Guess who did some reading during the blog break? This guy. Click through for yet more recommendations, from cute summer rom-coms to heartfelt non-binary coming-of-age stories to lesbians on a quest to defy fate!
The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burgers in Los Angeles) by Amy Spalding (2018)
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance
Rating: 4 out of 5 vintage-style dresses
Content warnings: casual fat-shaming (from antagonistic characters)
Premise: plus-sized, pink-haired, very gay, and officially “the funny friend”, Abby has accepted that she’s the quirky sidekick in her best friend’s romantic comedy and will never be the star of her own. All this may be set to change, though. When Abby arrives to start her summer internship at a vintage-style fashion boutique, she is faced with two big shocks: firstly, she’s not the only intern, and the two of them will have to compete for Abby’s dream part-time job when it goes on offer come September. Secondly, her co-intern and apparent rival, Jordi, is very cute. What’s a gal to do? Accidentally fall in love, that’s what, and embark on the summer romance of her dreams!
Abby’s a delight to spend time with, a self-aware narrator (as you can tell from that intro) without it being grating, and a fun, complex mix of confident and self-conscious. Her love for her BFFs bumps convincingly up against her reluctant resentment for them all getting boyfriends, and the development of her crush on Jordi (and the reluctant realisation and admission to the fact that it is a crush) felt very real in both a sweet way and a painful way. She and Jordi have good chemistry and get together quite early in the book, leaving the rest of the narrative for them to figure out exactly how their relationship is shaped, and of course to work out their own personal problems.
As a disclaimer, I might have made Abby and Jordi sound a little more enemies-to-lovers than it really is: the “rivalry” between the two girls drums up some initial tension but is by no means vicious, and the development of their relationship is altogether very chill—which suits me perfectly, but if you’re looking for something a little more flavoured of angst and yearning, this may not quite be it. It’s also not a daring tale of forbidden workplace love: Abby and Jordi worry about keeping their relationship a secret for a little while, but their boss is perfectly fine with it when they accidentally tell her all about it. The Summer of Jordi Perez is a delightfully soft and tender teen romance, appropriately warm and fluffy and comforting while tapping into some pertinent issues.
This is a fun mix of tried-and-true romantic tropes and plot beats stirred in with refreshing new twists. Plus-sized heroines (not to mention queer plus-sized heroines) are hard to come by, and Abby gives us one without her whole arc being about her weight. In a world where the “sassy gay friend” is still a lingering cliche, it was also neat to have a reversal of that with Abby and her pal Jax (whom she’s helping search for the titular best burgers in LA), giving us a lesbian protagonist with a wacky, outgoing, and occasionally wise straight boy sidekick. Jax is obnoxious in an endearing way, and like Abby I found myself unexpectedly warming up to the dude across the novel and appreciating his hidden depths… make no mistake, though, he’s a player in Abby’s story, and as much as she never would have expected it she’s the undisputed star of the show.
In the Way of All Flesh by Caitlin Alise Donovan (2019)
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance
Rating: 3 out of 5 deadly premonitions
Content warnings: death, suicide/suicide ideation, abusive family members
Premise: every time Manee makes skin-to-skin contact with someone, she sees a vision of how they’re going to die. Naturally, this hasn’t been very conducive to building relationships, so when classmate Stephanie makes a sincere effort to befriend her, Manee isn’t quite sure how to feel (among other things, of course, she feels flustered, because Steph is very cool and very pretty). Stephanie believes Manee about her powers, and also believes that her visions don’t have to be set in stone. Manee isn’t sure how she feels about this, either, but then she glimpses Stephanie’s death—and sees that Manee herself will apparently have a hand in causing it. Is everything doomed to fall to pieces, or can the two girls fight fate?
Note: the author kindly provided me with a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
So, to answer my stinger question there… yes, yes they can, because this gloomy tale has a happy ending. Whether or not it’s a deliberate play on (and rejection of) the trope of sapphic couples/characters doomed to tragedy, queer lovers vowing to literally bend the rules of causality, prophecy, and Death Itself in order to protect each other is always something I can get behind.
