Solo Dance by Kotomi Li

“There’s a limit to how much misogyny and heteronomrative bullshit a story can have.”

Solo Dance follows a millennial woman from Taiwan working an office job in Tokyo who feels alienated from her colleagues and their daily conversations about marriage, the economy, and children. Chō, our protagonist, is a lesbian, something she keeps ‘hidden’ from her coworkers. While Chō does hang out with other queer women in lgbtq+ spaces, a traumatic experience causes her to be self-doubting, distrustful of others, and perpetually ashamed. When she opens up to a woman she’s sort of seeing, the latter brutally rejects her, not only blaming Chō for having been attacked but accusing her of having been deceitful (by not having spoken about this before). This leads Chō to spiral further into depression and suicidal ideation, her disconnection further exacerbated by an ‘accident’ that occurs at her workplace. Chō’s arc brought to mind that of Esther Greenwood in <i>Bell Jar</i>, that is to say, things seem to just get worse and worse for her.


As we read of her experiences working and living in Japan as a gay woman, we are also given insight into her teenage years in Taiwan, her slow recognition of her sexuality, her first encounter(s) with women, and that devasting night that resulted in an irrevocable self-disintegration. Chō blames herself for her attack, and not only does she sabotages her relationship with her girlfriend but pushes away one of the few people actively trying to help her. Chō’s uneasy relationship with her sexuality and the physical and emotional violence she experiences over the course of the narrative make for an unrelentingly depressing read.

Throughout the course of her novel, the author links Chō’s experiences to those of Qiu Miaojin and of her fictionalised counterpart, Lazi. Both tonally and thematically Solo Dance shares a lot of similarities with Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile: both works interrogate notions of normalcy and alterity by exploring the experiences of women whose sexuality does not conform to societal norms.
Whereas Miaojin’s writing has a more cynical and satirical edge to it, Solo Dance is mostly just depressing. Immeasurably depressing. I knew going into it that the novel would not be a happy read, but, dio mio, for such a short read this book sure is brimming with queer pain & suffering. Because of this, I’m afraid I found Solo Dance to be a very one-note read. Sure, the realities it explores are sadly realistic, but, the storytelling has this flat quality to it that made it hard for me to become immersed in what I was reading. I can’t pinpoint whether it is the author’s style or the translation at fault, but while reading this I felt not so much transported into the story as merely…well, as if I was ‘just’ reading a text that didn’t quite elicit any strong responses beyond finding r*pe, lesbophobia, and suicidal ideation upsetting to read of. The story never reeled me in, which is a pity as the topics it explores are ones close to my heart (i am a lesbian and grew up in a very catholic and not particularly lgbtq+ friendly country).
The dialogues were a mixture of clumsy and dry and some of Chō’s internal monologues struck me as trying too hard to mimic Lazi’s brand of nihilistic angst. Other times it just sounded off, unnatural (“is the stigmatization of my sexuality the source of all my misfortune? This illogical question had plagued her for a long time”, “her rational thoughts returned to life and began to talk to her”). The narrative also seemed to go way out of its way in order to make Chō suffer, and while I can sometimes buy into the type of story where one character experiences trauma after trauma (a little life), here I didn’t. A lot of the interactions she has with others either struck me as unlikely or just plain unbelievable (from the words spoken by the woman who ‘rejects’ her to her encounter with another suicidal queer woman).

If you are interested in reading this book I still recommend you give it a shot (just bear in mind ‘tis dreary affair).

my rating: ★ ★ ½

The Other Mother by Rachel M. Harper

“Yes, of course. It is always him they want to know about—the father, not the other mother.”

The Other Mother is an affecting and nuanced multigenerational tale unearthing long-buried family histories. The author’s interrogation of motherhood challenges the heteronormative archetype of the nuclear family, as she focuses on the experiences, choices, and parenting of single-women and same-gender couples. Throughout the course of the novel, readers will witness how parental love is not dictated by blood and the complexities that arise from that. Within these pages, motherhood is a multivalent term, one that changes from mother to mother. The two mothers that are at the chore of the story are flawed and imperfect individuals, who make mistakes believing that they are doing what’s best for their child. The author however is never not sympathetic towards them, nor does she condone their behaviour, allowing instead her other characters within her narrative, and readers as well, to reach their own conclusion about some of their choices. We are made to understand their states of mind, the events leading to them making those choices or the circumstances that aggravated certain ‘bad’ habits. The ‘democratic’ structure of the novel allows for all of the people connected to Jenry Castillo to be given a perspective, to give their side of the story and the rift between his two families, the Pattersons’ and the Castillos’.

