Skip to content

Tag: LGBT

Review: If This Gets Out: A Novel by Sophie Gonzales & Cale Dietrich (Out 12/7/21)

Cover of If This Get Out by Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich.

Genre: Contemporary romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: One Direction fanfiction (Larry?), The Charm Offensive, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, An Unexpected Kind of Love, VH1’s Behind the Music, found family, friends to lovers

I hate when people call gay romance novels cute. It feels infantilizing. It reminds me of the way straight people will stare and point at (especially male) gay couples on the street, and when they’re caught say, “Oh, you’re just so cute.” Like gay people (especially men) are fluffy handbags, statement pieces, not entirely real people.

Also, this book is cute as hell, and it’s only partially due to the romance. I can’t remember the last time I saw a media portrayal of male friendships this open and loving. Usually, when fictional friends say they love each other, it’s a pair of girls who are about to stab each other in the back. There’s no backstabbing in this book. There’s not even a single “no homo.”

The friends are four boys who met and performed together at music camp one summer when they were fifteen: “sensitive, sweet Zach … type A, cautious Jon … wild, hilarious Angel … perfectionist, darkly sarcastic [Ruben].” Though none of the other boys knew it at the time, Jon’s father is the famous pop talent manager Geoff Braxton:

… if he decides you’re worth it he can make you a global superstar, richer and more famous than you can ever imagine. If you want to be famous, he’s a god.

Geoff watched the boys’ finale performance (complete with “terrible choreography that we crudely put together … by watching YouTube … and altering the moves to fit our ability”) “through calculating eyes” and decided they were worth it.

Three years later, Geoff has carefully shaped the boys into Saturday, a world-famous pop band preparing to leave for their first international tour. He’s given them professional choreography and more money than they know how to spend, but also entirely new personals that they have to maintain both on and offstage.

Angel, who has a model waiting in every country, is the innocent virgin, while Jon, a devout Catholic, struggles against instructions to wear less and less clothing for every show.

I’m not going to say much about Jon in this review because when things happen, he’s usually standing on the sidelines yelling for his friends to put on their helmets, but I want to get it on the record that Jon is 10/10 the best boy. Jon would bring you soup when you’re sick and never forget your birthday. If I ever come into a possession of a human son, I want him to be like Jon.

Zach, the pop punk-loving cinnamon roll, is the bad boy of the group, but his vocals have been polished free of any edge. He longs to write a song for Saturday, but Geoff continually rebuffs his efforts, telling him to think more along the lines of “something that would play … in a mall.” Fuck managers, but I actually can’t hold this against Geoff. All the lyrics Zach shares in the book are comedically bad:

I bring my pen to the page and write: You’re like a hangover … I put my notebook down, and write down mysterious ways.

Is there a song in that … you’re hot like water?

Though his musical theater background makes him the strongest vocalist of the group, Ruben is bland, a blank slate for the projected fantasies of any girl who doesn’t want a virgin, a player, or a bad boy. Which seems like a good marketing strategy, at first. However, Geoff goes beyond just dressing Ruben in neutral-colored sweaters, preventing him from showing off his true singing abilities, and forbidding him from drawing any attention to himself. Geoff is terrified someone will find out Ruben is gay, even though it’s an open secret in the industry and Ruben has been asking to make it public since he was sixteen.

Ruben is the group cynic, which sometimes makes him hard to sympathize with. There’s more than a bit of condescension in the way he thinks about his friends’ hopes that their management company will give them more freedom in the future. None of his friends know Geoff has been keeping him in the closet for years because he hasn’t told them. I often wanted to shake him, but I also found him painfully real and relatable. In addition to a gay teenager who’s way over his head, Ruben was raised by parents who are cruel and controlling, and he’s learned to keep his vulnerabilities hidden.

Though all four boys are privately struggling, they manage to keep it more-or-less together until they leave for the international leg of their big tour.

Then, it quickly becomes clear that Angel’s partying is out of control, and there’s something more than friendship growing between Zach and Ruben. (Poor Jon has very little time to worry about his own problems because he’s somehow gotten stuck with the responsibility for keeping his friends alive and out of trouble.)

Even though I have only ever read one (horrifying) piece of bandfic, I loved this setup for a YA romance novel. It’s full of opportunities for angst and drama beyond the usual miscommunication. And it delivers! This is a book that’s practically dripping in teenage angst, but the authors usually manage to keep it from veering into melodrama by making sure there are actual, clear stakes and plenty of fluff to balance it all out.

One night early in the tour, Zach gives his hotel room to two girls who get too drunk at one of Angel’s parties. Of course he can crash in Ruben’s bed. They’re best friends. It’s not weird, just two bros chillin in the same bed five feet apart cuz they’re not gay.

Then they kiss, and it’s suddenly very gay. (Did you know you’re allowed to describe an erection in YA? Because I did not.)

There are several chapters of angst while Zach tries to figure out if he actually wanted to kiss Ruben (and that would mean about him) or if he just wants to have wanted to kiss Ruben because he doesn’t want to hurt his best friend. Ruben has a tendency to attract guys, both straight and not, looking to date their way into stardom. Zach’s almost more afraid of having used Ruben like all the others than he is of admitting he’s bi. Meanwhile, Ruben is panicking that he somehow forced or manipulated Zach into kissing him, and the media is picking up on the tension between them.

