Hi folks, and welcome to the August 2020 edition of the Queer Fiction Blog! This month we have a henna artist war between two teens who may or may not be falling for each other, a young man who is figuring out his gender identity while dealing with transphobia and falling in love, and two lesbians who bond over letters in Regency England.
Title/Author: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
Summary: Nishat doesn't want to lose her family, but she also doesn't want to hide who she is. It only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled, but Nishat can't quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.
As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.
Genre/Sub-genre: Young Adult
Book Format: eBook (also available as a downloadable audiobook)
Length: 400 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Content Warnings: Homophobia, racism, bullying
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: This book was so fun to read! Nishat, at sixteen, is a loveable mess as she figures out how to navigate through the world now that she’s out to her parents and her childhood crush is back on the scene. Her relationship with her younger sister, Priti, is touching and genuine; the real heart of this book is the way that the sisters love and support each other, even if they skip class to see each other a little too often to be realistic. Flávia is a complex love interest for Nishat. Both of them have a lot of learning and growing to do before they can reach a place where their crushes can be anything more. It was so rewarding watching them get there together.
There are a lot of villains in this book and many of them act along stereotypical lines—the mean girl at school perpetuates racism against Nishat, she’s outed by a fellow classmate, her parents don’t accept her. There almost doesn’t feel like there is enough space for all of them to get the attention they deserve. One of them gets no comeuppance or redemption at all—she just falls off the page, which was disappointing. The other gets the bare minimum. The only real resolution is with her parents, which, is arguably the only resolution that really matters to Nishat.
This was relatively slow burn, as it takes a while for Flávia and Nishat to actually vocalize how they’re feeling about each other and to get past all the obstacles that stand in their way, but it was absolutely worth it. This was a sweet read that tackles a multitude of topics in believable ways without losing sight of the narrative.
Title/Author: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Summary: Felix Love has never been in love and even though he is proud of his identity, he also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily ever after. When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi-love triangle. But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.
Genre/Sub-genre: YA Fiction/Romance
Book Format: downloadable audiobook (also available as an eBook and in hardcover)
Length: 368 pages/8.5 hours
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Transgender/Demiboy
Content Warnings: Be aware that this book does include transphobia, homophobia, as well as cyberbullying. There is also a trans-exclusionary radical feminist character in the cast.
Ratio of Sex/Plot: Heavy on the plot
Well-written/Editor Needed: Extremely well-written!
Narration: The narrator was great and easy to listen to.
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal Thoughts: I just have to say, this cover is so beautiful! That out of the way, let's dig a little deeper into the story. Felix is drawn realistically, as a transgender teenager who has already gone through the physical transformation into the boy he always thought he was supposed to be. His thoughts and feelings ring true, as he then realizes that identity might not fit him after all. The other characters, including the adults, his classmates, and the friends he finds along the way were also realistic and interesting. Everyone clearly had their own goals in mind, and weren't only oscillating around the main character.
I do have to point out, this book is difficult to read in places, as Felix goes through some pretty terrible things thanks to his classmates at summer art school. However, Felix is not all that innocent himself when he seeks a secret revenge for the gallery someone anonymously hangs in the school lobby. Romance pops up in the most unlikely of places for him and while I saw some of the romance coming from a mile away, not everything worked out the way I'd thought it might. I thought the romance aspect was also realistic with its awkwardness, surprises, and the times Felix was unsure about it.
There is a strong need for more books with transgender characters of color. As a librarian, I have been asked specifically for characters like Felix who are trans men of color but still retain some femininity. I have yet to find other books that fit this description, but I hope one day there will be more, and that these characters will go through less transphobia in their stories. Overall, this was a great read and I highly recommend it to teens and adults looking for characters like Felix.
Title/Author: The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite
Summary: When Agatha Griffin, owner of Griffin’s Printing Press, finds her storage shelves infested with bees, the normally capable widow has no idea what to do. Enter Penelope Flood, a sailor's wife who happens to be her village's expert in beekeeping, to rehome the bees! The two prickly women strike up a friendship over letters that slowly develops into much more, while the struggle for women’s and working class rights disturbs the comfortable order of things across England.
Series/Standalone: Second in the Feminine Pursuits trilogy after The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, reviewed in December 2019. The books aren't closely related and I think they could be read independently of each other without anything being lost.
Genre/Sub-genre: Historical romance
Book Format: eBook (also available as downloadable audiobook)
Length: 416 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: lesbian/bisexual
Content Warnings: A minor character is trapped in an emotionally/financially abusive marriage; there are some scenes of mob violence but nothing especially frightening or explicit.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Absolutely!
Personal Thoughts: This is a lovely and slow-moving romance featuring characters that we don’t often see in Regency romance: two middle-aged, middle-class women. It’s a very plot-heavy book for a romance novel, with an interesting focus on contemporary political issues! I didn't know much of anything about sedition laws or George IV's attempt to divorce his wife, Queen Caroline, despite the boatloads of regencies I’ve consumed over the years. It definitely makes you wonder what else is being conveniently left out of all the “girl meets duke” storylines. The Care and Feeding... shows how ordinary people are affected by the political struggles of the times through very thoughtful details. I especially loved the relationship between Agatha's adult son and her (female) apprentice, who are in love but have actively decided not to marry because of the power it would give him over her. There is a really great scene early on in the book where all three of them talk about what they would do if they could change just one law. Sydney picks freedom of the press, Eliza picks universal suffrage, and Agatha picks the right to an easy, cheap divorce, which tells you so much about all three characters in so few words.
As for the romance between Agatha and Penelope, expect a slow burn! I love a good epistolary romance, and I really enjoyed that their relationship was able to build organically as they wrote back and forth. Even after they start meeting in person, it takes a while for Agatha and Catherine's relationship to become physical. There aren't many sex scenes, but just so you’re aware, the ones that make it onto the page are quite explicit! I wasn’t expecting period-accurate marital aids to make an appearance—not that I’m complaining. I would recommend this book to any historical romance reader, but especially for ones who like to get immersed in the details of the setting. I think KJ Charles fans would really enjoy this series.