“What Jenry does know is that he doesn’t belong here, which is how he’s felt about almost every place he’s been. Call it the mark of illegitimacy. But somehow this campus feels different. He’s come here to find something; more specifically, to find someone, which alone gives his presence a purpose. He has come to find his father.”

The narrative opens with Jenry starting his 1st year at Brown University after earning a music scholarship. Jenry was raised by his mother, Marisa, a nurse. While thanks to his grandparents he feels a connection to his Cuban heritage, neither they nor Marisa can fully understand his experiences as the only Black kid in his neighbourhood or fill the absence of his father, Jasper, who died when he was two. He has learnt that his paternal grandfather, Winston Patterson, is none other than a renowned professor of African American history at Brown, so once on campus Jenry sets out to find him, wanting to know more about the kind of person Jasper was. When he does speak to Winston, the encounter is far from the bittersweet reunion between two estranged family members. Winston seems not particularly interested or surprised by his estranged grandchild’s existence, and is unwilling to reveal more about Jasper. In fact, he asks why Jenry is so focused on Jasper when it was his sister, Juliet, who was involved with Marisa. Upon learning this Jenry is shocked and confused, angry at Marisa for having hidden the truth from him, and unsure what it even means that at one point in his life he had two mothers. The following sections, focusing on Marisa, Juliet, Jasper, Winston, and Victor, Jenry’s maternal grandfather, give us a retrospective of what occurred between Marisa and Juliet, their love story and the eventual dissolution of their relationship. We know from the start that Marisa took Jenry away from Juliet without any warning, leaving her with no way of contacting them. Since then Juliet has struggled with addiction and has only in recent years been able to find a stable relationship and job. Her career as a musician seems to have gone astray soon after Marisa left, leaving Juliet bereft and alone. And what role did Winston and Victor play in their daughters’ stories? Both men disapproved of their relationship and their ‘unconventional’ family, but, did they eventually try to do what’s right by them and Jenry?
I really appreciated the uneasy questions this narrative raises in terms of doing right by others and yourself. If you do something terrible (whether it is taking them away from a parent, pressuring them academically, or forcing them to deny who they are) but you have convinced yourself it is the best thing for your child, can you and should you be forgiven?
The narrative shows the many ways in which parents hurt their children out of ‘love’ or because they are unable to accept them and their choices, without exonerating them or villainizing them. Other characters may blame them but thanks to the book’s structure we can’t really favour one perspective over another. If anything, the author is able to show the justifications and fabrications some of the characters make in order to justify to themselves, and others, their actions. I appreciated how imperfect and messy the characters were and the different forms of love we see in this story. The author captures the longing, heartache, and regret experienced by her characters in a melodious prose.

“The loss of him fills her body, courses through her veins. And now, as her memories replay over and over, she can’t help but feel it all—the sadness, the loss, the love she had and perhaps still has for him—flowing into her limbs, making her skin twitch, her fingers ache, till it spills from her eyes as tears.”

