Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

42202063Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens is a contemporary story following Nima Kumara-Clark, a biracial Sri Lankan lesbian, as she learns the benefits of going out of her comfort zone through the local drag scene.

I have read a lot of queer books, but none of them prominently featured drag performers. In this novel, the main character, the love interest, and various side characters have been drag performers at some point. With every year we get more YA books about so many different sides of the queer experience, and I’m so glad that’s the case.

This novel has a slice-of-life feel to it. It’s slow-paced, it’s kind of open-ended on some sides, and more than everything, it’s messy. But the messiness is one of its strengths, in a way, and while me and Nima didn’t have a lot in common, I could definitely understand her. She’s awkward, she makes a lot of bad decisions, she is… imperfect in so many ways, and I loved her for that. If you’re the kind of person who needs teen girls to be perfect, I really don’t recommend this, because Nima makes so many mistakes. As teens do.

I especially liked seeing how insecure she was, how she felt what I call “queer imposter syndrome”, because there are moments in which she sees herself as far too bland to even have the right to interact with other queer people. (By the way: answering that your hobby is reading and, when asked for more details, saying that your hobby is reading novels is something I’ve done. It’s what people who have been mocked for their “boring/weird” hobbies or have this specific insecurity would do. Being vague is a shield.)
Also:

Maybe I was assuming too much. I could be making up any interest on her part. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She was probably just being friendly. She seemed really friendly.

Nima is such an awkward lesbian icon. I love her, and I loved her narrative voice, for the most part – but if you plan to go into this, keep in mind that it’s often overdramatic. To make a few examples of weird, emphatic figures of speech in her narration:

“I swallowed my heart back into my chest”
“my heart played hopscotch around my chest”
“her teeth took up her entire face”
 (…what)
“I had a whole mob of butterflies flapping around in my stomach”
“made my heartbeat quicken until I thought she might actually be able to see it through my chest”
“I could feel a heart attack coming on”
“I woke up feeling like someone was making scrambled eggs in my stomach”

And more. It got distracting at times, especially since I don’t love this kind of writing, but for Nima’s personality, it made sense. But my personal favorite was this one:

That was pee-your-pants kind of nervous. This—this was shit-your-pants kind of nervous

As you can see, she’s a poet, and has such a way with words. But, surprisingly, all of this ended up feeling endearing more than annoying.

As I said before, I saw this book as slice-of-life. I say this because a few aspects of this could feel lacking in closure, but I don’t necessarily agree. This is Nima’s story, what her mom is doing isn’t relevant to her – realizing that it isn’t relevant to her is one of the plot points. And I liked Gordon’s storyline. He’s a side character who has a lot of internalized queerphobia and is struggling because of toxic masculinity, but who is also dealing with bodily dysphoria – and it’s implied that he might be trans, even though by the end of the book he’s either still figuring himself out or not ready to come out to people. In any case, it wasn’t Nima’s business: what mattered, what gave closure to the storyline to me, is that by the end they were friends again.
In a way, the ending felt more like a hopeful beginning than an ending, and I really liked that about it. It reminded me a bit of The Gallery of Unfinished Girls: the book might have ended here, but Nima and her friends have a whole life ahead of them. Because of this, and because of how messy this book was, everything felt more real to me.

However, while the drag queen Deirdre is unambiguously a black trans woman, I would have loved if this book had used the word trans even just once. For something that is named Kings, Queens and In-Betweens, this book was surprisingly binarist at times, by not acknowledging non-binary trans people explicitly and using some binarist phrasings here and there.

Another thing I didn’t love was the writing, and not for Nima’s awkward metaphors, but because of the complete lack of atmosphere or sense of setting. I know she’s supposed to live in boringland, but I had no idea how anything looked like.
I also had mixed feelings about the romance: the love interest, Winnow (who is biracial Japanese), is one of the less developed characters, and there’s a significant age gap (3-4 years I think) that didn’t make that much sense to me, especially considering that Nima reads even younger than her age at times. But as this book doesn’t really focus on it – the romance is more of a motivation for Nima to get into the drag scene, in a way – it didn’t bother me too much (…maybe because I’ve read a book with a truly uncomfortable and weird age gap a week ago and this is nothing confronted with that? I don’t know.)