If I sound dismissive, it’s not because I have no sympathy for Zach’s experience. The way the authors describe his dawning realization that he’s always been attracted to people of all genders was similar to my own internal coming out process:

Is the truth that I don’t get strong crushes on guys the way I get on girls? Or is the truth that whenever those crushes start to poke their heads up I squash them, and ignore them?

I think of Lee. I think of Eirik. I think of Ruben, and his photo.

… There’s an explanation here, and maybe … no, it can’t be that. You’d know. You’d know.

However, I do think these chapters are the weakest part of the book. While Zach’s coming out feels honest and meaningful, the conflict between him and Ruben feels unnecessarily cruel and drawn out. It’s like the book comes to an abrupt stop so they can bicker in circles for a while.

I get that they’re teenagers. I do get that, but I don’t get why they have to have the same argument over and over again, or why Ruben apparently has no sympathy for what it’s like to realize you’re not as straight as you’ve always told yourself you were. Does he not know any other queer people?

The plot picks up again when Zach decides he does want to be with Ruben. He comes out to the other members of Saturday, who are so excited and supportive I wanted to cry. He comes out to their management team, who promise they can start “thinking about” announcing the relationship publicly after their Russian tour stop. Angel’s mental health continues to decline.

I have mixed feelings about Angel’s plot. On the one hand, I think it’s important to honestly portray what that kind of fame combined with a complete lack of autonomy does to people. Having it hit a supporting character the hardest makes space for more fluff and tenderness in Ruben’s relationship, which I adored.

On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with Angel’s addiction and mental illness being used as a plot device to create drama in his friends’ love story, especially when Angel is Asian American and Zach and Ruben are white. I’ve yet to make up my mind about how his arc is resolved mostly offscreen with a single stint in rehab. I guess I’m glad to see YA finally portraying therapy positively, but ehhh …

I did really appreciate the way Angel’s struggles motivated his friends to stand up to their management team, and I liked seeing Angel finally being able to open up about what he was going through once he’d gotten help. Again, this book has so much more emotional vulnerability than stories about boys are usually allowed to have. It’s truly lovely.

Something else you don’t see in many YA books: When things get really bad, most of the boys’ parents step up and fight for them. They form a moms’ club to lead the fight against Saturday’s management. It’s a nice change to the feelings of isolation and helplessness the boys have been dealing with for most of the book, and I appreciated the fact that the boys still maintained their autonomy to drive the conclusion.

Overall, this was a sweet read that nicely balanced tenderness with teenage angst and emotional intimacy with international pop star drama. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people struggling with addiction, but I think anyone who likes their fanfiction with a lot of fighting and a lot of kissing will enjoy If This Gets Out.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Can you do me a favor?

If you like this review, please like it on Goodreads and maybe follow me there.

More Info

Publisher: ‎ Wednesday Books
Hardback Page Count: 416

Sophie Gonzales is on Twitter and Instagram.

Cale Dietrich is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying BOOK on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (Out 9/21/21)

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: YA
Series?: Iron Widow #1

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: Darling in the Franxx, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Pacific Rim, The Hunger Games, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Chinese harem dramas, angry bisexuals who don’t flinch when they kill their enemies

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to spoil this book any more than the author has on social media, but if you’d prefer not to know what happens at all, please come back when you’ve finished Iron Widow!

Here is everything I knew about Iron Widow when I requested it from NetGalley: It’s a reimagining of the rise of the only female Chinese emperor written by the person who made those Mulan videos. I expected historical fiction, political intrigue, and maybe some family drama.

Iron Widow is nothing like I expected. If I had to write an elevator pitch, I’d say it’s a dark mecha anime with an MFM throuple that makes only minor concessions to YA conventions. There’s a makeover, a love triangle, and a homecoming, but there’s also so much violence The Hunger Games looks like a game of touch football.

It also isn’t a retelling in the sense I imagined. It isn’t set in ancient China, but rather a non-earth sci-fi world inspired by the culture and geography of ancient China. In this world, all girls are raised as sacrifices. They’re sold to wealthy husbands or to the army. Either way, their lives are cruel and rigidly confined by both their patriarchal society and their own internalized misogyny.

Wu Zetian’s older sister was sold to the army, where male pilots use girls as fuel sources to power their giant mechs in battle against the mechanical aliens beyond the Great Wall. Girls often die in battle, but Zetian’s sister didn’t even make it that far. Her pilot strangled her to death.

To her parents’ relief, Zetian finally agrees to join the army, but she doesn’t intend to die in battle either. She plans to kill her sister’s murderer. She knows she and her entire family will be executed as a result, and she believes she’s prepared to die for her vengeance.

However, before she can act, the pilot takes Zetian into battle with him, and two unexpected things happen. First, the pilot dies in her place. Second, Zetian discovers she wants to live.