The uneasy character dynamics that are at play within the story were deeply compelling and enabled the author to incorporate larger discussions on gender, sexuality, race, class, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Additionally, grief underlines much of the narrative. It may be grief at the death of a loved one (Jasper) or grief resulting from physical and emotional separation (Jenry being taken away from Juliet, the unbridgeable rift between Marisa and her mother, the distance between Juliet and Winston and eventually Jenry and Marisa). I loved much of the story and found myself particularly moved by Juliet’s portion. The author beautifully articulates her sorrow, without romanticizing her struggles or painful experiences. Initially, I found myself also feeling sympathetic towards Marisa, despite her choice to take Jenry away from Juliet. We see how unrequited love and rejection can eventually alienate you from the ‘object’ of your desire. But then in the latter portion of the book, any affection I held for Marisa perished when she behaves in a really crappy and unfair way to her son. Jenry, upon learning that she had lied to him for years, is obviously angry and upset. She is initially shown to be desperate to make amends, and I really felt for her especially given what she is going through. But then when she eventually reaches Jenry she tries to force him into forgiving her by threatening to make him leave Brown, saying that this place had clearly ‘changed’ him and he’s clearly not ready or something…and cristo dio. Wtf?! What a fcking stronza. Really. When she said that sht and the narrative glosses over it I just could not move past it. It infuriated me beyond measure and soured the remainder of my reading experience. Additionally, there was a predictable soap-opera reveal that was hinted at earlier on that just made me roll my eyes. The ending sequence was tonally a lot different from the narrative so far and struck me as mawkish and really jarring.

But hey ho, I did love most of the book so I would still recommend it to others. If you are a fan of multigenerational sagas, such as the ones penned by Brit Bennett, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, or authors such as Hala Alyan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Danielle Evans, and Francesca Ekwuyasi, you should definitely not miss The Other Mother.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin

“The expectations and ambitions, possibilities and hopes concerning my daughter – they still remain and torment me no matter how hard I work to get rid of them. To be rid of them, how skeletal and empty do I have to be?


Despite its short length Concerning my Daughter is by no means a breeze to read. It is a candid and stark study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. In Concerning my Daughter Kim Hye-Jin examines generational differences, cultural conservatism, and the realities of being an lgbtq+ person living in a heteronormative and traditionalist society.

The story is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, a widowed careworker and mother to Green, who is now in her thirties. When Green asks her to rent out a room to her, she reluctantly obliges and is horrified to discover that Green will be joined by her long-term girlfriend, Lane. The mother wants her daughter to be happy, but her vision of contentment does not align with Green’s. The narrator longs for Green to lead a ‘normal’, expected, life: husband, children, a house. But here she is in her thirties and living with her. Worst, she is ‘unapologetically’ and ‘unabashedly’ gay, and has no intention of hiding her relationship from the prying eyes of others. In fact, Green is fighting for lgbtq+ rights, protesting the discrimination and unfair dismissal faced by members of her community at the university where she was employed at.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the mother fails to understand her daughter, and to a certain extent vice-versa. The author never condemns the mother for her lack of knowledge or her unwillingness to understand her daughter’s sexuality. Without excusing her homophobia, she identifies instead the harmful rhetorics promoted by her society. Additionally, we are shown repeatedly that it is this desire to protect her daughter from discrimination and injustices that leads her to reject Green’s ‘unorthodox’ lifestyle. Being in her head was by no means pleasant but her perspective rang sadly true to life.

The narrative swings between the mother’s uneasy relationship with Green and her girlfriend, to her taxing workplace. There she witnesses how uncaring and downright neglectful the staff is towards one of her elderly dementia patients. The patient has no family to speak of and therefore no one but our narrator looks out for her. The mother fights against the idea that this patient should be treated this way because she did not conform to society (the patient was a diplomat of some renown who travelled the world). I found the parallelism between this patient and Green banal …
I also disliked the gratuitous descriptions of the patients’ bodily functions and wounds. The author could have made us understand her neglectful living conditions without lingering on scenes detailing these things.
Her experiences with this patient lead to some depressingly bleak questions about mortality and ageing that at times came across as a wee bit too predictable.

I think I would have found this to be a more compelling story if the narrative had focused exclusively on the mother-daughter relationship but neither of these characters struck me as particularly fleshed out. It would have been nice also if the perspective could have alternated between the mother and Green’s girlfriend, just so we could see Green both in the role of daughter and partner.
Still, I appreciated the issues raised in this narrative. In some ways, it hit a bit too close to home as I am a lesbian from a fairly conservative country that has yet to legalize gay marriage and cares little about the wellbeing of its lgbtq+ citizens and I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and needs full-time care…so yes, maybe readers who are more removed from the events described in the narrative, or are not as ‘thin-skinned’ as I am, will find this to be a more poignant read than I did.

