-fulfillment, one that was clearly not written for a non-American audience. The main character Millie is as devoid of a personality as any decent audience surrogate would be, which is not inherently negative – sapphics get to have cheesy self-insert romance like everyone else, too – but if you’re not the target audience (so you’re gay but not American), it stands out. This girl’s supposedly favorite hobby is geology. I think about rocks more than she does and I don’t even like them, and the book also manages to gets its geology facts wrong! Wonderful.

To get through the other main thing that didn’t work: the ending. I love every romance book whose ending isn’t the step-by-step typical romance ending featuring a breakup, but the thing is, I can love one that does that as well; reading romance means signing up for a certain degree of clichés and that’s perfectly fine. However, I don’t think this book managed to pull it off in a believable way and the ending felt both rushed and kind of forced.

Now, onto the things I liked. This was an adorable, fun read that got the instant-dislike to love dynamic just right, and it was just as dramatic (it’s alternate reality with royals. It can’t not be dramatic.) as it needed to be to be fun while not becoming cartoonish. I also think it captured the feeling of being a teenager and relationships being confusing really well (are we a thing? are we not?) and I really appreciated what was done with the Jude subplot. Teenagers are messy and I’m glad we let queer girls be messy as well without anyone turning into the caricature of a villainous ex.
And about the side characters as a whole and the love interest… are all the characters other than Millie well-developed? No. Did they need to be? Also no, so I guess we’re fine.

Overall, if alternate reality contemporary royal romance is your thing, this is really good and you should probably ignore me, as it’s exactly the easy, fun read it promises to be. If not, you might enjoy it anyway! In the end, I did.

My rating: ★★★¼


23294595Treasure is a sweet f/f romance following two young Black women who meet at a strip club.
Alexis is an 18-year-old college student trying to make sense of her life after a really rough year; she has ADHD and is a lesbian, which her family – especially her father – doesn’t really approve of.
Trisha, aka Treasure, is 20 years old, a college student and a stripper, and finds herself in the same classes Alexis attends. Unlike Alexis, she is not from a rich family.

I loved Treasure. It’s a cute, quick read in which the characters have chemistry, and there are not that many books around with positive portrayals of sex workers – it was great that in the end the main conflict didn’t completely revolve around Trisha’s job, too, and Alexis wasn’t close-minded about it.
While for the most part I didn’t love the writing, I thought the sex scenes were really well-written, and I liked how the relationship developed; that’s what matters.
Also, as usual: novellas really are the best format for romance.

I really liked Alexis’ character arc. She is a suicide attempt survivor, and in this story, we see her go from someone who doesn’t really know what she wants and just goes along with what would please her overachieving, perfectionist parents, to a young woman who can stand up for herself.

This isn’t a full five stars for me because of a few minor things, the main one being the fact that, while I loved Trisha, it stands out when in a dual PoV story one character has a fully developed arc and the other doesn’t, not as much. Also, there were multiple occurrences of unintentionally aro/acephobic lines and I could have done without those.

My rating: ★★★★½


Have you read or want to read any of these?

Book review · contemporary · Fantasy

Reviews: Two Books I Loved

Today I’ll review two books I loved this summer, the flash fiction collection The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales by Yoon Ha Lee and the poetry novel The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta. I’ve already mentioned them on this blog multiple times, but I never got around to reviewing them, and that needed to change.

Since we’re nearing the end of the year and many of us are behind on various reading challenges, I also want to mention that both of these are really short and quick reads.


25733384._sy475_The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales is a collection of flash fairytales, many of which gay, many of which featuring shapeshifting foxes and fox spirits, all of them delightful.

This was the book equivalent of a chocolate box. Every story is just a few pages, and maybe not all of them are as memorable, but all of them are pretty and a pleasure to read. And the ones that are memorable are the kind of stories I will never forget, for their wonderful atmosphere or their clever endings or just for how much they made me happy. I feel like we tend to talk a lot about the books that manage to make us cry, and while I can appreciate occasional heartbreak, books like this one will always be more valuable to me.

In The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales you’ll meet dormouse paladins, non-binary oracles, stories about animal wives with a gay twist, and so many surprisingly cuddly foxes. Here you’ll find stories to remind you that a dragon is a state of mind, stories that will give you some insight into the lives of carousel horses, stories that will show you how shadows are just another reminder of the importance of heartlight.

Apart from the really appreciated casual queerness these stories are full of, what I loved the most about this collection were the descriptions. They’re as unique as they’re beautiful, and maybe talking about crystals unfed by unsunlight and the ice-fruit of stars shouldn’t make sense but it does, it always does.

Also, if you’ve read Ninefox Gambit, a fun part is noticing how in some of these stories there are small references to the trilogy, so much that I almost think of this book as “what the people in the world of the Machineries of Empiretrilogy tell as fairytales”. I think the three prose poems – How the Andan Court explicitly, but very likely also Candles and Thunder – were written specifically with some of those characters/parts of that world in mind. The prose poems are really pretty even if you don’t know the context, but with context… I have too many feelings that I can’t put them into words.

Apart from the prose poems, my favorite stories were The Virtues of Magpies, featuring a non-binary youth and their mischievous magical magpie friends, and The Red Braid, whose ending was everything to me. Also, The Firziak Mountains made me laugh, and stories like The Youngest FoxThe Fox’s Forest and The Crane Wife were adorable.

My rating: ★★★★★


41020406._sx318_A beautiful coming-of-age story about a gay biracial black boy as he find his voice through poetry and drag.

For me, it’s always a breath of fresh air to read about marginalized characters who are not from the US. Yes, Michael is British, and it’s not difficult to find stories set in England, but stories about marginalized characters in contemporary are overwhelmingly American. In this story, you’ll see Michael come to terms with what it means for him to be British and Jamaican and Cypriot; to be all of these things and also a gay man, one who wants to be a drag artist.

It’s a really emotional journey, one I would really recommend to everyone who liked The Poet X. The poems in here were so beautiful, especially the ones about biracial and multicultural identity not being made of halves, about best friends being the ones who can hurt you the most with their internalized homophobia and racism (House of Mirrors. That hurt so much), about toxic masculinity, and the final one about coming out.
I also thought that the way this book focused on family relationships – Michael’s somewhat complicated relationship with his mother, who accepts him but still messes up; Michael’s nonexistent relationship with his father; his connection with his uncle and grandmother on his father’s side – and friendships was something that isn’t as common as it should be in YA. Daisy’s (his best friend) storyline was probably my favorite part of the book.

I also really liked the flamingo symbolism, and all the illustrations.

My rating: ★★★★½


Have you read any good short fiction/poetry lately?