My rating: ★★★★

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Book review · contemporary · Fantasy · Young adult

Reviews: Two F/F YA Books

Today, I’m reviewing two f/f young adult books I’ve read recently, one contemporary and one fantasy.


Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

31180248I’ve now read all the books Becky Albertalli has written, and of them, Leah on the Offbeat felt like the most realistic one to me. There’s an amount of teenage drama that would be annoying, if I didn’t remember how it was like to be in high school and hear about my classmates’ relationship problems.

Teenagers are messy, teenage relationships are even messier, and I loved how this book didn’t shy away from that for a moment. The result is a novel with a plot that is less solid than Simon vs.‘s, but one that actually feels like a story about real teenagers. I mean, it features a friend group that is mostly queer and the characters aren’t even out to each other for most of high school, and yes, that’s far more common than YA books would lead you to believe.

Leah Burke as a character felt so real to me. She constantly says the wrong thing, she overreacts, she misinterprets, she doesn’t know how to communicate. She’s a 17-year-old girl, not a role model, and I liked her so much for it. Sometimes she reminded me of myself, sometimes she reminded me of things some of my classmates have done. Teenage girls have… a lot of emotions and don’t always cope in the healthiest ways, and this book knows that. What I don’t get is all the hate Leah got for being a realistic teenage girl, but I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing how the book community is usually about girls who don’t deserve a halo.
Her relationship with Abby was very cute, but not without misunderstandings, because both girls are insecure and kind of take it out on each other at times (see: the label policing conversation – that’s Leah being a dick because she feels guilty about 100 other things; I never got the impression that the book wanted me to agree with her). However, their dynamic didn’t feel unhealthy to me overall.

I have to say that reading these books also makes me kind of sad, because while I’m always glad I can find happy queer stories (this time, one that was translated in my language!), this hasn’t been my high school experience, not even close– and to see books that say things like “you’ll miss these years!!”… well, I hope not. They were a five-year-long nightmare. I’m a year out of high school and I miss nothing.

Also: this time the pop culture references felt less overwhelming, maybe because I expected them, but the translation continued to make very questionable choices. I especially disliked the way the minor non-binary character was handled, as this book had the Italian version of “she uses they/them pronouns”.

My rating: ★★★★


The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

36998181Me and E.K. Johnston’s writing just don’t get along. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just that the narrative choices don’t make any sense to me: in years of reading fantasy, I’ve never read a book that had at the same time this many infodumps and a worldbuilding as generic, inconsistent and lacking in details as The Afterward.

Let’s talk about what I mean:

  • generic: this book has a typical medieval fantasy aesthetic, with knights and kings and magical gems, which is fine, if not exactly my preference;
  • inconsistent: what sets it apart from many other fantasy books is that it has gender equality to a degree and less queerphobia, which would have been great if the book hadn’t gone about it in an extremely inconsistent way, for example by telling us that the language shifted to include non-binary people but constantly using binarist phrasings – and since we’re talking about the way things are phrased, some parts were really uncomfortable to read as an aromantic person;
  • lacking in details: the Mage Keep is the only place that was really described, and I have no idea how anything else looked like. It relied a lot on the idea that the reader could envision a generic medieval fantasy world, but that’s both boring for me and lazy writing.

I had a similar problem with That Inevitable Victorian Thing – at this point, I doubt she’s able to write worldbuilding that doesn’t fall apart if you look at it twice – so I think she’s just not the author for me.

Now, let’s mostly focus on the positives, since this was, after all, a three star book – and three stars isn’t a bad rating for me.
The Afterward is a quietly subversive fantasy novel. It looks generic on the surface, and its world is, but what it does with the set-up isn’t. Instead of having a group of men with the one woman™ go on a quest, it’s a group of female knights (one of which is a trans woman) and thieves with only one man, and the story centers an f/f relationship between two young women of color. What it did with arranged marriage tropes was really interesting to see too, as it didn’t approach it the way most YA fantasy novels do.