my rating: ★ ★ ★

Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

If you like lyrical love stories such as Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, or books that give serious A24 coming-of-age film vibes such as All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, don’t sleep on Nothing Burns as Bright as You. The author captures how all-consuming first love can be through the unnamed narrator’s non-linear recollection of her relationship with another girl who she addresses as ‘you’. We know their relationship ends in flame, but what has caused them to play with fire? There is an attempt at a countdown and a timeline, so each ‘chapter/section’ begins with x days before the fire. While giving specific dates in non-linear narratives can work, such as in the case of A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar(which actually has some similar vibes to this book so if you liked that one definitely check this one out), here it felt superfluous as the narrator doesn’t stick to the memories/experiences from that specific day. Anyway, we learn that these two girls share a really intense bond, one that causes some adults around them to worry they may be too ‘close’. They feel rebellious and seem to find their daily existence untenable. While their friendship does evolve into a more sexual relationship, ‘you’, and to a certain degree the narrator as well, seem unwilling to label themselves. Their love and affection for each other is clear, and the narrative zeroes in on the meaningful moments that make up their ‘history’ together.

While I appreciated that the author did not paint either as the ‘bad’ influence, as they are both shown to feel ‘other’, different from their peers, unable and or unwilling to fit in at school and pretend at ‘normal’, here well, it just made their eventual conflict kind of forced. Also, their whole ‘we are so toxic for each other but’ thing they had going on reminded me a bit of new adult books such as the one penned by Anna Todd and Colleen Hoover, and I am not keen on those. While I could believe in the narrator’s internal monologue brimming with flowery and grandiose metaphors about love, girlhood, and ‘you’, there were instances where she describes her relationship with ‘you’ to others and she uses such lyrical yet the overwrought language that I had a hard time believing in those scenes. Even if she were a poet it seemed unlikely that she would just come out with such ott allegories on the spot. Maybe fans of allegedly ‘realistic’ teen shows like Euphoria won’t mind but I did. Anyway, while I did find this to be the kind of book that prioritizes language over character/story (the two girls have no distinct personalities, just vibes), I would be lying if I said I didn’t like this book. It was atmospheric, full of gorgeous scenes honing in on some sapphic moments with some vivid and sensual imagery. At times, as I said, I did find the writing to be trying too much, and in this way, I was reminded of the poetry of Ocean Vuong. I know there is an audience that will find these types of metaphors stunning, so do not let my criticism of this book dissuade you from giving it a read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Skim by Mariko Tamaki

Who knew that I would come across something that would make me feel nostalgia for the mid-2000s? Skim is a compelling coming-of-age story that is bound to make you feel nostalgic for the mid-2000s (even if you, like me, didn’t strictly ‘come of age’ in that time). Skim captures the angst, confusion, heartache, and loneliness experienced by its titular character with empathy and insight. Kimberly Keiko Cameron, who goes by the nickname of ‘Skim’, is an aspiring Wiccan goth enrolled at a private girls school. She has a best friend who is very much vocal about her dislike and contempt for the ‘popular’ girls or anything she deems mainstream. When Katie Matthews, one of said popular girls, is dumped by her boyfriend who then goes on to commit suicide, well, the school is thrown into chaos. Some students are very much into performing their grief, exaggerating their connection to the boy and the impact that his death has had on them. Others cluster around Katie, their attempts at comforting her bordering on the oppressive. The staff is made newly aware of the importance of their students’ mental health and identify Skim, a quiet Goth, as someone to keep their eye on. Skim herself sinks further into depression as her only friend becomes increasingly toxic. When Skim develops an infatuation with one of her teachers, well, things get even more complicated for her.
I liked how this graphic novel avoids the usual teen coming-of-age tropes. Skim may be a bit of an outsider but, as we see, the social hierarchies within her school aren’t wholly inflexible (not all of the popular girls hate her or are portrayed as boy-crazed & vapid). Additionally, just because you aren’t part of the popular clique, does not mean you are necessarily a nice person (take Skim’s BFF for example). At times you can grow apart from a friend without any real ‘reason’. Much of the story reads like a slice-of-live dealing with suicide, depression, alternative culture, sexuality, and first love. The narrative never felt moralistic or contrived and I loved the pacing of the story. Skim was a likeable and relatable character who is dealing with a lot of different emotions and can’t quite make sense of what she wants or who she wants to be.
In addition to loving Mariko Tamaki’s storytelling, I adored Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations. Her style has a sketchy edge to it that goes hand in hand with Mariko’s narrative.

