Review: Kalynn Bayron – This Poison Heart

This Poison Heart
Kalynn Bayron

Briseis has a gift that is held in check by Brooklyn lack of green spaces. Her ability is to cause plants to thrive – even the deadly poisonous ones. After a rough year at school (trying not to cause the plants in her teacher’s windows to grow vigorously), Briseis is hoping to spend the summer helping her moms run their flower shop. Instead, she finds that she has inherited a rambling estate and garden from her birth mother.

I was a little hesitant to read this novel, because I had enjoyed Cinderella is Dead right until the disappointing ending! Once I picked it up though, I was hooked. Bri’s character was fleshed out and her feelings obvious. I didn’t mind the so-called ‘slow burn’, I liked getting to know Bri’s family, circumstances and normal behaviors before she was tossed into a new world of plants, poisons and family secrets. Add in some Greek mythology and there was a tale I wanted to keep reading.

Other reviewers have complained that the author doesn’t use words such as lesbian to refer to Bri’s moms. I actually appreciated that! It’s not like every straight couple in other novels are said to be straight! Equally, it’s not stated that Bri and her moms are people of colour – it’s up to the reader to pay attention to the little nuances in physical appearance and habits to realize this (although this is probably given away by the beautiful, luscious cover art).

Let’s talk about the ending in general terms at least. Did I like it? No, no I did not. I honestly felt as if the publishers had told the author “Hey, we think this will be a big hit, make sure you prepare to write a sequel.” So then Bayron was required to leave it open! In the end, I didn’t like the way the antagonists showed up as there were too many holes in the reasoning.

Ultimately my take on this novel is to go buy it! But without knowing when the sequel will come out (or whether this is a duology/trilogy etc.) try to go into it realising that you’ll have to be patient to see the next installment. I’m not patient! So it’s four stars from me (to be updated if the second book is as fantastic as the first).

Bloomsbury | 29th June 2021 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Alicia Jasinska – The Dark Tide

The Dark Tide
Alicia Jasinska

Lina just KNOWS that it will be her brother Finley who is chosen as the sacrifice this year. Finley is equally insistent on going to the revelries to find a potion to fix Lina’s broken ankle. Next thing Lina knows, she’s asking her heartthrob Thomas to find a way to save Finley – but instead finds herself falling for Queen Eva.

Thomas – the hero we love to hate? Does that make him the anti-hero? Because it certainly seems like he’s a waste of space. What did Lina ever see in him! Lina on the other hand is surprisingly poorly aware of herself and the effect she has on others. Her obsession with dancing means that I expected her to heal her ankle, but instead she gets great joy from terrorising Finley over it.

I guess it’s a teenage novel because there are some graphic descriptions of basically torture and some pretty vivid death. Honestly though, the level of the story is younger tweenagers, and I was left wholly unsatisfied with it. Surely there are better young reader fantasy novels with gay characters?

I found myself disappointed in this novel. Yes, it had queer characters, but the story overall wasn’t that great. I felt no sense of satisfaction at the ending, and the fantasy/storyline wasn’t convincing. I loved the idea of witches using parts of themselves to do magic, but I hated that none of them actually disappeared!

3 stars from me, and seriously put this book down further on your to-read list, it’s almost not worth your time.

Penguin Random House | 2 June 2020 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Phil Stamper – As Far As You’ll Take Me

As Far As You’ll Take Me
Phil Stamper

Marty has always been the shy kid in the background, and he’s been happy like that. Being gay in Kentucky with a conservative community and Bible throwing parents isn’t exactly the best place to make waves. Marty decides to make the life he wants happen – he’s flying to London in order to play his beloved oboe and find a place to belong.

Did someone say that we needed more diversity in queer fiction? Even if they didn’t, this novel is a worthy addition to any gay teen’s bookshelf. It’s an accessible, friendly novel about Marty finally getting to live the openly-queer life he has always wanted since age six. The romance is a bit ugh, but I liked that it didn’t come to an obvious conclusion. Thank you, Marty, for not being a complete idiot.

I have suffered from anxiety in the past, and I could completely empathise with Marty that crowded spaces and new places freaked him out. However, the couple of times where he seemed to have a panic attack, and then had his new friends calm him down didn’t ring true to me. Thus, the ending to the novel seemed too neat.

Did I read this too fast, or something? I barely even picked up Marty’s disordered eating before his friends did. Yes, he seemed a bit obsessed about foods, but at the same time I felt like maybe it was harmless. I think that my sense of timing was off. The twelve weeks of summer seemed to go past faster than I realised. This was a complaint I had about The Gravity of Us as well.