I thought that The Afterward would be about what happens after the quest, but it isn’t, not really – half of it is set during the before. I can’t really complain about that, since those are the parts of the book in which we actually see the f/f couple instead of only hearing about it while the girls are separated. However, the quest itself wasn’t that interesting to read about.

And finally: the f/f romance. I loved Olsa and Kalanthe’s dynamic, but they aren’t in the same place for most of the book. Which is sad, because the scenes in which they were together were enough to make me at least believe in the romance, so I wonder how strongly I would have felt about it had it had more page time.

My rating: ★★★

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite & Maritza Moulite

39072988Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is a contemporary novel following a girl who is the daughter of divorced Haitian immigrants living in the US, and it’s set both in the United States and in Haiti.

I am always looking for novels set outside the US, especially ones written by authors who have lived there or have ties with the country they’re writing about, because American books, despite being read (translated and not) worldwide, always prioritize the white American perspective. Dear Haiti, Love Alaine was exactly what I wanted: it’s a story about a girl who is the daughter of immigrants as she visits Haiti for the first time and meets the rest of her family, learns more about her family history, and also gets to know both Haiti and her mother more. This book shows Haiti as a place that isn’t a stereotype, but a country with its own history, culture, flaws and good aspects.

What stood out to me about this book first was Alaine herself. I loved her narrative voice, the way she uses humor to connect with people and to protect herself at the same time, and I could feel her passion for journalism. And she grows so much during this novel!
I also really liked reading about her relationship with her mother, who has been distant for most of Alaine’s life, and who has now been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The way Alaine tries to deal with that felt very realistic to me, and it was heartbreaking at times.

My feelings on the mixed media format are less positive. On one hand, I loved that this was told through diary entries, parts of school projects, tweets, blog posts and emails. On the other hand, the poor formatting of the eARC meant that at times these were either unreadable or missing.

Another thing that didn’t work for me as much as I hoped was the plot. I would have loved this book more had it focused mostly on Alaine and her mother’s relationship, but it didn’t – there are a lot of side and minor characters (so many that “who is that again” is a reaction I had multiple times during this book) and a lot of side plots, involving embezzlement, a maybe-romance, and a family curse. I also felt that some characters that were relevant in the first half of the novel were barely there in the second, like Alaine’s dad (and I liked reading about him), or Alaine’s friend, who completely disappears.

Overall, I do recommend this, but I think it’s the kind of novel that works better in physical form.

My rating: ★★★¼

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali

40148146Love From A to Z is the perfect balance of adorable, romantic and real. It’s the kind of contemporary that manages to develop a very sweet romance while also talking about painful and heavy topics, without neglecting any of these aspects.

This is the story of Zayneb, a hijabi girl of Pakistani and Caribbean (West Indian, specifically Guyanese and Trinidadian) descent living in America, and Adam, a biracial Chinese-Canadian boy who converted to Islam, as they meet in an airport during their trip to Doha, in Qatar. They’re both going through a difficult time in their lives, as Zayneb has just been suspended for speaking out against an Islamophobic teacher and Adam is coming to terms with being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
It’s a story about young Muslims living and falling in love, dealing with what it means to be a young Muslim in love in today’s world.

This book starts with a scene in which a teacher is being openly, unashamedly Islamophobic in front of his students. I wish I could say it felt unrealistic, exaggerated – I wish this weren’t the truth of so many people’s lives (and I wish I could say I didn’t have an experience with teachers being openly bigoted in class). This is a book that gets what it means to live when many people are uncomfortable with your simple existence. It gets the weight of everyday microaggressions, and the way they feed into bigger things; it gets what it means to notice that many people believe your life is worth less.

It gets all of these things, and yet it’s a happy book. I don’t mean that just because it’s hilarious at times – the sense of humor and banter in here… wow – but because while living as a marginalized teen means dealing with all of these things, marginalized teenagers experience joy as much as pain, and with its hopeful message, Love From A to Z shows the importance of finding your voice and speaking up against injustice, and also of accepting help while doing that.