Iron Widow continues my streak of LGBT books that are so delightfully fanfic-y (Queerleaders, The Calyx Charm) they make up for the fact that they’re also continuing my streak of books that are thematically heavy.

It reads like a wildly creative AU for some mecha anime I’ve never seen. (Confession: I have never seen any mecha anime.) Partially because of, you know, all the mechs, but mostly because there is so much here that I’ve only really seen in places where writers don’t have to contend with publishing gatekeepers. In a YA novel!

The MFM throuple is a fun subversion of the love triangle trope. While I’m more invested in the enemies-to-lovers pairing than the others, I was impressed by how clearly Zhao handled them all. They felt inevitable. All four of the relationships (each character with each of the others, and then all three characters together) had ample on-screen development time, including the relationship between the non-POV characters.

I had no choice but to love Zetian, who is angry, bisexual, and traumatized. That’s everything I want in a protagonist. She even gets some shit from other characters about her weight, though the cover model is thin and it’s hard to tell if Zetian is intended to be read as fat or if this is just another example of the patriarchal scrutiny she lives under.

I also loved the plot structure, which reminded me a bit of Six of Crows. Pop writing advice says that protagonists have to fail and fail and fail again until they succeed. Each challenge they fail raises the stakes, until they’re in an impossible position with the entire universe depending on them, and only then can they succeed.

Only, it’s actually much more fun to read about protagonists succeeding occasionally. In both Iron Widow and Six of Crows, we have characters who are smart and clever and good at what they do. They encounter obstacles, strategize, and then overcome those obstacles in ways that both raise the stakes and move the plot forward. Often, Zetian succeeds in ways that only end up getting her into more trouble, but at least we get to see that she truly is remarkable, instead of just being told how Special she is.

This is also my only real complaint: Zetian is Special in a way that I feel somewhat undermines Iron Widow’s feminist themes. I have no problem with Zetian spontaneously deciding to resist her patriarchal upbringing, which seems like a matter of self-preservation more than anything. I also don’t mind how much internalized misogyny influences Zetian’s perception of other women. My problem is how the narrative reinforces Zetian’s perception.

Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, other women in Iron Widow essentially fall into 3 categories: tragic victims, catty bitches, and the tragic-victim-catty-bitch Venn diagram overlap of victims who eagerly sacrifice other women.

Zetian does occasionally think about how there have to be other girls who are as remarkable as she is, and sometimes she’ll mentally challenge her internalized misogyny. I interpret that to mean later books in will contain more nuanced female characters. I’m still disappointed by their absence in Iron Widow, but I think Zhao has done enough to merit optimism for the rest of the series.

Content Warnings

From the author: “Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and abuse, suicide ideation, discussion and references to sexual assault (though no on-page depictions), alcohol addiction, and torture.”

Disclosure

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Penguin Teen
Hardback Page Count: 400

Xiran Jay Zhao is “on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture.”

You can support your local independent bookstore by preordering BOOK on Bookshop.org, or on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Review: The First Sister

Cover of The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

Genre: Science fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: The First Sister trilogy

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: R. F. Kuang, Margaret Atwood, This is How You Lose the Time War, Red Rising, A Memory Called Empire, Ancillary Justice, Dune, Sansa Stark’s character arc, queer platonic intimacy, Suffering but no one gets raped

The First Sister has been pitched as part of the wave of feminist dystopias we’ve seen since 2016/the Handmaid’s Tale Hulu adaptation, but I think it’s more accurately described as Dune with the queer themes made explicit and the Bene Gesserit made into fully realized characters.

(I’m sticking to my resolution not to read GoodReads reviews for books I like, so it’s possible this has already been said a thousand times. Let’s agree to pretend I’m a wholly original genius for this insight. I’m having a hard week.)

We have galaxy-spanning wars and political intrigue. We have assassinations and assassination attempts. We have a matriarchal religious order that ties itself to military/political power through the beauty and “servility” of its acolytes. We have a duelist named Lito, who fights with a blade even though he’s part of a spacefaring society with all the high-level technology that entails. We have … okay, I don’t know how Hiro, the rebellious scion of space!Bezos fits into this analogy, but Dune would be a much better book if it had a Hiro character.

Told in alternating perspectives, The First Sister is the story of Hiro, Lito, and First Sister (a mute, nameless acolyte of the aforementioned religious order) journeying from very different beginnings to a single moment of conflict that will change the solar system and all four societies that call it home. Although this book is a sci-fi epic in scope, this drive to a single inevitable crisis gives it a momentum that makes it hard to put down.

Except that I was very invested in these characters and their brave, reckless decisions, so I did keep having to pause for breath when I got too worried for them.

Lito is a poor boy whose rose to become the perfect elite soldier through hard work, self-abnegation, and his partnership with Hiro. Hiro once played the chaotic neutral rogue to Lito’s lawful good fighter, but we’re introduced to them through a series of recordings they sent Lito to confess and explain their treason.

First Sister serves the soldiers serving aboard an elite military spaceship so they can go into battle with clear hearts. As the highest ranking sister aboard her vessel, she is only required to hear confessions from everyone but the captain, but she lives in fear of having her rank stripped from her and, with it, her protection from the other soldiers’ sexual advances.