I think that the blurb on this novel lets it down. I don’t think that Marty’s homesickness ever gets that bad, and he seems to be coping with his anxiety mostly ok. Also, I didn’t really get a sense of him running through his savings. And again, if it was so expensive to live in London, doesn’t that just mean that he should live at home with his aunt a bit longer? Certainly in Australia you are often expected to (or expect to) live with your parents for a while after you graduate high school.

I was very keen for this novel to come and I started reading it in short order. However, I took breaks in reading it because some parts just seemed too real and upsetting. I’m not sure that’s a complaint – just a comment that this book could potentially be triggering for some people. I won’t read it again, but I’d highly recommend it for any musically inclined travel-hungry teenager, gay or not. 4 stars from me.

Bloomsbury | 9th February 2021 | AU$15.99 | paperback

Review: Kevan Van Whye – Date Me, Bryson Keller

Date Me, Bryson Keller
Kevin Van Whye

Bryson’s got a dare going – he has to date the first person to ask him out on a Monday morning. Kai has a secret – he’s gay, and perhaps a nice guy will notice him eventually. When Kai basically blurts out that Bryson should date him for a week, he doesn’t actually know what the week will have in store.

This came in the door, I read it right there and then, and then failed to review it. What can I say, COVID-19 has been sapping my energy because I spend way too much time in front of a screen. This is a heartfelt romance that starts out just as I would expect it to. Gay boy falls for straight boy, but there’s no gay baiting! Beautiful.

Kai is such an empathetic individual that it almost made me cry at times. I couldn’t bear it when he was hurt! And Bryson goes from a popular kid on a pedestal to being, well, human. Both are full realised characters that I enjoyed reading about.

I also really liked the cover. Mine was an ARC so it didn’t exactly match the one here, but it was cute. Oh, and did I mention that the Penguin on the spine (because it’s published by Penguin Random House) has a rainbow background? It would be easy to browse a (physical) bookshop and find a Queer novel that’s suitable for a young person in your life.

This novel is a cute love story that still manages to cover queer-phobia and coming out without being trite. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this as a teenage read, gay or straight. If you are looking for a gay novel that is a little more racey, try Jack of Hearts or CAMP. Oh! Or The Gravity of Us. There are some really excellent novels out there at the moment.

My only hope is that this book doesn’t trick young queer people into thinking that they can bring people over to being queer! But then, I imagine that they are already sick of reading straight romances where the queer person is the best-friend/side-kick/support-person. I had to resist rereading this again when I was going to review it, so it’s 5 stars from me.

Penguin Random House | 2nd July 2020 | AU$15.99 | paperback

Review: Karelia Stetz-Waters – The Admirer (N)

The Admirer

Karelia Stetz-Waters

Helen Ivers has just become president of a tiny little college on the strength of her ability to fund manage and drag the college with her. In truth its a place Helen can escape to, since her life has spiraled beyond her control since her sister’s suicide. All she wants is to forget. Instead she comes face to face with a mystery in the form of two human legs shortly after her arrival. In a town where she is considered an outsider, its hard to know who to trust, especially when she can’t even trust her own mind.

It’s immediately clear that Helen is trying to escape something, and throughout the reading its clear that she is haunted by what happened to her sister. She doesn’t let that stop her from trying to do what is best for the college. Though she seems to face opposition from all sides, its clear she is used to being in a position dealing with the various egos of those around her.

I know it was supposed to be a sense of mystery with the killer, making it hard to tell who the killer was right up until the big reveal. But from roughly halfway through the book it seemed obvious to me who the killer was. There was a sense of age to the character that ruled out many potentials. And there were other clues that Helen herself missed in conversations.

The denied romance aspect was different. I haven’t really read many books that have that so well written. Normally its a token resistance then onward into a relationship. Here the tensions between Helen and Wilson is clear and stays throughout the novel. Even when Helen gives in there is a degree of withholding herself. It was a nice change to read.

It was a good read with solid psychological thriller elements. I did find the early sections from the killer’s point of view left my head reeling and that feeling of discomfort stayed with me. The later killer scenes didn’t have nearly the same feel. But the sensation of the hair standing up on the back of my neck from those earlier pervaded through my reading. Overall, I’m giving it 3 stars. It was a good read but not 100% my cup of tea. That’s more about me than the book though, if psychological thriller is your jam definitely give this one a go.

Review: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – Fighting Words

Fighting Words
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Why does Suki scream in her sleep? That’s the question Della wants answered. Suki has always protected Della since their mother went to prison and her boyfriend took them in. The girls find themselves in foster care, but it’s still not right. Della is determined that now she’ll support Suki – even if Suki doesn’t want her.