I loved how at the ending two characters come together and it is left open to interpretation whether their relationship is platonic or romantic. I did wish for a slightly longer conclusion, but then again, that just may be because I did not want to leave Skim and her world behind. The teacher-student relationship could also have been addressed a bit more. Still, these are minor things and I would happily read this graphic novel again & again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

“The deep sea is a haunted house: a place in which things that ought not to exist move about in the darkness.”

The cover, title, premise, and early hype around this novel made me think that I was going to love it. Alas, as it often seems to be the case, Our Wives Under The Sea did not work for me. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check out more positive reviews.
At first, I gave this novel the benefit of the doubt, but with each chapter, my expectations sunk (ah-ah) lower and lower. This is one of those novels that prioritises language over say characters or story, which is something that I’m sure will work for many types of readers, it just so happens that I am not one of them. Through alternating chapters, Our Wives Under The Sea follows wives Miri and Leah. Their marriage and relationship are very much in limbo after Leah returns from a deep-sea mission gone awry. The experience has clearly altered Leah and Miri struggles to reconcile herself to the fact that the woman she married is no more. In Miri’s chapter, we read of Leah’s strange behaviours: she takes long baths, avoids leaving the house, has frequent nose-bleeds, and seems wholly disassociated from her surroundings. Miri’s chapters also give us some insight into their relationship prior to this disastrous mission (how they met, how they were as a couple, etc.). In Leah’s chapters, which are far shorter, and are meant to highlight her alienated state of mind, we mostly learn about what went on in that mission.

“Every couple, I think, enjoys its own mythology, recollections like notecards to guide you round an exhibition.”

In spite of the intimacy achieved by focusing solely on Miri and Leah (secondary characters are very much at the margins of the narrative), I found the novel’s overall tone cold. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I like plenty of authors who write in this slightly ‘distancing’ way (Jhumpa Lahiri and Brandon Taylor come to mind). However, I have to care or be interested in the people they write about. Here, surprisingly enough, I found myself feeling nothing for either Miri or Leah. Their voices were too similar, something that I found rather frustrating. Their inner-monologues and their observations (about others, the past, themselves) were eerily alike. Which made it difficult for me to see them as individuals, but rather they merged into this one water-obsessed figure. And speaking of water, gesù. We have water metaphors and imagery, water-related speculations, and conversations on water/sea/ocean/sea creatures. I understand that the water & the sea are central themes of this novel (if not the theme) however it got repetitive and, worse still, contrived. The author’s language was impressionistic, trying too hard to be direct and gritty (“red mouth in the morning, red chin, red spill into the sink” / “Miri bit at her skin of her lip so often that kissing tasted bloody; metallic zip of a licked battery”). Her prose was too dramatic, full of flashy metaphors (“beneath her shirt, the bones of her shoulder swing the way a hanger will when knocked inside a wardrobe”). There were paragraphs or reflections that I liked or that struck me as insightful and sharp but I wish that I’d felt more attached or emotionally invested in the story. I had a hard time ‘believing’ in our two main characters, perhaps due to a combination of their voices sounding too much alike and they were both so…water obsessed? Their personalities were vague and the author seemed more intent on evoking a certain atmosphere than on providing us with fully dimensional and nuanced characters.
All in all, this novel was a big disappointment. I went in thinking that I would love it, realised a few pages in that the writing was going for this simultaneously dreamlike and raw sort of vibe (which did nothing for me here) and found myself bored by most of the narrative. It didn’t elicit any particular feelings or reactions in me. This is the kind of novel that screams MFA. It wants to be stylish and edgy but (and here i remind you that i am merely expressing my own entirely subjective opinion so please don’t @ me) but feels contrived and unconvincing. A lot of the dialogues didn’t ring true to life, characters’ reactions were slightly off, and the narrators’ voices were much to similar (that occasionally they address the reader or say things like ‘you see’ made it all more gimmicky).

my rating: ★★½

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The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

“Ghosts are death, but maybe death can mean different things.”

