Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Five stars.

not-your-sidekick

Jessica Tran is almost seventeen, bisexual, Vietnamese-American, a ‘high school nobody’, average student – and haver of no superpowers. Not that she hasn’t tried. Her sister does, is off somewhere being a journalist slash super hero, and her brother is at least a science genius. But what does Jess have? Well, hopefully, an internship.

The best way I can describe Sidekick is as something of a cross between Strong Female Protagonist and Always Human, while still doing its own thing. Set in the future, the Sidekick world was devastated in the early 2000s by something to do with solar flares, which caused a bunch of natural disasters and a war, and also gave a number of people across the world meta-abilities, or superpowers. Her parents, who met in a refugee camp, were two of those people, and now divide their time between their cover lives – real estate – and their jobs as Shockwave and Smasher, the C-class superheroes of Andover, Nevada. The world itself is run under a bunch of kind of capitalist collectivist dictatorships; North America is now the North American Collective, where all media prior to 2035 is banned, there’s some other shifty stuff going on, and absolutely no one seems to think there’s a problem with the government. The American high school seems unchanged, though, so I guess that’s something. Probably not a point in their favour.

This book isn’t perfect, but I loved it. It’s never explicitly said, but there’s a lot of textual evidence to say that Jess has ADHD, which is exciting, and in addition to our excellent bisexual protagonist, we have a trans best friend (Bells) who is tragically in love with the other best friend (Emma), and a very lovely romantic lead (Abby). Also, Bells is Creole-American and Emma is Mexican-American; I think the only white main character is Abby? Pretty damn cool. I also liked the exploration of Jess’s – I guess race anxiety? She’s Vietnamese, and she feels Vietnamese, but not Vietnamese enough for other Vietnamese people. It made her feel more real, somehow.

The plot is pretty obvious – I figured out the majority of the ‘big reveals’ and plot points halfway through chapter two, and the others were also not particularly surprising – and the villainous characters are incredibly two-dimensional, to the point where I wonder if Lee did that on purpose. However! while it would have been nice if everyone was a little more perceptive, I loved this book. I loved the romance, I loved the characters, the writing is good, I’m super excited to read the next book… it definitely deserves its five stars. Lee does relationships really well, and she was so good at writing Jess being in love with Abby that I’m pretty sure I’m also in love with Abby now.

Like SFP, there are a lot of really interesting implications within the world building that Sidekick barely scratched the surface of, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where Lee goes with it. There are a lot of good but short interrogations of things here, like Jess’s criticism of the school’s LGBTQIA club, and I have to say, I’m really interested in Lee’s choice to keep all of the queer stuff accurate to the present, as opposed to doing something like Always Human. I just want to read more.

The next book in the series, Not Your Villain, is out sometime next year (2017) and will be told from Bells’ perspective. I’m excited.

Trigger warnings: nothing particularly big I can think of. Jess gets electrocuted at some point? Missing family members?

This review also appeared at the Lesbrary.

Advertisements

Rescued Heart and Run to You by Georgia Beers

Combined 3 stars.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 1.19.23 PM

Georgia Beers’ new Puppy Love series centres around Junebug Farm, a no-kill animal shelter in upstate New York, and the people that work there. While the series features a recurring cast of characters, each book focuses on a single couple – though Beers chose to diversify the POVs in the second book, which was I choice I found I didn’t mind, as it adds to the rather cinematic feel. It’s something I’d watch on TV or on Netflix if I wanted something fluffy and romantic. Rescued Heart, book one, follows the relationship of Lisa, the shelter intake and adoptions officer, and Ashley, a baker who volunteers at the farm; Run to You, book two, looks at Catherine, the shelter accountant, and Emily, a donor and volunteer. It’s also a little Christmassy.

Overall, I liked both, and I’d be happy to read another, but I wouldn’t be devastated if I didn’t. The setting was a big draw for me – puppies and romances? Yes. And Beers doesn’t disappoint on that front – there are lots of adorable dogs and cats, and I liked that there was a little dig into how a shelter like that might manage to run. It’s pretty obviously written by an animal lover, and I’m into that. Personally, out of all the animals, I fell in love the most with a dog that didn’t get much page time (Dave) because I’m a sucker for pit bulls. While they’re part of the same series, they’re written differently, each with its merits. I’d say best overall was probably Run to You, but I can see how others might choose otherwise.