Let’s start off by stating that this is not an easy read. This is a terrifying read. It is not comfortable or comforting. You’re going to want to put trigger warnings on it for suicide, bullying and child sexual abuse. This is an #ownvoices novel from this author, and the authenticity of the writing is heartbreaking in parts. It lead to this being a compulsive read for me.

I was slightly confused by these characters, and their interaction with others. I think the girls were people of colour? And that they were able to be recognised by others in their community as needing help. It’s painfully clear that the foster care system isn’t fair to people of colour and that children’s knowledge of the system can be a rude awakening to fairness.

This novel highlights the sad truth that the foster care system is often understaffed in terms of specialist help for children and teenagers that have been abused. The people that foster in the foster care system can also be lacking in terms of compassion fatigue’ (it’s an official term). Working with traumatised young people can be difficult and unrewarding.

I unfortunately read an eBook copy of this, and I can almost statistically support that I like novels less when I have to read them on my laptop. With this in mind then (and the fact that I read it quite a bit ago now) I’m giving this novel 4 stars.

Text Publishing | 1st September 2020 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Kalynn Bayron – Cinderella is Dead

Cinderella is Dead
Kalynn Bayron

Sophia has been preparing for her debut for her whole life. Or at least, her parents have been trying to prepare her. Every girl may go to the ball three times and be chosen by a man – or her life will be forfeit. Sophia can see through the facade though, and she doesn’t want to be chosen by a man. She wants to be with Erin.

I liked the new twist on the Cinderella fairytale, but some elements left me feeling disappointed and short changed. I was happy that I had a lesbian protagonist. I was happy that she didn’t instantly fall for her new female friend… but that she lusted over her. Who doesn’t want something that is forbidden? I feel like that love was really just lust, and that’s far more preferable to insta-love.

I would like to know where Sophia got her blackness from. The kingdom seems tiny and racially white, so where did she come from? I get that she doesn’t fit in, and I get that that resonates with many people of colour at the moment. My problem is that the world that Bayron has built in this novel is too small to have more than one race of people. The ‘Kingdom’ itself just seems to consist of one large town?

I didn’t understand the ending with the Fairy Godmother. What did she get out of the status quo? Living forever doesn’t seem like a fabulous thing to me, particularly if you’re isolated. Also, the ending made it seem like if you can just topple the Man at the Top, everything will be breezy. It’s not that easy though. You can’t just make a hole in the power structure at the top, and expect everyone to come to the new system. I wanted to see more – how will this new way of living go? What other countries might they learn about?

Ultimately the ending let me down and I kind of regretted spending my time reading it. A light-hearted and unfulfilling novel. I can only hope that this author’s worldbuilding skills improve for her future novels – and if she’s still writing queer fiction, I’ll be reading it!

Bloomsbury | 1st September 2020 | AU$15.99 | paperback

Review: LC Rosen – Camp

Camp
LC Rosen

Randy used to be a steriotypical gay teenager. He’s fallen in love though with a straight-seeming guy who seems to date (and hurt) a different person each summer. Randy wants to be noticed and be the one who gets to keep the guy. But will changing himself into a buff and masculine gay teen mean that he misses out on all the things about camp that he used to find fun?

This book hurt me, because it had so many steriotypical ‘gay male’ behaviours in it. The main character is a normally flamboyant gay male who wears nail polish, sings and dances hilariously and isn’t sporty. Normally I hate steriotypes, but they are usually known for a reason. The fact that Randy’s head space shows his personality regardless of his outside presentation is important. Many gay people act straight to ‘pass’ as normal, and it’s nice to have a protagonist who can show what that’s like, and how hard it is.

I could have cried at some points in the novel. Randy/Del had so many feelings, and he shared all of them with me! Maybe I would have liked to have something more from Hudson’s side of the story, but it was good to have some brief perspectives from older queer individuals and their shared life experiences.

It would be so cool if there were gay/queer retreats like this in Australia. Or maybe there are but I missed the window to attend one. Anyway, it’s good to know that there are options for gay teens in the USA, because it seems like their environment is a lot less tolerant of queer individuals compared to Australia.

This book has very leading text on the cover – “Putting the ‘out’ in the great outdoors”, “Top or bottom?” and “It’s time to bunk up…” What was cool for me was that the first copy I had of this had rainbow colours behind the Penguin publishing penguin (instead of the regular orange). Now I’m wondering if there are other books on my shelves that have it.