I loved Adam and Zayneb, both as individual characters and as a couple. Zayneb is fierce and outspoken while Adam is quiet and kind, and they balance each other so well. While they do encounter obstacles in their relationship, they find a way to communicate and overcome them, and they were always respectful of each other. I felt really strongly about her romance – which is something seeing how overwhelmingly heterosexual this book was (which is probably the only thing I didn’t like about it, because I never like that, but all things considered, it’s minor).
Zayneb’s PoV was my favorite. She’s brave and flawed and just trying her best, and I both understood her and admired her. She feels so much and and is told to bury it, because society tells you you’re not supposed to mind everyday injustice. My favorite part about Adam’s PoV was his relationship with his family, how he cares about them and they care about him, and they’re all trying to help and not hurt each other while going through a difficult situation. They mess up, sometimes, but they’re always there for each other.

Love From A to Z is a love story written by a Muslim author for a Muslim audience, and it shows. It doesn’t feel the need to explain the things the characters do in everyday life, which means that sometimes I had to use google, and I loved that. I love learning new things in books that aren’t written to teach, and I love reading stories set in non-western countries that don’t pander specifically to a white, Christian, American point of view. No matter your situation, I think you can get something out of this, be it an adorable love story you can relate to or seeing things from a point of view that you hadn’t seen before in literature (or both!)
Also, I’m not American, and I really hope this book gets translated in my country. I think it really could be helpful to many people here, in different ways – for its multilayered and positive portrayal of Muslims, for its callout of white feminism and Islamophobic microaggressions, for being a very well-written, healthy romance.

One more thing: if you’ve read Saints and Misfits, this book has a Sausun cameo and… that was the most satisfying cameo I’ve ever seen in a YA book.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Reviews: Two Novels Exploring Feminist Themes

Today, I’m reviewing two books I read at the end of March. Both of them deal with feminist themes:

  • All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle is a feminist exploration of Irish history and folklore through the history of a specific family, and it especially focuses on reproductive justice and the crimes of the Catholic church;
  • The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed is an intersectional look at rape culture and what it means to be a young woman in today’s America.

40545833All the Bad Apples has everything you should expect from a Moïra Fowley-Doyle novel: beautiful atmosphere, blurred lines between the magical and the ordinary, and queer characters. At the same time, it’s so much darker and angrier than usual.

All the Bad Apples felt like the bookish equivalent of a scream.
You might think this is a story about a lesbian who has a very traditional, catholic father and goes to a traditional catholic school as she grapples with her older sister’s suicide and what might be a family curse, discovering her family’s history in the process. It is, and yet it’s not.
All the Bad Apples is a story about the crimes of the catholic church, a story about the women whose truths are still buried and untold, a story about Irish history from the point of view of those who are always erased. It’s a story about how necessary the separation between church and state is, about how we shouldn’t take our victories against bigotry and patriarchal systems for granted.

This book made me realize is that I’m kind of tired of reading about Americans’ problems. I don’t live in Ireland, but for various reasons, what they went through is much more similar to my country’s problems. Reading about European countries from a modern European point of view is so refreshing, and I’m glad this book exists.
This also meant that for me this book was a lot more horrifying to read than usual. And even if you don’t know what it means to deal with catholic fundamentalism, I recommend reading the content warnings at the end of this review.

So, why not a higher rating? Because – and this has happened with the other novel I’ve read by this author too – by the end of the book, I felt like I didn’t know any of the characters.
Deena is a lesbian, her best friend is a bisexual and biracial black boy, she meets a girl who is also queer during this novel, and there’s the beginning of what could be a romance. I always want to get invested in Fowley-Doyle’s mostly-queer found families, but I never manage, and – mostly in the second half – the parts about history took over the book, so that the present storyline started to feel stagnant.
(It still surprised me, though. I would have never seen any of that coming.)

On the historical parts: I loved their message and the point they were making, they just weren’t that interesting to read. The problem with multi-generational stories is that I often struggle to get invested in anything historical and with so many characters, but that’s more on me that on the book.

I would recommend All the Bad Apples to all of those who enjoy Leslye Walton’s novels and liked the inter-generational aspect of The Astonishing Color of After.