Their stories unfurl in layers. At first, it seems like the primary conflict is going to be between the Icarii (Hiro and Lito), who embrace technology and view religion primarily as a series of cultural artifacts from earth, and the Geans (First Sister), who revere the natural world and enforce universal worship of the Goddess. Lito is sent to assassinate the head of First Sister’s order (and kill Hiro while he’s at it), while First Sister is ordered to spy on a potential traitor aboard her vessel. Classic science versus religion stuff.

Then things get complicated. Through Hiro’s tapes and the potential traitor’s whispered secrets, Lito and First Sister come to realize the organizations that raised and shaped them have been responsible for untold atrocities. They begin to believe peace would be preferable to victory, but they remain conflicted over abandoning everything they know for a future they can’t even really imagine.

Aside from the rich and nuanced protagonists, what I loved most about The First Sister is the way Lewis manages to portray the brutality of both societies without veering into gratuitous depictions of violence, sexual or otherwise. First Sister has experienced sexual violence, and it looms on the periphery of her every interaction with the soldiers on her ship, but we don’t have to witness it. Lito has conversations with sick and dying children, but we don’t have to read about their final, excruciating moments. We get exactly as much information we need to understand the direness of the situation without the kind of abject despair that lingers even after you finish *cough* other books *cough*.

This is ultimately a hopeful book. It’s about realizing the world can be better and deciding that’s worth the risk. It’s about people who have hurt and been hurt by each other making amends and offering forgiveness – and sometimes not. It’s exactly the kind of book I needed at this point in my life.

If you’re having kind of a rough time (and who isn’t) and you like science fiction full of big adventures and big feelings, you need to pick up The First Sister right now.

Then, please come back and tell me if you saw the final twist coming. Lewis telegraphed it so clearly, I have no idea how I missed it, but I was shocked enough that I dropped my Kindle and said, “Oh,” out loud.

You know that feeling of relief when there’s a word or fact you know that you know but you can’t quite remember it, but then you look it up and you’re like, “Oh, yes, that!!!”? That’s how the final twist felt. Incredible. Please, please do not spoil it for yourself. You deserve that pleasure.

One last thing …

Preorder The Second Rebel, Coming August 24th

Linden A. Lewis returns with this next installment of The First Sister Trilogy, perfect for fans of Red Rising, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Expanse.

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Aunts who run the Gean religious institution, but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an outlaw colony station deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but they are not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner, Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Venus, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Souji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to review it before book three comes out.

Disclosure

I received a free eBook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Skybound Books
Hardback Page Count: 352

Linden A. Lewis (she/they) is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying BOOK on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Review: The Calyx Charm by May Peterson (Out 7/13/21)

Cover of The Calyx Charm by May Peterson

Genre: Fantasy romance
Audience: Adult
Series?: Book 3 of The Sacred Dark

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: A Taste of Honey, Pet, Cemetery Boys, Ana Mardoll, Shakespeare AUs, childhood friends to lovers, hurt/comfort, cat boys, … I want to say fantasy trans and queer cultures but I’ve never read them like this

Note: I’m going to discuss abuse dynamics both in the context of The Calyx Charm and in real life.

Often, when a powerful person (employer, mentor, parent, or partner) hurts someone they are supposed to protect, their victim takes on the responsibility for covering up that harm. The dynamics of power and survival prioritize avoiding conflict and maintaining appearances over victims’ abilities to even name what has happened to us: We weren’t sexually harassed, we “were just joking around.” We weren’t abused, we were “taught the importance of discipline.” We weren’t raped, we “have regrets.”

There’s a lot to love about The Calyx Charm, May Peterson’s third entry in her dark fantasy romance series The Sacred Dark, but what I love most is that it rejects this responsibility on two levels. First, the book itself is explicit and specific in naming the abuse and oppression its characters experience. Second, both its leads are learning to say, “Yes, I used to protect you from what you’ve done to me, but no more.”

Violetta Benedetti was the Honored Child. With her twin abilities to predict the future and make anyone she focuses on invincible, she was the weapon that won her parents’ revolution and made her cruel father prince elector. Now, at seventeen, she’s escaped her abusive father’s household to try to make a life for herself, supported by a community of trans people who live on the margins of society:

The secret heartbeat of the city, the artists and crafters and storytellers and smugglers, flowed from places full of mollyqueens and androgynes and tomkings, and with queer lovers of all kinds.

Violetta’s childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, is also his parents’ weapon. Shortly after Violetta’s escape, Tibario’s mother attempts to use him to kill Violetta’s father. He dies and is reborn (the way non-magical people sometimes are) as a moon-soul, an immortal teleporting shapeshifter. Also, he gets a cat tail.

After his second assassination attempt also fails, Tibario’s mother asks Violetta to prophecy what’s protecting her father. But reading the future is not a science. Instead, Violetta fortells the end of the world as they know it, in two weeks or less.

Violetta’s instinct is not to try to prevent the apocalypse, but rather to live well in the time she has left:

Mollyqueens so seldom had futures to claim. We had todays. We had the little time we could claim for ourselves.

Maybe these would be the last days of my life, and maybe they would matter the most.

