Welcome to our May review blog! Please note we've changed our name to Queer Lit Review to be more inclusive of books beyond fiction in the future. So, what have we got for you this month? We have a teen striving to become valedictorian and falling for her rival, an older woman reuniting with her first love while fighting Death, and a historical romance about a trans woman falling in love all over again with the best friend she left behind.
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Title/Author: I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston
Summary: Chloe Green is so close to winning. After her moms moved her from SoCal to Alabama for high school, she's spent the past four years dodging gossipy classmates and a puritanical administration at Willowgrove Christian Academy. The thing that's kept her going: winning valedictorian. Her only rival: prom queen Shara Wheeler, the principal's perfect progeny.
But a month before graduation, Shara kisses Chloe and vanishes.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Young Adult
Book Format: eBook
Length: 320 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian/bisexual main characters; nonbinary secondary character
Content Warnings: “Homophobia, Evangelical Christianity, religious homophobia, religious trauma, discussions of racism and misogyny, mentions of past off-page outing of an adult supporting character, threatened outing of supporting character (avoided), underage drinking.” -McQuiston’s website
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend: Yes
Personal thoughts: If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that I am a Casey McQuiston stan first, person second. I Kissed Shara Wheeler is McQuiston’s first foray into Young Adult writing, and I will admit that I was a bit hesitant. There are many adult writers who have published YA before with mixed results and I was hopeful that Shara would still be the kind of standout book I’m used to from McQuiston. Reader, it sure was!
A trap many adult writers writing for YA often fall into is underestimating their audience. It is obvious to me in reading this book (I received an advanced digital copy from the publisher) that McQuiston was extremely careful not to do this in this book. Shara keeps all the witty banter and strong emotional development that we’ve seen in McQuiston’s other titles, along with more age-appropriate topics and experiences. Shara reminded me of my own time in high school. The main character Chloe felt how I felt as I approached leaving my friends and hometown for college and all the joy and regrets that come with a transitional period in your life.
While we’re talking about Chloe... I loved her. I’m a bit biased because I related so strongly to Chloe’s journey, but McQuiston worked extremely hard to make this thorny, determined girl also incredibly loveable. She starts out the book oblivious to her own flaws and combative behaviors, but as she learns more about her classmates, she begins to also learn more about herself and why she’s found it so difficult to let anyone in this tiny Alabama town into her heart. Chloe is very much a work in progress, the way we all are at that age. McQuiston has never put a character on page that they didn’t love, and it is so obvious that they care deeply for every character in Shara. I think that’s what makes this book really shine.
Title/Author/Artist: Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto & Illustrated by Ann Xu
Summary: When Kumiko’s well-meaning adult daughters place her in an assisted living home, the seventy-six-year-old widow gives it a try, but it’s not where she wants to be. She goes on the lam and finds a cozy bachelor apartment, keeping the location secret even while communicating online with her eldest daughter. Kumiko revels in the small, daily pleasures: decorating as she pleases, eating what she wants, and swimming in the community pool. But something has followed her from her former residence—Death’s shadow. She must fight this shadow to stay alive.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Graphic Novel/Horror
Book Format: Print
Length: 368 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual
Content Warnings: Death comes in several forms, such as a shadow and a spider to kill Kumiko, which is a little bit scary.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written!
Art/Illustrations: I love the line drawings here. It’s in black and white, but everything is clearly drawn.
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: I really enjoyed this quick read. Kumiko fights death and in the process is reunited with her first true love.
The relationships here are realistically drawn, though we only get to see one of her daughters and I would have liked to see the others on the page more. The one we do see, Mitsuko, is abrasive, yelling at her mother for running away and scaring her. It’s not pleasant, but is realistic. I was hoping she would calm down and chill out eventually, but she doesn’t. Alice, Kumiko's ex-girlfriend, is also well-drawn. I love how they argue between themselves like an old married couple, but always come back together in the end. This shows just how much they still care about each other.
Death is a character in its own right, making this a bit like a horror story as Kumiko fights Death to keep living. It had me on the edge of my seat for much of the book. The fact that she bests it, for awhile, with a vacuum cleaner, is priceless! But at its heart, this story is about relationships: dealing with difficult family members, making friends, falling in love, and how coming together is a good thing.
Title/Author: A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall
Summary: Presumed dead at Waterloo, Viola is finally living as herself—even though it meant losing her wealth, her title, and her closest friend, the Duke of Gracewood. When she learns Gracewood has retreated from the world in his grief, her guilt drives her back to his side. Yet Gracewood doesn't recognize his old friend in her new appearance. Can Viola help him recover without losing everything again?
Genre/Sub-Genre: Historical romance
Book Format: eBook
Length: 480 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Trans
Content Warnings: Addiction and recovery, including some set-backs. The hero is disabled and suffers from PTSD, and voices negative opinions about his own disability. These negative opinions about disability are not shared by the heroine or validated by the narrative.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes, for romance readers, although non-romance fans would probably not enjoy it.
Personal thoughts: I think that when a book sets out to be “the first” in any category, it’s natural for the author to be cautious. Hall is very aware that A Lady for a Duke is going to be read not just as a historical romance about a trans woman, but as the only example of historical romance about a trans woman that his readers have ever seen. (To my knowledge, he’s correct, at least for books coming from a Big Four publishing house.) The care with which Hall approaches his novel and his protagonists is palpable and much appreciated, even if I don’t agree with all of his narrative decisions.
In his author’s note, Hall talks about not wanting Viola’s transness to be a source of conflict in the book, and I support his reasoning. There’s no reason—in any time period—why being trans should be treated as an obstacle to be overcome. And on this point Hall succeeds admirably! In the novel, Gracewood spends about a day feeling betrayed by the fact that Viola "abandoned" him by transitioning, and then he comes around. He loves her, he is attracted to her, and he supports her as the woman she is. He is so all-in that he almost immediately asks her to marry him.
And thus my chief complaint with the book: I don’t want Viola’s transness to be a source of conflict, but for a significant chunk of the book there is no source of conflict. The only person stopping Viola from marrying the love of her life and living happily ever after is Viola! When a dastardly plot (the kidnapping of Gracewood’s sister) finally showed up a few chapters from the end, I was genuinely relieved. Gracewood and Viola teaming up against an outside force is exactly what the book needed, and I wish it had happened much earlier. From that point, the road to happily-ever-after unfolds naturally and triumphantly.
I look forward to the day (hopefully very soon) when A Lady for a Duke can be a historical romance about a trans woman instead of the historical romance about a trans woman. In the meantime, check out some more trans romances written by trans authors! Although there are sadly no other historicals, a bounty of contemporary and even paranormal options awaits.