My rating: ★★★

Content warnings for the present storyline: homophobia (challenged, and mostly at the beginning, but it’s there right from the first chapter), frequent mentions of what is rumored to be a suicide, controlling parent, bullying
Trigger warnings for the parts about family history: incestuous rape (implied), rape of a minor (implied), institutionalization, physical, emotional and religious abuse (mostly told, not shown), one of the main characters’ ancestors got burned alive for being gay (“a witch”; again, told not shown), and we’re also told about forced pregnancies, abortion, mothers separated from their babies, death of a baby, suicide, a lot of misogyny and bigotry.
[I hope I haven’t missed anything but there was a lot.]


28096541The Nowhere Girls, or Why Good Intentions and a Good Message Don’t Make a Good Book: A Novel

I could start by saying that this is possibly the most heavy-handed thing I’ve ever read. And it’s true. But I feel like I can forgive some of that if I do agree with the message and think it’s really important, especially if the book is aimed to younger readers. Since these two things are true, I won’t hold it against this book. It’s a story about rape culture and women fighting back that at least attempts at being intersectional, and I really appreciated that, and I honestly think books like these can have a positive impact.

However, I also think this book tried to do too many things at the same time, and ended up neglecting some aspects it really shouldn’t have, and I will hold that against it. If you don’t have the space or the ability to give certain topics the page time they deserve, you do not put them in your story for shock value or token points.
Some examples:

→ Casually mentioning that a side character is basically being forced to pray her sexual orientation away will make me completely uninterested in the following romantic development of the main couples.
You could say that this is a novel about young women, and these are things that can and do happen to young women. However, mentioning it casually, like that, and never bringing it up again? I have a problem with that. My opinion about things like these is that you only write them into your story if they add something to it, only if it’s really necessary. You know, the same exact thing we say about rape in fiction.

→ When I started this book, I thought “I found a character who has sensory issues in a book that isn’t a trashfire about it!” and as it turns out, I spoke too soon
Let’s talk about Erin DeLillo, one of the three narrators, who is an autistic girl who has sensory issues and loves marine biology. I have sensory issues and love marine biology, and Erin DeLillo felt like the uncanny valley of representation: so similar, that the parts that aren’t are jarring.
(And I don’t mean that in the way “she’s interested in romance and I’m not” or “she loves organizing and I couldn’t care less”. That doesn’t really matter.)

This book gets a lot of things right. It gets what it means to be “the crazy one”, the one who leaves a crowded room screaming for no apparent reason, who is that sensitive to sounds and smells.
It also gets some major things wrong. Erin is forced by her mother to follow a very specific (vegan, I think?) diet. This would be fine if Erin had chosen it, but she hasn’t, her mother wants her to do that because she thinks it would make Erin less weird. This is never really dealt with. And it’s horrifying. Not only for the “I want to change you” aspect, but also for something that is really glaring to me: you should never encourage a person with sensory issues to restrict their diet (unless, of course, there are allergies involved).
Having sensory issues means that you already can’t eat many foods because their texture is that repulsive on a physical level. Erin never struggles with an even more restrictive diet, and that felt… fake to me. Sensory issues don’t disappear when they’re not convenient for the plot anymore, which seemed to happen multiple times in this book.

(Also, the marine biology infodumps? Disappointing, that’s all stuff you can find out in a matter of seconds with google.)

Another thing: I often didn’t like the way this book talked about romance – as a goal, as something everyone wants, as something that is so essential that not having it is sad.
And the romance storylines themselves? They were so lackluster. Even the f/f one.

Maybe I could have at least enjoyed some aspects of this book more if I had read it in English. Sadly, I haven’t, and if you’re thinking about picking up the Italian edition, don’t.
Things that happen in the Italian edition of this book:

  • → “people of color” becomes “black people”. The person who is talking is a Mexican girl and she’s talking about her family.
  • → “I don’t like my food to touch” (oh, I have that problem too) becomes “I don’t like to touch my food” (that really would be concerning)
  • → there’s the word “gasteropodo” in it. I feel like crying. (For non-Italians: the singular of Gasteropodi is “gasteropode”)
  • → it misgenders a trans character at some point, while the English version doesn’t (at least, not there)
  • the writing is all-around terrible.