What follows is partially sweet, second-chance romance between childhood friends who finally find the courage to admit they’ve always loved each other, and partially scarred, scared people convincing each other they’re allowed to ask for more. Not just an end to suffering but a long life full of love and respect and a community that shelters them.

The community that embraces Violetta and Tibario is really lovely. It’s rare for cishet women in romance novels to have genuine female friends. I can’t think of any novel in any genre where the trans woman lead has friends who are also trans women, let alone trans women who are as fleshed out and lovely as Rosalina, who runs a bar and tearoom that is a safe place for trans women and the people who love them, complete with guest rooms and medical assistance. Medical assistance made possible by her girlfriend, who smuggles tea, sugar, and hormones into the country for her.

Can the next Sacred Dark novel be about Rosalina, please?

Another thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel: Violetta is honest with Tibario about what dating is like for her as a trans woman and a rape survivor, and Tibario never once says, “Oh damn, that sucks. Fortunately, I, an unproblematic cis guy–” He actually listens to her. He admits his shortcomings. He checks in with her often.

Their relationship is just so tender and heartwarming. I don’t usually go for romances with so little conflict between the main characters, because I think they tend to lack tension, but Violetta and Tibario have so much else going that it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve one nice, safe thing in their lives.

My only qualm with The Calyx Charm is I think I should have read the previous books in The Sacred Dark prior to this one. In my defense, I didn’t look very closely at the book prior to submitting my NetGalley request. I didn’t realize it was part of a series until I started reading it.

However, most romance series I’ve encountered have been made up of interconnected standalones. That is sort of the case here, but I think the degree of world building involved made it usually hard to get into. Also, at one point, something important happens involving a side character who is a main character in a previous book, and it’s never made clear what exactly that is. I’m hoping this is also an event in the other book, and Peterson expected readers to already get it.

That clearly isn’t a huge problem, though, because I’ve already recommended the series to a friend, and I’m recommending it now to you. I intend to purchase the rest of the series as soon as I whittle down my pile of overdue library books.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Content Warnings

This is exactly the kind of book that makes content warnings so hard. Putting “rape of a child by a parent” and “a trans woman lovingly and consensually penetrating her partner” in the same list implies a kind of equivalency that is way more harmful than any of the content in this book.

Yet I know that both of those things could be triggering to readers. If I just say, “There is a lot of transmisogyny and child abuse in this book,” am I responsible for people who encounter triggers that weren’t on my list? I don’t want that either.

I don’t know the right thing to do here. If you have any specific concerns, please feel free to ask in the comments or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com), and I’ll do my best to answer.

More Info

Publisher: Carina Press
Paperback Page Count: 286

May Peterson is on Twitter. In addition to her books, she offers developmental, line, copy, and sensitivity editing via her website.

Preorder The Calyx Charm (available July 13) on Amazon..

Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding (Out 6/20/21)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Not for me

For fans of: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, lyrical prose, Cersei Lannister, royal family special editions of US Weekly

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the ending of Lying with Lions. Like, right now.

Ready?

Okay.

In the last 10% of Lying with Lions, the protagonist, Agnes Ashford, and her lover/patron, Lady Helen Bryant, are confronted with a terrible choice: either sacrifice Helen’s wealth and independence, or the crimes she and Agnes committed to protect it will be revealed to the public. Agnes feels torn between her survival instinct, her loyalty to Helen, and her conscience. Every scene raises the stakes until Agnes is driven into desperate action with real consequences.

It’s a satisfying ending to Annabel Fielding’s turn-of-the-century gothic drama. Unfortunately, it also seems to belong to a different draft than the previous 90% of the novel.

Fielding’s writing is sometimes confusing (with frequent tense shifts that I hope will be caught in a final edit before it’s released on the 20th), but it’s more often beautiful, even poetic. I frequently highlighted passages I found moving or insightful:

It was a careful labour of months, to insulate herself from the pain [of her father’s death]. The art of half-forgetting. She did it so thoroughly, drawing borders of cool sensibility from dawn to dusk.

Chapter 2

[Helen’s daughter] has always been a swallow darting in and out of Agnes’ life, smiling the way every girl learns to smile if she wants to see some kindness from the world.

Chapter 6

She, Agnes, had thought once that pain is something that happens. It is like a wave, she thought, to hit you and then recede back into the depths, and if one is steadfast enough, if one is serene and solid rock in the ocean, one could weather it.

But she was wrong. Pain seeps into our bones; it changes their shapes forever. It changes the colour of our blood.

Chapter 11

Agnes and Helen are complex, often unlikable women with both agency and power. It’s clear that their lives and personalities are based on real Edwardian women. Even when they’re reckless or cruel, their actions are logical and grounded in a way I should have found compelling.

Best of all, every detail of their world is consistent and (as far as I can tell) accurate. Fielding is a history blogger, and she cites dozens of texts as sources for this novel alone. It’s clear that it was important for her to give readers a sense of what it was like to live in Edwardian England, from politics to social norms to infrastructure and even lighting.

So why didn’t this book work for me?