Rescued Heart starts slow, with a professional relationship that turns sweet, each person bringing out new sides in the other. A big theme in these books is trust, and Lisa doesn’t have a lot of it. She’s holding tightly to some family issues, which have made her closed off and a bit controlling in both her professional and personal lives. Ashley, on the other hand, is bubbly, but passive, stuck in a semi-relationship with a sweet girl because she can’t bring herself to do anything about it. Lisa unknowingly brings her out of her shell a bit, and the interplay between Lisa’s need for control and Ashley’s increasing dominance is interesting. Beers doesn’t act like Lisa and Ashley are the only people in each’s respective life, which I liked. Friends and family pop in and out, and the tone of their interactions is deliciously gossipy.

Probably the most important thing about Rescued Heart is that it doesn’t follow the typical romance structure of building up to a crisis point so there can be satisfying resolution – and if it does, it does so half-heartedly. This could be because I was a little bored by the book, but I actually kind of liked it – I’m an anxious person, and high stakes make me tense. I do wonder if I might have liked it better had I known that going in. That’s not to say that there’s no drama, it just doesn’t build up to something huge.

It’s not super tightly written, Lisa and Ashley felt a little flat to me, and some people might not be into its structure, but it’s a nice book. As I mentioned, though, I did get a little bored with it, and I’m pretty sure that’s mostly down to the sex. It was fine and everything, it just wasn’t great. I didn’t tap into their chemistry the whole time, and like – you’re both in your thirties. Is this really oh my god the best sex you’ve ever had, you’ve never felt anything like this before, no one’s touch has done this to you, etc.? Really? It’s fine, it was just a little too clichéd for me. This is something I felt with both books, although probably a little more with the first. Again, this is probably mostly a personal preference thing, and I’m sure most people would have no objections.

Run to You is more tightly written, and much more of a slow burn. Emily is the representative of a family company that donates the bulk of the shelter income, and Catherine is the accountant. It’s inappropriate, definitely not professional, and very obviously something that they’re going to enter into – bonus point for a classic ‘we shouldn’t’ while kissing. This book was less on the normal-life friendship, but more on the workplace friendship (I’m saying now that I think the third book will focus of Jessica, the head of Junebug) (there are an improbable amount of wlw working at this shelter, but I like it). As I mentioned earlier, there’s more diversity in perspective here; RH had only two POVs, but RtY has maybe five? I’ll say five. This one is probably better paced, with a more dramatic arc (hello, crisis point), with well-strung tension. While Ashley is probably the most endearing character of the four – she smells like cupcakes – Emily’s my second favourite. Both Lisa and Catherine are more emotionally closed off, and while that makes for interesting romantic dynamics, it’s just not a hugely appealing quality. Also Emily is the one with the pit bull and leather jacket, so she’s ticking a lot of my boxes. One issue I did have is that RtY is not super well edited – ‘ascent’ used instead of ‘assent’, etc. Nothing major, but it did pull me out of the story at moments.

As I said, I enjoyed both, and while they’re maybe not the most grasping of reads, they’re light and fun and sweet, with a decent dose of adorable animals, and a guaranteed happy ending. If you like your fluffy reads, you’ll probably enjoy the series. It’s a little white, and there’s not much in the way of representation for anyone other than the L in LGBTQIA, but if that’s not going to bother you, I’d go ahead! They’re better than the covers make them look, I promise.

There aren’t any huge trigger warnings for these two, though there’s a bit of sexual harassment which had the potential to turn into assault in Rescued Heart. I wouldn’t read the series if you’re trying not to drink? There’s a lot of wine.

This was also posted at the Lesbrary.

Always Human by Ari (aka walkingnorth)

5 stars.

always human cover

Always Human is a sci-fi webcomic set in 24th century Australia, where people now use ‘mods’ to essentially continually genetically engineer themselves – ranging from anti-cancer mods to fashion mods. People who don’t/can’t use mods are at an automatic disadvantage, particularly in terms of schooling – they can’t use memory mods and focus mods like the rest of their peers. Suntai is 22 and interning at a virtual reality company, while Austen is an 18 year old genetics major at uni. They meet at a train station, and the story goes from there.

