It’s time for another set of reviews celebrating the vast and delicious variety to be found in young adult fiction! This time round we have a contemporary romance, a historical romp, and a quirky and delightfully haunting story about love and magic. Travel onwards for recommendations!
Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 homemade baked goods
Rainbow rep: a biromantic asexual protagonist
Premise: Alice has been unceremoniously dumped by her girlfriend, who doesn’t understand her asexuality and can’t possibly endure a relationship where her partner doesn’t desire her. Doing her best to toss that heartbreak behind her, Alice starts anew, moving in with her best friends, throwing herself into her library job, and resolving that dating is too hard and she’s never going to bother with it again. In true romcom fashion, as soon as she’s made this declaration Alice runs into the guy who might just change her mind, her adorable (and attractive???) new co-worker Takumi.
My ultimate declaration about this one is “clunky, but sweet”—like a slightly undercooked batch of brownies. Part of this may be due to this being a debut novel, and part of it personal preference. Alice is a very distinct and realistically flawed character, it’s just that her realistic flaws and personal quirks aligned in such a way that she annoyed the hell out of me for a good portion of the novel. The bubbly narration style doesn’t help with the book’s somewhat jumpy pacing, and sometimes I just caught myself thinking that I vibed so much more with the protagonist of Tash Hearts Tolstoy. But hey, I don’t want that comparison to be a condemnation of Let’s Talk About Love—it’s exciting to be able to be picky, and to have multiple ace-led romantic dramadies out there to choose from. I’m sure there will be plenty of readers out there who relate to Alice more than they felt a connection with Tash.
Rough edges and all, it’s also nice to have a piece of genre fiction out there that deals so frankly and deeply with the asexual spectrum and all of its confusing ins and outs, even if it does render itself feeling like An Asexuality Book at some points. As much as I didn’t connect with Alice, some of her personal struggles with the general misunderstanding of her identity (biromantic asexual, same as me, which we both know sounds like complete gibberish if the person you’re explaining it to doesn’t already know what you’re talking about, and is a target for biased opinions if they do) rang wonderfully true. She also describes “Kill Bill sirens blaring in [her] head” when she first meets Takumi and feels genuine attraction out of the blue, which is an experience that I’ve never seen put into words before (least of all in such a funny and True way).
Most importantly for this novel’s qualification as a romcom, Takumi is A Sweet Boy and the book manages to be deliriously cutesy and tropey in a fun “oh yes, this is the good stuff” way rather than a dull “ugh, I’ve seen this a thousand times before” way. The ultimate takeaway here is, I think, don’t be afraid to be true to yourself—you deserve that freedom, and you deserve someone who takes the time to see you as you are and accept that. Also, talk to your damned friends about your problems instead of hiding from them for chapters on end and prolonging what could have been one argument into half a novel’s worth of drama. Please God.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 roguish bachelors
Rainbow rep: a patented Disaster Bi protagonist, his gay love interest, and his aro-ace-coded sister (and various other LGBTQ+ folks scattered through the background cast)
Premise: it’s the 18th century and Henry “Monty” Montague is setting off on his Grand Tour, a final whirlwind trip around Europe before he must take up his abusive father’s estate and be separated indefinitely from his best-friend-turned-crush Percy. This last hurrah takes a downward turn when Monty steals from a French nobleman in an act of petty revenge, and then realises that the trinket he swiped might just be the key to alchemy’s quest for eternal life. Monty, Percy, and his sister find themselves being chased across Europe on land and sea as they try to figure out how to use the panacea, outrunning not just the French authorities but pirates, alchemists, and their own terrible looming futures.
This was a wild ride from start to finish, and I mean that (at least mostly) as a piece of praise. As it set out to be a gloriously tropey historical adventure romance, it would be a letdown if it was anything but a wild ride from start to finish. The globetrotting aspect of the Tour-gone-wrong does lead to some erratic pacing in places, where it feels as though the narrative is skipping over chunks of time to rush its heroes from place to place, only to suddenly pump the brakes and lend its focus instead to quiet interpersonal scenes that occur once the gang arrives. Again, this isn’t necessarily a complaint, since the character relationships are far and away the best part of the book, and much more interesting than the details of how they travelled, but it does still leave it feeling a bit off-kilter.
Vice and Virtue is an ambitious tale, but I feel like it does right by most of the issues it sets out to tackle and the aspects it chooses to include. Between Monty’s abusive father, Percy’s epilepsy (and the exploration of the stigma and misunderstandings around it), sister Felicity’s desire to escape the confines of her ladylike destiny and become a doctor, and of course the fact that Monty and Percy are very queer, it feels like there’s an awful lot going on. But the novel balances these threads and weaves them into the broader adventure story of pirates and alchemy, and so they work to ground things rather than make them overcomplicated.
Again, pirates and alchemy are all very well, but the historical high-seas hijinks would ring hollow if it weren’t for how much I enjoyed Monty and Percy as characters. And yes, they get a happy ending, which feels (and is partially confirmed in the author’s notes) to be something of a lifted middle finger to the idea that queer stories have to be sad and tragic if they take place in a historical setting.
Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 mysterious seabirds
Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist, her probably-bi-still-figuring-it-out love interest, and her aro-ace best friend
Premise: twin sisters Georgina and Mary are the latest in a long bloodline of magical women, something Georgina would be more excited about if she actually had magic powers herself. While Mary has been able to defy gravity at will since she was a baby, Georgina hasn’t developed any abilities, and with her eighteenth birthday looming, is pretty convinced she’s never going to. But she’s content enough with her life on the isolated island town of By-the-Sea, where everyone knows everyone and the main source of tourism is a rare bird that may or may not be an ancestor of Georgina and Mary’s who transformed and took flight to escape her abusive home life. This routine is disrupted when said maybe-magical bird is found dead, kicking off a haunting mystery that shakes up Georgina’s world.
Let me say first that this book has one of the most endearingly misleading covers I’ve seen in a while. The art makes it look like a fun summer romcom, when in reality Summer of Salt leans much more towards the Gothic. The stormy island setting, woven with old magic and mystery and beautifully described, lends an air of what I want to call dreamy menace to the whole tale—this is a place where the supernatural peeks out at you from the corner of your eye, folded seamlessly enough into the mundane (especially from the point of view of narrator Georgina, who has grown up with a potion-brewing mother and takes all this in stride). And, while Georgina’s budding romance with traveller Prue (clearly depicted on said cover) is very cute, it ends up feeling like an almost incidental subplot. The greatest emotional pull of the novel is truly the relationship between the twin sisters, complicated, deeply protective, and magical as it is.
A necessary content warning is that there is sexual violence in this story, not depicted but quite plot-relevant (I went into this book mostly blind, so lucky for me I stumbled across a would-be content warning in the form of the book’s acknowledgements, which opens with a dedication to sexual assault survivors and a support hotline). In the end, threaded throughout both the contemporary plotline and the history of the magical family, this is a story about women protecting and standing up for each other, even—and especially—if it means calling down powers greater than ordinary folk can understand. It’s gorgeously haunting, appealing especially to my love of the ocean and to the meeting of the magical and the everyday.