Spooky, sapphic, summery, The Dead and the Dark delivers on all of these. Fans of YA paranormal YA novels like Beware the Wild or Stiefvater’s TRC or even graphic-novels such as The Low, Low Woods, should definitely consider giving Courtney Gould’s debut a shot. The Dead and the Dark = eerie atmosphere + oppressive summer heat + f/f romance + dysfunctional families + not-so-idyllic-small-town with secrets.

“In Snakebite, you were either fleeting or permanent. People who came to town always left, and people who left didn’t come back.”

The Dead and the Dark follows Logan Ortiz-Woodley, the long-suffering daughter of the duo behind ParaSpectors, a ghost-hunting type of ‘documentary’ TV show. Due to her dads’ work, Logan has grown up all over the US, never staying in one place for long. Her dads, Alejo and Brandon, often seem to prioritise their filming schedule over her. While she has a good relationship with Alejo, Brandon has always been a distant figure, to the point of being cold towards her. After her final year of high school, Logan finds herself tagging along with Alejo to join Brandon who has been staying in Snakebite, Oregon for the past few months. Snakebite happens to be her dads’ hometown but Logan knows next to nothing about that time in their lives. Her dads claim that they are there to work on their latest season but Logan suspects some ulterior motives behind their decision to return to this clearly hostile small-town.
Once in Snakebite Logan learns that the town’s golden boy went missing soon after Brandon moved back, and many of its inhabitants seem to believe that he was responsible. Logan teams up with Ashley Barton, the girlfriend of the golden boy and a golden girl in her own right as she’s the daughter of the most powerful family in Snakebite. Despite their differences, Logan and Ashley decide to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance, and soon enough realize that Snakebite may be haunted in more ways than one.

“If pain is the measure, I promise Snakebite is full of ghosts.”

Their thrilling investigation (which sees them uncovering years-old secrets, come to terms with hard truths, suspect their loved ones, see this town and its people through new eyes, and come across ghosts and a ‘dark’ evil entity) was certainly engrossing. I liked their dynamic and how by spending time together they slowly start catching feelings for each other. The setting of Snakebite was really well done. The town’s hostility towards the Ortiz-Woodley family adds extra urgency to the girls’ investigation.

“At the end of all of this, Snakebite would never be the same.”

Now on what didn’t quite work for me: all that supposed evidence incriminating Brandon. That a lot of his scenes or flashbacks involving him in the first half of the novel corroborate this view of him as being a potentially bad guy. It got a bit silly as I already knew who the culprit was. And yes, that ‘twist’…I saw it coming a mile away. Maybe I’ve just read too many mystery novels or maybe I should have not spent a few years of my life watching all 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot but it just so happens that most of the time I guess who is behind a certain crime and or even their motivations. This doesn’t always ruin the story for me but here it sort of made the whole reveal and explanation anticlimactic. Towards the end I also found myself feeling more engaged in Alejo and Brandon than Logan and Ashley which is weird as I’m closer in age to the girls & I’m a lesbian woman. But there was something about Ashley that I just found a wee bit boring and not very engaging. She was very sheltered and compared to Logan I found her character somewhat flat.
The ‘missing boy’ plays a similar function as the dead girls that populate so many crime shows and fiction. We never really learn anything much about him other than he was an actual golden boy and he’s merely a plot device.
Ashley’s mother seemed a poor rip-off of the mother from Sharp Object (a novel that, surprise surprise, the author mentions in the acknowledgements). We never learn much about Ashley’s family which seemed like a wasted opportunity.

The secrecy also got to me. The girls repeatedly ask the ‘adults’ what went on in Snakebite all those years ago or why there is such animosity between Ashely’s mother and Logan’s dads…but they all say dismissive things like ‘soon we’ll tell you/not now/when all of this is over’. It’s one of my least favourite tropes and I wish that it hadn’t been so overused in this story. The time skips (sometimes one or two weeks go by after a certain scene) did not always seem necessary as they clearly served a buffering function.

