Hi everyone, welcome to the October 2023 edition of the Queer Lit Review blog! This month we have a young actress trying to make it in Hollywood, another actress falling in love on the stage, and three women fleeing trauma finding family and themselves in a donut shop.
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Title/Author: Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
Summary: Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, Chinese American actress Luli Wei, desperate to become a star, bargains with blood and ancient magic to realize her dreams. But the steep price for success may turn her into something she despises.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Literary/Historical/Fantasy/Magical Realism
Book Format: Hardcover
Length: 277 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian, with other LGBTQ+ side characters
Content Warnings: There are a few sex scenes here, but nothing overly graphic.
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Mostly well-written, but there were some things I think could have been done better.
Would I Recommend?: Maybe.
Personal thoughts: This was a hard book to get into and like. The unnamed narrator, who eventually goes by Luli Wei, is stone cold throughout the book, making it hard for me to like her or feel any connection with her. Her only goal in life, it seems, is to become a movie star, but I couldn’t feel the pull she felt for it to understand why she wanted to become an actress so much. Unlike Luli, I was drawn to some of the side characters, such as Greta and Harry, but was ultimately disappointed when we didn’t get much time with them.
While there is a direction to the plot, and we know Luli wants to be a star, it still felt a little aimless and stiff for the first two acts. The fact that there isn’t much character growth didn’t help. She has two girlfriends at different points but there is no romance arc to fall back on either. I will say the third act has some great action sequences that finally had me turning pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next. I wish the excitement had been throughout and not just near the end.
Lastly, I needed a more solid foundation for the fantastical elements. I loved the idea of them, but they felt too vague and left me confused about what they actually were, how they worked, or what the point of them were, such as the Friday night fires and the hunt. I think some of them blended so seamlessly into the Hollywood backdrop it was hard to determine what was an actual magical element, such as a monster with fangs and horns masquerading as a human versus a human who is just a very bad man that we might call a monster because he is, in the human sense of the word. This is also what makes her world building and magical elements absolutely brilliant, so you may want to take my confusion with a grain of salt. Maybe it would make more sense to me with a reread where I can go back into it from the start with a better understanding.
In the end, I wanted to like this one, but it didn’t work for me. That said, a lot of folks feel the opposite and loved it, including the book group member who recommended this one to me with high praise. So, if you think you might like it, give it a try and see what you think. Maybe it’s more your cup of tea than mine.
Title/Author: Iris Kelly Doesn't Date by Ashley Herring Blake
Summary: Everyone around Iris Kelly is in love. And she’s happy for all of them, truly, but she’ll stick to her commitment-free hookups, thank you very much. Except no one in her life will let her be. After a night of dancing with a sexy stranger turns into the worst one-night stand of her life, Iris decides she needs to try something new. She auditions for the local play and comes face-to-face with the sexy stranger, whose real name turns out to be Stevie. Desperate to save face in front of her friends, Stevie asks Iris to play along as her girlfriend. Iris is shocked, but when she realizes the arrangement might provide her with some much-needed romantic content for her book, she agrees. As the two women play the part of a happy couple, lines start to blur, and they’re left wondering who will make the real first move....
Book Format: eBook
Length: 400 pages LGBTQ+ Orientation: Bisexual/lesbian; a myriad of queer background characters
Content Warnings: Vomiting; sexual content, panic attacks/disorders, toxic relationship
Ratio of Sex/Plot: 80% plot / 20% sex
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend it?: Yes!
Personal Thoughts: Here we are again, with another Ashley Herring Blake book that I loved. How does she keep doing it?! I will say that I do prefer her adult books to her middle grade ones, but that’s just personal preference. I’m going to get all my usual praise and criticisms out of the way here so if you’ve read my other Bright Falls book reviews, you can just skim the first paragraph.
Ashley Herring Blake continues to reign supreme (for me) as the sapphic love scene queen. Her build up is great, her pacing during the scene is great, and she doesn’t just, essentially, write the same sex scene over and over with different characters which I greatly appreciate. This all comes with the caveat that Herring Blake very much stays in her lane and almost exclusively writes about white, cisgender women. As with all her books, I again thought this one had one too many things going on. You get to have an embarrassing meet-cute OR fake date OR miscommunicate about an important life event. Trying to take on all three felt clunky. While I understood why Herring Blake made the choices she made, I thought it was too much.