A worthy addition to young adult queer fiction. I very much liked the first novel from this author, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) and I was excited to read this book. When this novel walked in through the door I got started reading it almost immediately. Unfortunately, I didn’t review it right away… I was prompted to write this review when I received a second copy! 4 stars from me, and I’ll definitely try to pick up the next novel from this author. I’d also be keen to see some more young adult lesbian fiction by #ownvoices. Also, a book such as this one should be made compulsory reading in the Australian curriculum – enough Tim Winton, guys, let’s see some gay fiction.

Penguin Random House | 2nd July 2020 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Phil Stamper – The Gravity of Us

The Gravity of Us
Phil Stamper

Cal’s going to make his FlashFame feed support his career as a journalist, do an internship at BuzzFeed and get a free ride to college with a full scholarship. When his dad is selected to become an astronaut of the Orpheus Twenty Cal’s plans are derailed – going to Texas isn’t in his ideal future! But with a cute boy in the picture, maybe something about this summer might not be a waste afterall.

The cute cover should give this away as a gay fiction. The recommendation statement on the back from Becky Albertalli says this book is a ‘story I didn’t I know I needed’. And she’s right! I didn’t know that I could be excited about a somewhat futuristic space voyage – but it turns out that there really is a current program to have humans on Mars by 2032. Thus I can confidently say that this is NOT science fiction.

The single paragraph devoted to his final high school year seems a bit perfunctory. I’m not complaining, because there are plenty of teenage fiction novels out there that cover high school and being gay well. At the same time though, I felt like that could have added a bit more depth for the protagonist, who seems to exist in his own little bubble most of the time.

I struggled with the sense of time passing. Perhaps instead of boring chapter numbers, a handy chapter date would have been more useful. This lack of time made their romance feel instant, and their feelings insincere. What I did appreciate was that Leon’s depression wasn’t cured in an instant by falling in love (lust?) and neither was Cal’s mom’s anxiety completely treated by therapy.

There seems to be a growing interest for novels about space and mathematics. I’m loving it! From avoiding meteoroids (Learning to Swear in America), to general astrophysics (The Square Root of SummerΒ andΒ Stargazing for Beginners), I’m excited for what will happen next. 4 stars for this one from me.

Bloomsbury | 17th March 2020 | AU$15.99 | paperback

Review: Alison Evans – Euphoria Kids

Euphoria Kids
Alison Evans

Iris has never had friends before, other than the faeries that live in their backyard. Babs has trouble staying visible thanks to the witch who cursed her. The boy hasn’t found a real name yet. Can magic and friendship keep them safe?

I’m not really sure how old these kids are. Teenagers? I thought that I read somewhere that they are in junior high, but they certainly seem to have a lot of freedom in school for that. I’m a great believer in the power of education, and they don’t seem to spend much time at school! The only class they seem to do is art, and while I think it’s really important for expression, it’s not the only way to express yourself.

The perspective swaps between Babs and Iris were made doubly confusing once the two humans became three humans, and the pronoun ‘they’ was used for both Iris and the three of them. I had trouble remembering which one was Iris (neutral gender plant sprout with witch potential) and which was Babs (trans-girl fire spirit that disappears with witch mother?). ‘The boy’ doesn’t even get a name until a powerful witch helps him find it! And what is up with his dad? I couldn’t decide if the dad was accepting or not, because the boy doesn’t always wear his binder (take with a grain of salt and always do your research before getting a binder).

Having three gender queer teens in a single year level, let alone school, is very rare. That alone would have been enough for the novel to process. Then make one of them a plant spirit that talks to faeries with two mothers (one of which took time off work to look after her while she was a plant/seed baby?), and the other a cursed fire spirit. Just for good measure, toss in a cafe owner/worker who is also trans and a trans-boy without a name.

What does it mean that Babs is made of fire? Can someone be more specific for me please? So much about this novel seemed unfinished, and I don’t think it was just because I had an ARC copy. I think too many themes and too much was crammed in.

I didn’t like the way Babs’ depression was treated. Ok, so they went to the special understanding GP, but then they just talked about it, and she was magically cured almost immediately? Talk about setting unrealistic expectations. Oh yes, also that the boy is able to just go to the GP to get a script to stop his periods. In my experience, it’s never that easy.

I wanted to love this novel, for the fact that it is a #ownvoices novel. But I couldn’t. I at least finished it but it was a struggle. It wont be coming home with me from vacation and I’m not giving it to any gender queer people I know.

Echo Publishing | 1st March 2020 | AU$19.99 | paperback