I think my problem was almost entirely structural. Though it’s a single novel, the plot of Lying with Lions is unusually episodic. Agnes and Helen will recognize they have a problem. Agnes will (briefly, without much emotion) contemplate the problem for a few pages, while Helen develops a solution offscreen. Agnes will execute the solution. Then, we get an equal number of pages of sightseeing or current events. Repeat for 200 pages.

This structure doesn’t allow the kind of tension that keeps me reading until 2 in the morning. Instead, I felt discouraged from worrying about the characters, because the repeated pattern of problem, contemplation, quick and tidy solution lulled me into thinking nothing truly bad could happen to Agnes or Helen. Neither Agnes nor Helen even seemed to suffer from guilt or anxiety at any point, even when their solutions have body counts.

Even the romance between Agnes and Helen suffers from this structure. There is no time for yearning. There are no tender, playful moments between the couple. There are some sex scenes, but these are really only settings for the conversations in which Helen gives Agnes instructions and Agnes reports her results.

It’s clear that Helen values Agnes’s loyalty and obedience, but that’s about it. Helen takes what she wants from Agnes, and Agnes gives it without conflict or self-doubt or even much prolonged joy, just the satisfaction of a job well done.

Again, the ending of this book is fantastic, but it’s also confusing. Agnes suddenly does mind their body count. She does care about the impact of her actions on other people. She does want to do the right thing. Not because anything happened or she had a change of heart; it’s just presented as though this is the character Agnes has been the entire time. I wish it were.

I think readers who are primarily interested in historical fiction for the details of the setting will love Lying with Lions. I also think it could be adapted into an incredible movie or mini-series. The right actors, with the right on-screen chemistry, could make the relationship between Agnes and Helen really compelling. However, readers seeking a historical lesbian romance are likely to be disappointed by the novel.

Disclaimer

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 233

Annabel Fielding blogs about history and historical fiction at History Geek in Town. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can preorder Lying with Lions (out June 20th) on Amazon.

Review: Queerleaders by M. B. Guel

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: But I’m a Cheerleader, Mean Girls, Glee, high school AU fanfiction, Dr. Pepper lip balm

This post contains minor spoilers for Queerleaders.

One quick aside before I never read another negative Goodreads review for a book I like ever again (ha): I wish readers showed as much grace to #OwnVoices writers as we do to (presumed) more privileged writers of similar stories.

Or maybe I just wish the readers with seemingly inexhaustible patience for privileged writers would pick up little indie queer books more often.

The Road To El Dorado gif where the characters say, "Both?" "Both?" "Both." "Both is good." (I don't know who these characters are, sorry!)

The only way I can describe this delightfully campy little novella is But I’m a Cheerleader meets Mean Girls meets Glee. If you like all of those properties, you will like this book. If the satirical homophobia of But I’m a Cheerleader and Mean Girls is too much for you, you will not like this book.

If you’re like, “That sounds great, but I’d literally rather die than listen to another Lea Michele cover,” good news! There is no audio component to this book. I don’t think any of the characters even mention a song in passing, though I could be mistaken about that.

The protagonist of Queerleaders, Mack, is a closeted lesbian in her senior year at a Catholic high school. She has a best friend who goes everywhere with her, the kind of supportive parents you really only see in teen comedies, and a crush on the head cheerleader, Veronica, who she believes is secretly much smarter and kinder than everyone gives her credit for. To prove to her friend that Veronica is a worthy love interest, Mack makes a list of Ronnie’s admirable traits.

Naturally, Veronica’s football player boyfriend finds the list and uses it to out Mack in front of everyone. Mack, who has never been kissed, vows to get revenge by stealing all of the football players’ cheerleader girlfriends.

Clea Duvall as Graham in But I'm a Cheerleader smokes a cigarette in an obnoxiously pink bed.

This is the most fanficy premise I’ve encountered in a professionally published book since Fifty Shades of Grey. I messaged it to my friends. Then I sent them a copy. Then I, in the depths of my Asian Readathon selections and desperate for something simple and sweet, checked it out of the library and stared at it every day until June 1.

Keeping in mind Corey Alexander’s very good essay on what we call fluff, I need to clarify that this book was simple and sweet for me because I have been out of high school for almost 12 years. Some of the bullying Mack experiences—particularly a scene in which someone sets her up for public humiliation, and the fallout from that—comes close enough to what I went through that I might have found it difficult if it were fresher. Then again, these scenes are brief, and Mack gets a satisfying teen romantic comedy ending shortly thereafter. Maybe I would have found it cathartic.

Aside from the premise and the sweet ending, my favorite part of Queerleaders was the romance. So many sapphic romances in YA feel like friendships with extra tragedy. Where’s the tension? Where’s the yearning? Queerleaders delivers on both passion and desire, along with a love interest unlike any I’ve seen in sapphic or straight romance before.

More Info

Publisher: Bella Books
Paperback Page Count: 148

M. B. Guel posts pictures of their adorable pets on Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Queerleaders on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon. Also make sure to preorder their forthcoming novel Internet Famous (December 2021).

Spoiler-Free Book Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Cover of The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

The Unbroken is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the ribs for 500 pages, and I loved it. Mostly.

Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of two women trying to quash an uprising in the Balladairan colony of Qazāl. Touraine is a soldier, Qazāli by birth but conscripted into the colonial army as a toddler, who trusts only her fellow conscripts and the strength of her body. Luca is the future Balladairan queen, an idealistic and book-smart but unproven leader, whose rank and disability estranges her from everyone but her personal guard. When Touraine saves Lucca from an assassination attempt, Lucca sees an opportunity to recruit an ambassador the Qazāli might trust enough to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.

Clark’s world building is immaculate. Both French-inspired Balladaire and Arab-inspired Qazāl feel like real, living countries, with their own geography, culture, history, and approach to magic and religion. Their writing is intense and cinematic. Despite the violence and despair that permeates much of the book, I found myself staying up too late to finish “just one more” chapter and daydreaming about the characters when I was supposed to be working. And I loved the layered, flawed characters, even though most of them only make good decisions by accident.

I only have one critique, and it’s that I found the sexual violence subplot almost unbearable. If I were to describe exactly what happens, on paper, it would seem fairly unremarkable. It’s nowhere near what happens in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are hundreds of YA novels with more detailed depictions of sexual violence that go on for much longer than what happens in The Unbroken, and none of them have gotten under my skin in quite the same way.

To be clear, I don’t think Clark’s use of sexual violence is inappropriate. It’s a way of emphasizing how powerless even respectable, comparatively high ranking Qazāli are against Balladairans. It raises the stakes and underscores the novel’s themes, and it’s treated with the gravity it deserves. I just think there was probably a way to do all of that without exposing what I imagine is an audience of primarily queer women and/or women of color to yet more depictions of sexual violence against queer women of color.

That said, I have recommended The Unbroken to several friends and will continue to do so, with the necessary caveats.

I think it will especially appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, but anyone who loves political fantasy with meticulous world building should give it a try. It’s ambitious and textured and spectacularly well written. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m just going to make sure I have something fluffy to chase it with.

Content Warnings

I’m always torn on whether or not I want to provide detailed content warnings for the books I review. Some people consider them spoilers, some people consider them essential. More importantly, I don’t want anyone who depends on my list to come across an unexpected trigger because I failed to remember or mention it.

Fortunately, C. L. Clark has a list on their website, so I’m just going to quote that here:

depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 544

C. L. Clark does a terrifying number of things all around the world. On top of writing novels and short stories, they’re the co-editor of Podcastle, an academic, an English teacher, and a personal trainer. Follow them on Twitter.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Unbroken on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Content Notes: This review contains significant spoilers for the entirety of Passing Strange, including the ending. I don’t think knowing what happens ruins the book, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss my messy, complicated feelings about it without these spoilers.

Speaking of messy and complicated, I’m going to discuss Klages’s depictions of homophobia, anti-Asian racism, sexism, domestic violence, sexual violence, police brutality, and suicide. If you’d rather not read about these subjects, I’d recommend skipping both the review and the book.

The cover of Passing Strange depicts two women (one in a tuxedo, one in a backless jumpsuit that looks like a dress) in front of a large, moonlit window. The night skyline of San Francisco is sketchily visible in the background.

Passing Strange is a difficult-to-categorize novella . Google calls it an LGBT fantasy about five women’s interconnected lives in historical San Francisco, which I think is wrong on all counts except the setting, but definitely more marketably pithy than my description. I’m going to call it a lesbian time traveler’s guide to San Francisco in 1940. You, lesbian time traveler, will learn all the best places to eat, drink, and sightsee, along with some helpful tips for dealing with law enforcement.

You’ll also get a cute love story and some lengthy explanations of why two separate magic systems cannot be explained. Which won’t matter to you, as you presumably have your own magic system, unless you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler. If you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler, perhaps you’ll enjoy the late-nineteenth-century-sci-fi-story-style dinner parties in which scientists describe their research at unnecessary length.

I enjoyed the dinner parties, the cute love story, the sightseeing, and many other elements I’ll touch on later. That’s part of what made Passing Strange such a frustrating read.

The frame narrative takes place in 2014. In the beginning, the elderly Japanese-American lawyer Helen Young has just received confirmation that her unspecified illness is terminal, and we follow as she finalizes her estate, revisits her favorite places in the city, and takes her own life at home. Her primary errand is to retrieve a pastel painting from an underground Chinatown labyrinth and sell it to a rare bookstore owner for everything he has.

Strangely, this section of the book is the most fun. Helen clearly has a plan for her last days. She carries it out with self-satisfied precision and without explanation, similar to a criminal mastermind pulling off a heist. It’s not clear how the smug bookstore owner is going to regret his purchase, but it’s clear that Helen’s come out ahead in this transaction.

After Helen’s death, the book jumps back to 1940. Helen attends one of the aforementioned dinner parties with the artist of the pastel painting, a white woman named Haskel who primarily paints pulp magazine covers. Helen sometimes poses as an “inscrutable Asian villain” for Haskel’s covers. Neither woman seems particularly uncomfortable with this arrangement:

Helen let her arm drop to her side, the prop knife dangling. “I like playing dress-up, but Dr. Wu Yang needs some summer-weight clothes.”