So: great message, solid overarching plotline about women supporting each other, and so many details that took me out of the story continuously.

My rating: ★★¼

 

lists

3-in-1 Recommendation Post

I wanted to write a recommendation list but didn’t know what to write about and that’s how we ended up with this. I hope you like my twist on the “if you like this, try that” recommendation posts!

Disclaimer: I in no way mean to imply that any of these books are alike/very similar. They’re not – especially in category 1 and 5, in which they’re all from different genres. I just feel like they can appeal to the same kind of reader.


So You Like A Challenge

read them! then judge me for recommending them to you

Have you ever felt like the books you’re currently reading aren’t challenging you enough? Do you want to read something that will consume you, surprise you, and leave you with the knowledge that you’ve never read anything quite like it and never will again? Are you ok with not understanding all of what you read?

Then I can recommend you these three unique and truly bizarre books, three of the most challenging novels I’ve ever read.

  • Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente is a “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” told through transcriptions of parts of fictional films. It’s a love letter to filmmaking and stories, with dizzyingly beautiful descriptions of sci-fantasy settings, and you won’t be able to keep straight what’s real and what’s fictional inside the book.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: the 25th century from the point of view of someone who just really likes 17th century philosophy. It’s basically 90% worldbuilding, and if that sounds boring – oh, it is. It’s really boring, but that’s exactly how the extremely disturbing trainwreck in part two sneaks up on you! It totally pays off in the worst way, and this is the kind of futuristic story that feels at the same time possible, surprisingly alien, and horrifying. Is this an utopia, a dystopia or neither? I still don’t know the answer. Anyway, try this. It’s worth reading just to hate on the narrator.
  • Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko: to give you an idea of how good this book is, I’m just going to tell you that this is the only novel I’ve ever really disliked that regularly makes it to my recommendation lists. It’s the kind of book in which the individual scenes make sense but the whole does not. I have no idea what the fuck I read, but was it An Experience. I really recommend it if you ever want a headache you are ok with not understanding most of it but want to read something that in a way is about growing up (which is confusing, like this book).

Emotional, Diverse Multi-PoV Contemporary

they will make you cry but they’re so wholesome

So you like pain? What about books that will smash your heart to pieces and then put it back together again, making you cry of happiness in the end? Those are the best kinds of contemporary novels. And today I’m recommending three books that deal with heavy topics like adoption, teen pregnancy, friendship break-ups, grief, and alcoholism with grace, heart and a lot of reader tears.

  • Far From the Tree by Robin Benway is the most well-known of these three – it won a National Book Award and it’s deserved – and it follows three biological siblings who were adopted by different families/are in foster care as they reconnect. It talks about adoption, teen pregnancy, and family. If you’re putting this off because, like I did, you think this is going to be a sappy story, I can tell you it isn’t.
  • This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow: I love this book so much? And it’s so underrated. I have yet to find another contemporary book which follows three characters who are all dealing with their own mental health issues – grief and anxiety, low self-esteem after a toxic relationship, recovery from addiction – and does all their journeys justice. This has two very sweet romances – one f/f and one m/f – and it’s about three girls who were once friends as they reconnect through music. Also, two of the three main characters are black (ownvoices rep). It’s the kind of contemporary that manages to be a light read even though its themes are heavy without ever feeling superficial. I know I’m talking a lot about it lately, but that’s because it deserves better than 250 ratings on goodreads!
  • The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk: another story about teenagers as they find each other through music! This follows an adopted Korean-American teen, a black girl, and a white gay boy who all have lost someone close to them – a friend, a sister, a boyfriend – as they work through their grief. It’s one of the first positive representations of a character going to therapy I’ve seen and that meant a lot to me. This is another really underrated novel, but it’s really good, the kind of good that hurts. It needs trigger warnings for biphobia (the gay main character has some internalized prejudice and I have mixed feelings about how the story dealt with that) but apart from that, I loved it.

Political Intrigue In Space

they’re so good and very gay, please read them

What’s better than political intrigue? Political intrigue in space following a mostly, if not all-queer cast!