Still, this was an absorbing and quick read. The relationship between Logan and her dads, specifically Brandon, was one of the most compelling aspects of the storyline. All in all, I’m glad I read this and I look forward to whatever Gould writes next.

my rating: ★★★½

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Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

I lived for that Mack cameo! Sadly, Olivia & Toni didn’t steal my heart away like Liz & Mack did…

“Loving someone is being big enough to admit when you mess up, and then doing everything in your power not to do it again.”

Rise to the Sun is a summery sapphic romance that reads a lot like a love letter to music. Once again Leah Johnson has written a YA novel that succeeds in combining escapism with relevant and important issues (grief, trauma, non-consensual image sharing). Rise to the Sun spans the arc of three days—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—and takes place at Farmland Music and Arts Festival.
Our two narrators and main characters are Olivia and Toni. Toni, still reeling from her father’s death, is seventeen and about to go to college, not so much because she wants to but she feels pressured by her mother. Her passion is music, something she shared with her roadie father. Olivia is about to enter her final year of high school and, quite understandably given her situation, she’s not keen to return. The fate of her ex, a jock with a promising future ahead of him, rests in her hand. But will telling the truth solve anything? Her mother and sister disapprove of her, and many of her romances have ended on a ‘you’re too much for me’ note. Both girls are going to the festival to take their minds off their worries and anxieties. Tagging along with them are their respective BFFs.
The two girls meet by chance and decide to compete together in a music competition….and sparks inevitably fly.

Having genuinely loved Johnson’s debut novel, I was prepared to have my heart stolen away once again…but things didn’t quite pan out that way. While I liked Johnson’s light yet engaging prose and the themes that she touches upon during the course of the novel, there were a few things that didn’t work for me. Olivia and Toni’s voices are too similar and I kept mixing up their chapters. Their personalities are supposedly meant to be quite different, with Oliva as this extroverted and zingy kind of person, and Toni being more of an ‘Ice Queen/conceal don’t feel’ type of gal…so why did they sound like the same person?
The story’s 3 days setting made it so that their romance seemed of the insta variety.
And, the thing that ultimately made me not enjoy this novel all that much, Olivia is a terrible friend. She promises her BFF that this weekend is all about them and that she won’t pull off her usual ‘ditching you friend for the person I currently have the hots for’ move but she does! She doesn’t even try to keep her promise and be there for her friend. She simply convinces herself that Toni’s BFF and her BFF make a great match so pushes them together so that she can then spend time with Toni. She keeps justifying herself by saying that this time is different and that what she feels for this girl she’s known for a second is REAL and no one should stand in the way of TRUE LOVE. She then pulls an incredibly crappy stunt towards the end after the typical 70% romcom misunderstanding and convinces herself that it’s okay, and when she’s called out she whines that her BFF is being ‘harsh’ (of course she’s going to snap at you! what were you expecting after making a move that makes it clear you don’t give a shit about her?).
And I also didn’t care for Toni going on and on about ‘my Truth’, it made her sounds like someone who is into Goop or whatever.

Anyway, just because I wasn’t particularly enamoured by this does not mean you should skip on it and if you are in a mood for a queer YA romance, well, you should consider giving this a shot.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Love and Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

For the love of Jupiter, Nozomi was such a detestable main character.