The pacing and prose can be a little choppy, and while the first arc—where Stephanie insists they try to prevent a classmate’s prophesised death—is compelling enough, the mid-ish-point where Manee foresees Stephanie’s demise is where the novel really hit its stride for me. This is where the story hooks itself around a dark and seemingly impossible mystery, and where it really begins to dig into the raw, messy, hidden depths of these characters. Manee and Stephanie are a pair of wonderfully flawed characters, making bad decisions in all directions spring-boarded by their various traumas and hang-ups: Manee is used to pushing people away and has left herself with little concept of her self-worth, meanwhile Stephanie defines her self-worth in helping other people, both of which have some gnarly consequences. It’s dizzying at times, but it’s also refreshing to see two teenaged girls allowed to be so disastrous and angsty (understandably so!!), and it makes their eventual positive growth and their support of each other all the more rewarding.
Also rewarding is the unambiguous villainy—and eventual defeat—of Stephanie’s abusive brother, who comes out as the villain of the piece. The question can you fight fate is a little nebulous, so the concept of fate and defeatism finds a nice representative in this character, who brings the very big, philosophical and supernatural, conflict down to a human scale. Again, this has a happy ending, but the road there is a little rough. Manee’s defiant quest to not only keep Stephanie alive but give her a life worth living—which makes up the final act of the book—is gruelling but rewarding, and, again, taps into themes that always get me cheering.
I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (2019)
Rainbow rep: a non-binary protagonist, their probably-bi-still-figuring-it-out male love interest, their NB best friend
Rating: 4 out of 5 new sketchbooks
Content warnings: transphobia, parental abuse
Premise: when Ben is kicked out of home after coming out as non-binary, their life is turned upside down. They move in with their estranged older sister, who ran away from home a decade before leaving Ben with nothing but a phone number and a scribbled apology; they start at a new school; and they reluctantly battle their anxiety by starting to see a therapist. Their classmate Nathan is a surprising ray of sunshine in this chaotic time, sincere and goofy and ready to take Ben under his wing. Ben’s just trying to fly under the radar and survive until the end of high school, and they certainly aren’t keen to open up emotionally again after the disaster that was their parents… but maybe Nathan is enough to start mending their broken heart.
Two words come to mind here: charming and cathartic. I Wish You All the Best is about recovering from trauma and finding your own family, and it strikes the golden balance between dealing with harrowing themes while having a happy ending, giving us heart-aching realism as well as a sugar-sweet tropey romance. I talk a lot about how I love seeing queer characters in genres and narratives that aren’t the traditional coming-out-coming-of-age story, but it’s also great to see that sort of arc given to identities that aren’t as well represented. It’s super exciting to see an NB protagonist at the heart of this very familiar YA scaffolding, with Ben’s identity front and centre in the story without it feeling like the novel is trying hard to explain what being non-binary is.
Ben is a convincingly-written ball of queer teenaged stress, and I felt a strong protective urge over the kid for the entire book—which naturally meant my heart got fuller and fuller as the novel progressed and they found their way to a happy conclusion (or, perhaps more accurately, a happy beginning of something new). Nathan rocketed into place as one of my favourite YA love interests, adorable, funny, genuinely supportive, and able to draw Ben out of their shell without it feeling contrived or pushy. The dialogue is cute and heartfelt, and the two are gradually drawn into an excruciatingly lovely slow-burn dance where their affection for each other is obvious, but the internal oh, I bet he doesn’t actually like me spiral keeps them apart until they’re both emotionally ready to make that step forward. And I will always, always be weak to the emotional intimacy of painting/sketching a loved one. That is, to use the official literary studies terminology, the good good stuff.
The family dynamic is also intriguing, and, I think, a pretty nuanced picture of what a bad family situation looks like. Ben’s parents aren’t one-dimensionally evil, in fact they can be quite nice, but they hold prejudices and attitudes that make them very bad parents. Ben’s dad holds a lot of traditional (one could say outdated) conceptions of masculinity, and rules his household with an iron fist; but I found Ben’s mother to be a particularly interesting depiction of an abusive parent in that she is, on surface level, quite lovely, and her cruelty instead comes through in the tiny barbs of microaggressions, passive-aggressions, and the art of the non-apology. Ben’s relationship with their older sister is also an interesting emotional throughline, supportive but also a little bit fraught, and generally a complex mess of yearnings and problems neither of them will quite talk about.
All of this, of course, only makes the story of Ben’s growing circle of friends—and their friends-to-lovers storyline with Nathan—all the sweeter, as they slowly open up and embrace the concept of a chosen family rather than the emotional disaster that is their biological relationships. As I noted above, Ben starts in a bad place but finds their way to a hopeful future, and it’s a very sweet and rewarding journey to get there. This book made my heart happy.