I love this webcomic. It’s adorable, the art is amazing, the concept is great, it’s really diverse… I just love it. It’s really refreshing to read something set in Australia, even if it’s not exactly my Australia – it’s set in future WA, for one thing. (We still have vegemite, it’s all good). The vast majority of queer literature I’ve read is set in America, which is fine, but it’s not a culture I’m super familiar with or 100% comfortable in.

While the story is a romance, it’s also a meditation on how humanity interacts with technology, and an exploration of the pros and cons of that relationship. The worldbuilding is so good. It’s evident that Ari’s put a lot of thought into it, and there are some great little details, like the debugging scene, which makes her world seem very realistic. I’d be interested in knowing what mod access is like in terms of money and class, but it’s set up so issues like that can be explored in the future. If not, Ari does answer questions both on her tumblr and in Q&A pages.

One thing I particularly love about this comic is that future Australia has a lot of diversity – just like current Australia – but it’s accepted and normalised and lovely. Lots of the cast are racially and ethnically diverse, including our two main gals; we have an asexual character, and at least two non-binary people. The technology fits in with gender diversity really nicely: instead of needing surgery and hormone treatments if you want to transition, you just buy a mod – which is even cooler for non-binary or agender people because, while the majority probably couldn’t afford to do it daily, if you feel like changing it up, or become dysphoric, you can go right back.

I’m not going to go much into the details of the relationship, because I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s adorable and I love Suntai and Austen. Their friends are really sweet as well. I also love the way Ari uses their relationship to explore their world, and how problems are dealt with in a healthy and communicative way. It’s lovely. So far, it’s what Danika would call a cotton candy comic. AND I LOVE IT. I spent my read going “ugh it’s SO CUTE I WANT A GIRLFRIEND”.

Always Human updates on Saturdays, and is currently two chapters into its second season. If you’re looking for a lovely, light read with beautiful visuals, this is for you.

No trigger warnings I can think of, unless you’re a little leery of discussions of hospitals and chronic illnesses.

This post will also appear at the Lesbrary.

Of White Snakes and Misshapen Owls (Charlotte Olmes #1) by Debra Hyde

I seem to be reading a lot of mysteries at the moment!

Three of five stars.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 2.08.23 AM.png

Miss Charlotte Olmes is the classic turn of the century ‘woman detective’ – clever, enlightened, and progressive, with a penchant for cross-dressing. She lives with her companion and partner Joanna Wilson, who appears slightly more respectable – but I mean, they’re a live-in lesbian couple in 1880s New York, so respectability is somewhat relative here.

After a morning spent instructing a society lady and her maids in parasol self defence, Charlotte and Joanna’s services are engaged by the lovely Miss Tam, whose employer has gone missing. Their investigation takes the reader on a rather enjoyable tour of period New York, complete with violent street gangs and Chinese/Irish racial politics. It’s evident that Hyde did some research on her setting; I particularly liked the ladies’ trip to the morgue and police station.

White Snakes is the first novella in the Charlotte Olmes series. At 73 pages, it’s short and sweet; a quick, light read. Hyde’s writing is fun and fairly well crafted, and her language did an excellent job of conveying place – although, while I appreciated the inclusion of appropriate slang, it did lessen my engagement because I had absolutely no idea what it meant.

I didn’t enjoy it so much as a mystery; while the majority of the ‘clues’ were laid out for the reader, the necessary context was not quite so clear, which left me kind of detached from the mystery storyline – in my mind, the best kind of mystery is where the reader can guess the killer or the criminal or whatever, but only if they read carefully/cleverly. While I can kind of see the enjoyment of only being ‘along for the ride’ – as if you were Hastings in an Agatha Christie, perhaps – it just doesn’t do it for me. It was written with split perspectives between the killer and Joanna, which was fine; I personally would have preferred it to be all Charlotte and Joanna all the time, partially because it’s so short, but it did work, and I did enjoy a couple of the not-ladies scenes.