It had been a while since I so wholeheartedly hated and rooted against the main character of a novel…but here we go. Love and Other Natural Disasters is the kind of romance YA novel that pretends to critique and be self-aware of the tropes that populate this genre but in actuality offers the same recycled ideas and an avalanche of cliches (we have one character saying something along the lines of “you are in love with the idea of love”…come on).
A quick rundown of the story: Nozomi is our narrator, who supposedly is in her late teens (17?18?) and is sad because her parents have split up and her mother is now with a former teacher of hers (boo-hoo). She and her brother go off to visit their uncle in San Francisco where thanks to his connections—ahem nepotism— she gets an internship working at a museum (do we learn anything about this internship? not really). Her grandmother is homophobic and has only recently ‘rekindled’ her relationship with her son (nozomi’s uncle). Nozomi is gay and understandably she is unhappy about having to keep her sexuality a secret in order to have a ‘good’ relationship with her grandmother. Alas, the plot is less concerned with Nozomi & her family than her love life. Before setting off to San Francisco Nozomi overheard a girl she was crushing on making fun of her and comparing her to grey wallpaper or something along those lines. Nozomi wants a GF real bad, and she falls in insta-love with Willow, who turns out, also works at the museum. Willow is beautiful, well-off, and wears makeup (that’s it. that’s her character). She’s also reeling because her girlfriend just broke up with her and seems now to be already dating someone else. Willow and Nozomi decide to do the fake-dating thing, Willow because she hopes to make her ex so jealous she will want to get back together, and Nozomi because she has watched a lot of rom-com movies and according to those the fake-dating couple always ends up falling in not-so-fake-love. Willow’s ex is maybe dating this girl who, you guessed it, is also at the museum as she is working on an installation for a show or something. This girl and Nozomi do not get along at all. At first, the girl is an asshole to her but then it becomes apparent that Nozomi is actually the brat. And that’s my biggest problem with this novel. Nozomi is a real stronza. The kind of nice person who often talks and thinks about how nice, kind, and selfless she is. She’s also low-key into virtue-signalling (telling off this girl for dismissing someone’s ‘i wish world hunger was no more’ wish, claiming that you never know who could be inspired by those words, maybe a person will come across it and decide to volunteer at the food bank…which, if you are wondering, nozomi does not do). Nozomi has also no growth. Her self-pitying ‘I’m a nice person really and any mistakes I do, I do in trying to be good and kind to others so can you blame me, really? ’ shtick got on my fucking nerves. The story tries to spin it so her only ‘flaw’ is that of being too much of a romantic and of trying to orchestrate a romance with Willow (her whole attitude towards willow is creepy af) . The last few pages make it seem as if being called out on her shit has made her mature in no time but I do not believe it for a second. Even after that ‘showdown’ scene, Nozomi seems still firm in her belief that because she didn’t mean to hurt anyone and that after all someone was mean to her so isn’t understandable that she tried to recreate the kind of romance you see in the movies? She has to be told to give someone space and that even if she apologizes that person can refuse to accept said apology. What is she, 14? And don’t get me started on how awful and pathetic she is when it comes to her mother. At one point puts the phone down on her mom because she can’t stand her ‘self-pitying’….pot kettle much? Her behaviour towards her parents was so childish, from the way she assigns them into good/bad roles to how she demands to be in the know-how of their private affairs. I mean, how is this girl meant to be 17/8? She acts like a child! Worse than a child. And she uses the words monstrous all the time. Her grandmother is a monstrous homophobe. She never seems willing to understand that her grandmother, who is Japanese, elderly, and religious, grew up with different social norms. At the end, Nozomi seems to resign herself to her grandmother being the way she is because she’s showing early signs of dementia. And as Nozomi loves to believe she’s a nice person this (her ‘accepting’ her grandmother’s homophobia) works with that narrative.

The characters were one-dimensional, they lacked substance, history even. Nozomi never talks about her high school or mentions any friends/hobbies. It seems to me that she came to be in that very first page of the novel, and that her life before that was…blank. The story was too focused on the drama between these four girls and I would have much preferred for the narrative to be more of a coming of age than a typical YA love story. There were lots of needlessly cringy scenes in which Nozomi does something incredibly stupid (out of the kindness of her heart) that I could have done without.
All in all, this novel irritated me. I kept reading hoping that Nozomi would grow but no. Her character arc is nonexistent even if the last pages will have you believe that she has become a better person and deserves to be forgiven for playing cupid. Her mistreatment of her parents, her obliviousness to her own rather privileged lifestyle (she’s not as wealthy as willow but come on, also, that internship? she cares nothing for it!), and her binary way of thinking (in which people are either bad or good)…all those remain unaddressed. Nozomi is a ‘nice’ person who’s been fooled by those damn romance movies and someone she liked made fun of her so of course, she gets a—frankly undeserved—happy ending.
The author’s writing was decent enough. It didn’t amuse me nor did it engage me particularly but it’s very much run-of-the-mill YA writing. Her dialogues were awkward, her portrayal of teenagers left a lot to be desired, and her mc was bloody awful.
If you liked this, good for you, I guess? If you have this on your tbr list don’t let my review deter you so you should maybe check out some positive reviews instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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