Anyway. Many people mention that they like political intrigue, and they want to read more novels in which the intrigue is actually unpredictable. And here’s my list of novels set in space that deal with complex political situations! In all of them the complex worldbuilding paid off and all of them had twists I didn’t see coming.

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: a story about a vengeful AI and an evil space empire told through two timelines. It’s the kind of effortlessly compelling high-stakes sci-fi I would recommend to anyone who isn’t intimidated by complex worldbuilding and wants to read about politics, power dynamics in interactions between cultures, the nature of humanity and sentience – and who gets to decide who is human and sentient. And it’s set in an empire with a concept of gender and family very different from our own, which is really interesting to read.
  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: this is a story about sieges. On the surface, it’s a story about a disgraced captain, Cheris, who is shackled to the ghost of Jedao – a general who was a tactical genius and also a mass murderer – to win an impossible siege. At the same time, it’s the story of Jedao’s siege of Cheris’ mind and beliefs, and the story of a space empire divided into bickering factions all threatened by an external enemy and held together by someone who might be even worse. It has an all-queer cast, math-inspired magic in space, no romance and plenty of explosions. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read.
  • A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine: I still haven’t fully recovered from this one. Many parts of it hit really close, it’s… personal. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that talks about what it’s like to grow up on literature not written for you or anyone from your country, written in a language that isn’t your own, because when your neighbors are far more powerful than your country is, they get to set the standards of what is good literature – and even which ways of living are modern and civilized. It’s a story about a woman who, after being thrown into political intrigue at court (she’s an ambassador), changes the history of an empire she both loves and hates. Also, it has a main f/f romance, a mostly-queer cast and possibly the best court intrigue I’ve ever read.

Monster Love

because monster romance is the best romance!

Romance storylines in fantasy often leave a lot to be desired. But you know which kind of romance rarely disappoints me? Monster romances. Give me all the weird and complicated and unusual romances in which the love interest has the best aesthetic – be it a chaos entity or a shapeshifter or an evil broody elf – and I will end up loving them.

  • In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard: a lesbian scholar and a bisexual shapeshifting dragon woman fall in love in this Vietnamese-inspired Beauty and the Beast retelling! It’s the only monster romance I know in which both main characters are women and it also has the best descriptions ever – do you like beautiful but dangerous palaces in which doors can lead to gardens and libraries as often as they can lead to death? Anyway, this was one of my favorite relationships of 2018, to see the dragon Vu Côn act like she’s totally not into the main character and then as she tries to flirt with fruits anyway…
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: I’ve seen this book described as Shadow and Bone for adults and that’s… accurate. If you thought this book wouldn’t be a “let’s sleep with the chaos god amidst deadly political intrigue in a palace that is basically floating in the sky”, you were wrong. It’s that book, and the chaos god is also genderfluid (what is gender to a god) and the main character is a bisexual brown woman.
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: monster romance as a genre is by definition extra and really dramatic – which is what I love about it. Give me all the overdramatic monster love interests who are not as scary as they initially seemed – but nothing is as extra as this book. This book doesn’t have a monster romance, it has two. One between a Jewish daughter of a moneylender and what’s basically a broody ice elf and the other between the daughter of a duke and a possessed Tsar. And it’s a story about women supporting each other against terrible men as well! Pick up this slow-paced, wintry retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and get ready for the feelings.