I loved the dynamic of Charlotte and Joanna’s relationship – it rather reminded me of the Amelia Peabody series, just with wlw and BDSM. They were sweet together, with a good working relationship, and great chemistry. I really liked that Joanna was the narrator; Hyde did a really excellent job of establishing them as equals. It would have been very easy to write them as one fully dominant and one fully submissive, but despite the shortness of the book, Hyde neatly sidesteps that cliché and, in doing so, created much more three-dimensional characters. I wasn’t super into the whole language of exoticism and orientalism that accompanied the Chinese characters, an unfortunate and fairly common convention in period mysteries; it wasn’t the worst, but it did detract from my overall enjoyment. Ditto with the pity-attitude towards sex workers – obviously historically women haven’t always had a lot of choice with regards to this, but that doesn’t need to translate to a disrespect of sex work.

I’d love to see it fleshed out into a full book. I wanted to spend more time with Charlotte and Joanna – particularly in the space where they’re just Charlotte-and-Joanna, not Lady-Detective-Charlotte-and-Companion-Joanna or Charlotte-and-Joanna-having-hot-sex. Those sides of their relationship are both well done, but I’d liked to have seen equal time between the three to fully explore all the versions of themselves that they are with each other.

Overall; fun and too short. I’ll probably read the other books in the series if I can get my hands on them, and I’d like to check out some of Hyde’s longer works. According to the bio in my edition, ‘all of her work is available in ebook, and her short story backlist is about to be republished in a mini-anthology format with Sizzler Editions’. So if you read and enjoy this, you might want to check that out!

Trigger warnings for descriptions of violence and a (not very graphic) murder.

This was originally posted at the Lesbrary.

Training Ground by Kate Christie

Two of five stars.

training ground kate christie

I was not, unfortunately, super into this book. Training Ground is the first book in the Girls of Summer series by Kate Christie, and to be honest, it reads more like a prequel – the whole book is just backstory for book 2. She categorises TG as a ‘contemporary lesfic with a romantic arc, but not a traditional romance’, and that seems accurate for what I know about the rest of the series, but the first book falls into YA for me – it’s about queer teenagers growing up and having messy teenage romances. Also sport.

The book follows two young girls who meet ‘by chance’ at a hotel after a soccer tournament. It’s a classic YA set-up: girl meets girl, they share a mutual attraction, one has a boyfriend and secret crushes on girls, the other has a Dark Secret. No one has ever understood Jamie/Emma like Emma/Jamie understands Jamie/Emma, and they share so many interests – including a secret love of some cooking show. Over time, they become close enough for Jamie to share the story of her trauma, and they become best friends and possibly more. They are each other’s anchors, and Emma buys Jamie a bracelet with an anchor on it to prove it.

Unfortunately, the book falls into a common YA trap: Too Much Angst. Jamie has a lot of (very valid) angst surrounding her trauma, Emma has a rocky relationship with her dad and a lot of angst about liking girls as well as guys, both girls have a lot of angst about liking the other, and after becoming even closer after Tragedy strikes, the relationship falls apart. This was annoying because not only were Jamie and Emma genuinely adorable together, the disintegration of the relationship was both predictable and so easily fixable. Obviously they had to move away from each other for the storyline in the next book to work, but I feel like it didn’t have to go quite the way it did for what will obviously be a dramatic meeting and falling in love ten years after the events of Training Ground.

A lot of this book didn’t ring true with me. I’ve long accepted that while some things in life are universal, American high school isn’t one of those things, but in regards to the things Ican comment on, the writing missed the mark. The dialogue, with a few surprisingly funny exceptions, didn’t seem very natural to me, and though the writing was okay, I felt that it leaned a little too heavily on clichés about teenagers. I have no idea how realistic the soccer bits are, being allergic to sports – but hey, Jamie and Emma are cute together, and I’m a big fan of Jamie’s therapist, Shoshanna.

(My biggest problem with this book – which 2003 do you know where teens vape??? It is not a 2003 I have lived in.)

Despite my review of this book, I’d consider picking up a copy of Game Time when it’s released in spring (autumn for you northern-hemisphere folk) this year, because I’m hopeful that Christie will be on firmer ground with not-teenagers. And I mean, who doesn’t want to read a romance about two pro soccer players?

Trigger warnings for rape/sexual assault, homophobia, and transphobia.

This was originally posted at the Lesbrary.