Okay! On to this book specifically! Don’t tell my girl Astrid, but for a few minutes I was worried that Iris would claim the top spot in my Bright Falls’ gals ranking. I love Iris. She brings all the same bold and brash qualities as Delilah with all the same soft spots as Claire and struggles with the same issue of setting incredibly high standards for herself that Astrid does without ever feeling like she was just a mishmash of those characters. (Sidenote: My favorite interactions in the book were between Iris and Delilah. I want an entire book of them just sniping at each other.) She felt like the perfect last piece to the Bright Falls friend group as we know it. She grew so much, but she also forced her friend group to grow as well. Even once she decided she wanted to be in a relationship, she didn’t let anyone invalidate her earlier experiences of not wanting to settle down and wasn’t afraid to call out her friends when she felt them judging her, whether they meant to or not.
Here’s the thing about Stevie, Iris’s love interest. I like her! This isn’t about me not liking her. I thought she had great growth throughout the story and was a good match for Iris. I just wish that we had gotten a little more Iris and a little less Stevie. (A general criticism I have for these books is that I don't like that they are dual POV, which is a hard stance to take three books in, but here I am taking it! If your book title has a character name in it, I don’t necessarily want to be in a different character’s POV!) Iris had a LOT going on and I felt like some of it got lost in the shuffle of Stevie and what was going on with her. Which also felt strange because, to me, it felt like Iris was Herring Blake’s secret favorite! Iris is a romance writer who loves a third-act break-up. Very similar, I assume, to Herring Blake herself, who clearly loves a third-act break-up because she keeps putting them in her books!
Overall, I really enjoyed this. I think it’s a nice final book for Bright Falls, though I can see Herring Blake revisiting it in the future via novellas or a story about Simon and his partner. I will continue to read her books in whatever genre she chooses to write in because I find them deeply enjoyable, but I do hope she sticks around in adult romance for a while where she is doing such good work.
Title/Author: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
Summary: A visionary violin teacher nicknamed "the Queen of Hell" is searching for her seventh and final student in order to broker a deal with a demon for their soul in exchange for her own. An alien fleeing the breakdown of a galactic empire has taken over a donut shop to provide for her family as they build a stargate upstairs. And a trans teenager, pushed to the breaking point, has run away from home with almost nothing but her beloved violin. As the three women's lives intersect in unexpected ways, each finds a new kind of family in the others.
Genre/Sub-Genre: Sort of a mishmash of science fiction and fantasy elements
Book Format: eBook
Length: 372 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Transgender, lesbian
Content Warnings: Transphobia, homophobia, racism, domestic violence, survival sex work, murder
Well-Written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes
Personal thoughts: I tore through this book in twenty-four hours and I'm still trying to process it. The content warnings (all well-deserved) don't do justice to what a warm, almost cozy read this is — despite or maybe even because of the trauma and violence the characters are fleeing from. And there are a lot of traumas! The trauma of being surrounded by transphobia, the trauma of being a refugee, the trauma of your parent trying to force you to be someone you're not, the everyday trauma of sexism. But at its heart Light from Uncommon Stars is an uplifting read about finding your family and art.
I found the way Aoki is playing with genre here really interesting. If you’re expecting a book that feels like fantasy or science fiction, I think you’ll be very surprised. Aoki takes elements of genre fiction and blends them in a way that ends up striking me as more literary — almost like magical realism. There’s a spaceship but the book isn’t interested in how space travel works; there’s a pact with a demon but the book isn’t interested in the rules of magic. But it's not too literary, either. There's still a happy ending.
I should preface the next part of this review by saying that I’ve played violin/viola since I was a very small child. I have no patience with the way a lot of fiction makes the performing arts out to be some kind of mystical gift or experience. I know there are a lot of people who do feel that music is mysterious and ineffable, I just hate that whole concept and find it unbearably twee. With that said: I genuinely loved the way Aoki writes about music, and especially about the construction of violins. There's a small subplot about a violin repairwoman that was possibly my favorite part of the book.
I don’t know that I want to read this book again, but it was an incredible experience. I highly recommend it when you’re in the right headspace to read a book that’s a bit more on the literary side!