Hard-Hitting SFF

I believe in exploring hard topics but I don’t believe in hopelessness

Some words like “relevant” and “important” are overused enough to be pretty much meaningless, like a lot of the words thrown around for buzz when it comes to book promotion. That’s why I never use them – well, almost. There are some books that – in my opinion – actually fit what those words mean. They’re not easy reads in any way, but I really think they’re worth it.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon: this is set in a generation spaceship whose social order is very similar to the society in the United States before the civil war. It’s a story about enslaved people enduring horrible things, about the ways they are affected by them, about the small ways they still find to fight back. It’s also a story that talks about how gender roles are imposed, taught, made up – and it really makes you look at them and at cisheteronormativity and think “was I really taught to think that was natural? And people still believe it?”. It talks about the many forms racism can take, from the outwardly violent parts to the ones that look like details but really aren’t. It also has a mostly-queer cast (the main character is intersex and maybe non-binary, and there are explicitly non-binary major characters) and the main character is autistic.
  • Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly: this is a story about the rise of a fascist government in a previously-accepting city from the point of view of marginalized characters – two queer men, one of which is a person of color, and a woman who is a sex worker. I still can’t think of any other book that balanced the fun – because yes, this was a fun read at times – with the darkness as effectively as this book does, and what it did haunts me. It has that tone of “it happened, and it can happen again, quickly” but it’s not hopeless, which would have made it unreadable. It’s… a lot and it is upsetting and it also should have more readers.
  • Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan: I often talk about this novel because it has one of my favorite romances ever – an f/f forbidden slow burn, the kind of romance that blooms in stolen moments and I love everything about it. But that’s not what this book is about. This is a story about being a rape survivor set in a Malaysian-inspired kingdom in which young girls are forced to become concubines of a demon king. It portrays the many reaction women have to assault and rape culture, including enduring, fighting back, starting to see it as normal and hurting other girls because they have been hurt themselves. It’s… an exploration of that and I thought it was very well-written (and, of course, hard to read).

Have you read or want to read any of these? Have you ever read three books you think would appeal to the same kind of reader even though they’re not really similar?

 

Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

36039320This Is What It Feels Like is a story about recovery.
I have read many stories about mentally ill main characters and characters going through trauma, but I know very few stories that talk about what happens afterward. What happens when you’re not an addict anymore, what happens when you finally get out of a toxic situation.
Not only this is a story about recovery, it’s a story about recovery in which the romance, while present, is not the reason the main characters get better.

This Is What It Feels Like follows three girls, once friends and in a band together, as they reconnect through music. This aspect reminded me a lot of another 2018 contemporary release, The Beauty that Remains by Ashley Woodfolk, another book about music and friendship, but with a heavier focus on grief. (If you like one of these two, I think you’ll also like the other).
Anyway, this book is told through four PoVs:

🎵 Dia, a teenage mother. The boy she loved, and also the father of her child, died unexpectedly in an accident. I loved her PoV – it’s the first time I read about a teen mother – and what stood out to me about it was the portrayal of Dia’s trauma. Sometimes anxiety is almost like magical thinking, and Dia is aware of it, and yet she can’t stop thinking that every person she loves will die like her almost-boyfriend did.

🎵 Jules, a black lesbian who is falling for her fat, mermaid-haired coworker. Jules’ PoV was my favorite because of the very cute f/f romance. I also loved Jules’ character development: her relationship with her ex-girlfriend was toxic, they just really weren’t compatible, but Jules doesn’t know how a healthy relationship looks like. She realizes that she shouldn’t hold herself back just because of a bad experience, but at the same time she doesn’t see how anyone could ever want to be with her in the first place, and so maybe she shouldn’t even try. I loved that she got to be in a happy, healthy f/f relationship.

🎵 Hanna, former addict who has been sober for more than a year. Her alcoholism was what drove her and her friends apart, and now she feels like she doesn’t really have the right to be happy. Also, her parents do not trust her anymore, even though she is trying to be better. Hanna’s PoV was the most difficult for me to read, because it deals with how, when you’re mentally ill, you feel like you can’t be proud of your achievements, because they’re something that isn’t an effort for anyone else and you shouldn’t have struggled with them at all. Also, so much self-loathing. Very well-written, but not an easy read.

🎵 The fourth PoV is Elliot’s. I won’t say who he is because spoilers, but I thought his PoV was completely unnecessary and this is one of the main reasons I won’t be giving this book a full five stars.

Apart from Elliot’s PoV, another thing I didn’t love was the music aspect: I didn’t really care about the band or the competition the girls got into, I was there for the character arcs, the recovery themes and the f/f romance. I wasn’t completely invested, but I loved most of this book and I really recommend it.
I kind of wish my bar wasn’t so low, but it was great to read a book that dealt with addiction, teen pregnancy and teens having sex without sounding like a cautionary tale. These girls aren’t walking messages, they’re people with hopes and dreams and hobbies. It’s also a very sex-positive story, there’s an f/f sex scenes near the end.

My rating: ★★★★½