[…]

“Next time you can be the terrified victim.” Haskel lit a cigarette and leaned against a worktable covered with pastel chalks, jars of paintbrushes and pencils. “But Oriental fiends are harder to find.”

“That’s a relief.”

Also at the dinner party is Emily, a young white woman who makes eyes at Haskel. Haskel brushes her off, but later they run into each other at Mona’s Club 440, where Emily sings in drag. They fall in love almost instantly and spend the rest of the book making love and exploring the city. Helen more-or-less ceases to exist until Haskel and Emily need her help after the climax.

Castiel from Supernatural says, “I’ll just … wait here then.”

This is my primary problem with Passing Strange: Klages clearly wants to tie the 1940s queer experience to the 1940s Asian-American experience, which makes sense both historically and thematically, but her only Asian-American character exists to facilitate the romance between the white leads.

Frieda Kahlo appears briefly to fulfill a role that is similar to Helen’s, but worse. Worse both because she was an actual, real person, and because at least Helen gets to win sometimes. Frieda just gets to be crazy and tragic and sexy in an exotic, crazy, tragic way. (Haskel slept with her, but only once. Her mustache tickled.)

Like Helen, Emily and Haskel both have to flatten and commodify their identities as marginalized people in order to survive. Emily has a beautiful voice, but as a lesbian, she can’t perform in any respectable club. Instead, she sings in a tux and a mustache as Mona’s, where:

Visitors who’d come to San Francisco for the world’s fair ventured nervously […] to gape at curiosities that would astound the guys at the office, the ladies in the bridge club back in Dubque or Chattanooga.

Haskel, a domestic violence survivor, fills her covers with scantily-clad women in terror, about to be devoured by monsters.

Unlike Helen, however Emily and Haskel actually get the room to have complicated emotions about their experiences. Emily bemoans the pressure to define herself as either and only a butch or a femme. After a confrontation with her husband, who’s been out of the country for “three or four years,” Haskel decides to stop painting images of violence. And in the end, Emily and Haskel get to opt out, escaping to a fantasy world of their own making.

Helen–who is, again, a Japanese-American woman living in San Francisco in 1940–has to stay behind and see to their affairs.

That makes it hard to recommend this book, even though there are parts I love. Klages’s prose is beautiful, detailed, and precise in a way that reminds me of DMing tabletop games. You could draw a map from her descriptions.

Haskel and Emily’s love story is genuinely sweet and swoony. Like, look at this:

“Not quite. A little more–” Haskel set the sketch pad down and knelt by the bed. “–like this.” With one hand, she turned Emily’s head slightly to the side, her fingers entwined, for a moment, in auburn curls. Emily felt her arms go all goosebumps. Their faces were inches apart. She could feel the warmth of Haskel’s breath on her cheek, smell coffee and a drift of smoke.

A moment passed. Neither of them moved. Then she heard Haskel sigh and felt a tickle of hair against her neck, lips brushing her own, lightly at first, and then, when she offered no resistance–none at all–with unmistakable desire.

“Golly,” Emily said, when there was air again.

I died. I died when I read it, and I died again when I sent it to all my friends, and I died a third time typing that up for you. In lieu of flowers, please send nail polish. I need a good green, but I’m not picky.

When Haskel and Emily get into trouble and it seems like there’s no escape, their found family of other lesbians step in to care for them in a way that feels both heartwarming and familiar. “People like us, we help each other,” Helen says. (This theme is part of why I find it so frustrating that they left Helen behind! In 1940!)

Jack from Titanic, handcuffed to the sinking ship, says, “I’ll just wait here.”

There’s so much sweetness and light, it’s not hard to see why people frequently recommend it as a cute, fluffy sapphic romance. Kind of like Passing Strange itself, I see where they’re coming from, and I’m also really frustrated by it.

Corey Alexander wrote a blog post back in 2018 called “On being careful what we call fluff,” which sums up my feelings about these recommendations well.

This is not a fluffy book. I’ve already touched on the racism, homophobia, sexism, and domestic violence, but I want to be clear that these are not just incidental as a result of the setting. They are pervasive and they hit hard. There’s a scene of homophobic violence and sexual assault against a side character that makes me so sick to remember that I can’t honestly say whether or not it furthered the plot or themes or whatever.

This is a heavy book with a cute romance and a more-or-less happy ending, closer to Keeping You a Secret than The Princess Affair.*

I think that if you’re the kind of person who generally enjoys 1990s lesbian fiction, or if you have an interest in queer history and a high tolerance for suffering, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re more than a year into a global pandemic and feeling helpless about police brutality and anti-Asian racism, maybe check out The Princess Affair instead.

More Info

Publisher: Tor.com
Paperback Page Count: 215

Ellen Klages is an American science, science fiction and historical fiction writer who lives in San Francisco. Her novelette “Basement Magic” won the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. You can follow her on Twitter and buy the book on Bookshop or Amazon.

Resources

If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to one of these organizations:


*I haven’t actually read The Princess Affair, but my friend assures me it’s for-real fluffy.