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5) by Tana French

Four of five stars.

the secret place

I’m a big fan of crime shows and murder mystery television, but aside from a deep childhood love of Agatha Christie, I’ve never really gotten into crime novels – they’re either a little too badly written, or way too heavy. Cosy mysteries are more my style than the gritty, realistic stuff. But! I saw that a Goodreads friend had read and loved The Secret Place (which, to be clear, is a bit of both), so on a bit of a whim I ordered it from the library. It definitely sounded like something I could get into – a murder centred around secrets in a girl’s boarding school and a particularly close group of female friends. Also, to be honest, I really liked the title.

This was my first Tana French, and I was pretty excited for it – and for once, I was not disappointed! As I hadn’t read the previous books, I didn’t have the backstory that other readers might – I gather that characters such as Frank Mackey featured in previous novels – but I didn’t mind that so much. A lot of books, when they begin, they Begin, and that’s not always a bad thing, but I like the feeling of being dropped into the middle of something, because it makes it feel like the characters exist outside the novel. I gather that this book is somewhat of a style departure from the rest of the series, but I really enjoyed it, and am of the opinion that whatever she was doing differently, it worked and I liked it. (Edit: a lot of people were saying that the magical realism was new, but I’ve just read In the Woods, and that is untrue.)

Detective Stephen Moran is one of those ‘up-and- comings’ who’ve gotten a little stuck on their way up; he works in cold cases, and he’s doing pretty well, but he desperately wants to join the Murder Squad. They’re the cool kids of the police force, basically, and they get all the fun murders; they’re also notoriously insular and hard to break into. Moran is nice, a little boring – he’s one of those people that gets around on his charm, knows how to work people, but kind of lacking in substance. He’s ambitious and he’s clever, but his personality is rather malleable. He’s the unlikely partner of badarse Detective Antoinette Conway, who I loved. She’s tough, she takes no shit, and she fought her way into the Murder Squad tooth and nail. No one likes her, but she doesn’t care, because she’s there to do her job. The Chris Harper murder was supposed to be the first big case of her career – easy solve, gets her established, in people’s good books, and sets herself up as a good detective. It didn’t quite work out that way, so when Holly Mackey comes to Moran with a new piece of evidence, Conway lets him work the case with her because she needs a win to stop her misogynistic colleagues kicking her out of Murder.

The heart of the mystery resides within a close group of female friends, one of whom is Holly Mackey. The book takes place over a day at St. Kilda’s School, where they live and the murder took place, with flashbacks from each of the four girls. This friendship was the highlight of the book for me. French captures the awkward agony and self-consciousness of adolescence really well, and watching the girls grow into their own selves and reject the roles they’re supposed to be playing was beautiful. Their group becomes this gorgeous, tender thing that I would read a book about on its own, and it really lifts this novel and makes the crime very real. The writing is vivid and totally engaging, and I was totally blindsided by a lot of the twists of the story, which is always really refreshing – I never had any idea about what would happen next. The tension was paced really well. I did guess the killer, but only within a few of chapters of the reveal.

Conway and Moran’s relationship was also quite interesting – they meet only that morning, and the evolution of their partnership was really enjoyable. French was really clever with the way she used and presented class and gender and age with her characters, and I felt like she did really well with Conway. I wasn’t super interested in Moran as a character, but I liked his dynamic with Conway, and the next book is supposed to be from Conway’s perspective, which I’m super down for. I will be mad if they fall in love.

I also loved the additional element of the magical realism. I get how some people might view it as a distraction, but it seemed so natural and I liked how it – and the whole book, actually – reflected the intensity and power of teenage girls. The friendship is just delicious, it’s so well written, and I enjoyed how the girls were presented from the adult’s perspective as clever, enigmatic, and complex. I said this before, but French is so good at drawing out adolescence – the vulnerability and self-consciousness, but also the cruelty and the way power works with social currency and all that jazz. I was really impressed. I felt like the language used by the girls was also quite realistic, and reflected the character’s dance between childhood and adulthood quite well. I have heard criticisms that teenagers don’t speak like that but, speaking as a teenager, it felt quite authentic to me – and also the criticisms reflect a dislike of vocal uptalk, which I am generally suspicious of.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I’ve picked up a copy of In the Woods, the first book of the Murder Squad series, and I’m really looking forward to the release of The Trespasser, which is due to be published in August of this year.