This Week, I Read… (2019 #23)

70 - The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

#70 – The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, by Megan Shepherd

  • Read: 5/30/19 – 5/31/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (21/48)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It was sad, it was happy, it was hopeful. It was far more of a roller coaster of emotions than I’m used to crediting a middle-grade novel with. I had no trouble reading it in just under a day.

But in the end, though I loved it while I was reading it, something feels missing for me, some spark. It felt rote at times, even predictable, and that’s not just me reading something far below my age group. It never surprised me, which isn’t a requirement for a book to be enjoyable, but it never gave me much of a sense of wonder, either–and that, from a children’s book steeped in magical realism, I would expect.

I know I’m focusing on the negative, here, but I just can’t quite put my finger on why this didn’t feel like a five-star read, even though I admire its forthright language, its clear storytelling, and its entire aesthetic. When I heard about this and added it to my TBR, it seemed like it was an obvious slam dunk for me, and now, I’m feeling a little too disappointed for that.

71 - Blue is the Warmest Color

#71 – Blue is the Warmest Color, by Julie Maroh

  • Read: 5/31/19 – 6/1/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (22/48)
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What a horrible way to start Pride Month for me, reading what I’d heard was considered a new queer classic, and finding out it was a biphobic piece of trash.

Let’s start with the trash part first.

In this story, we have:
*Cheating is Okay
*Presumably College-Age Girl Sleeping with Definitely Underage Girl
*InstaLust substituted for Actual Emotional Development and “Love”
*Affair Exposed in Stupidest Way Possible
*Standard Homophobic Parents
*Standard Kicked Out of the House for Being Queer
*Bury Your Gays/Dead Gay Tragedy
*Sex Will Kill You, Literally

Why does any of this make a good story? On top of all the overused, and in some cases outright toxic, tropes this tale relies on, the huge time skips with no warning or explanation make this a difficult read to get into, because I kept having to read a new (unmarked) time period long enough to figure out when it was in relation to the one before it, then reread it in order to actually contextualize what was happening. I know the novel is short, but that’s no reason to make me read parts of it twice to simply understand what the hell is going on.

Other, more personal gripes: Don’t like the art style. That wouldn’t be a huge issue if I’d liked the story anyway, but honestly, everyone just looks ugly and the color palette is muddy and boring.

Now, why it’s biphobic.

So, Emma clearly identifies as lesbian. Cool. Clementine, our tragic dead diarist, is never given a label, and judging by other reviews, her sexuality can be defined either as lesbian or bisexual. It depends on how much weight certain aspects of her character are given by the interpreter.

Clem has a boyfriend before she meets Emma, but is clearly shown to not be comfortable with him sexually, while having sexual thoughts about women. That, to me, reads as lesbian, and plenty of self-identified lesbians have relationships with men before/while they figure themselves out. Or while they’re deliberately closeted. Having ever been with a dude doesn’t disqualify you.

However, in the end, Clem cheats on Emma (years down the road) with a man. (gasp!) So, yeah, maybe she is bisexual, if she’s sexually attracted to more than one gender. While the narrative doesn’t come down firmly one way or the other, reading her as bi isn’t a stretch at all, and given all the information, that’s certainly how I see her. (Not to mention that years pass in this novel, identity is a journey, maybe she initially identified as lesbian and later realized she was bisexual. No, that’s not lesbian erasure, that’s an actual thing that happens.)

But that’s not really the biphobic part, I’m getting there.

In the early stages of their relationship, Emma is Clem’s teenage side piece. They enter a sexual relationship both knowing that what they’re doing is cheating, because Emma knows Clem has a girlfriend. But that’s okay, and it’s okay enough that it goes on for quite a while, apparently.

However, as adults, when Emma cheats on their committed relationship, it’s the worst thing that she could have possibly done, and the thing that completely breaks Clem’s heart. She says so, out loud, to Emma. But it can’t just be that she cheated, because as we established, Clem was a cheater herself.

She states outright that it’s because Emma was cheating with a man. So that means she’s not a real lesbian, and that means she couldn’t possibly really love Clem, not if she wanted a man. And that’s consistent with her character, sadly–Clem’s biggest issue, when they were sleeping together but not “together” together, was that someday Emma would move on and find herself a man and be happy with him. Because she only saw Emma as curious about women, not genuinely attracted to them.

Now, I’m not saying this never happened. Biphobia in the lesbian community is a real problem (as it is elsewhere, but that’s a different discussion.) And especially at young ages, that sort of fear is a real thing, even if it’s not a good thing.

But why is this work so glorified as queer literature when it throws bisexuality under the bus? When it shows a probably-bisexual character in the worst light, as greedy, as dishonest, as needing “both” a man and a woman to be satisfied, oh, yeah, and also she’s dead now? Sex killed her?

Clem’s no peach, in my lights–she’s a cheater and a biphobe and the reason she and Emma are caught in the first place is because she decided to walk around Emma’s family home naked, who does that?– but she’s the one left alive. She’s the sympathetic one, the one we’re supposed to feel sad for, because look at this great love she lost.

Thank you, I hate it. I feel no sympathy for her. She’s a terrible person and this is a terrible story.

I want lesbians to have representation. I want media out there, made for them. But can it not spit on bisexuality and bi women in the process? Is that really too much to ask?

72 - The Abyss Surrounds Us

#72 – The Abyss Surrounds Us, by Emily Skrutskie

  • Read: 6/1/19 – 6/3/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (49/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

What I liked: giant sea creatures. Pirates. Wlw romance subplot. Pretty much everyone being morally gray, and that having actual consequences on said romance.

Basically, exactly what everyone else likes about this book. I also think it does a pretty good job displaying enough of Cassandra’s Stockholm Syndrome experience to be believable, at first, when she’s still “good” and the pirates are still “bad.” Of course, since I’ve just said everyone is morally gray, that doesn’t last the whole book, and that’s fine. Cas’ “fall” from forced-labor prisoner to willing pirate is laid out clearly, inevitably, with no moments that make the reader question her motives or sanity.

What I didn’t like was much simpler: the pacing. And not even of the whole book, just the beginning. I went into this as blind as possible for a book that’s been out a few years–I basically knew “lesbian pirates and giant sea monsters.” Without knowing from the start how Cas’ arc would go, I found it incredibly abrupt how soon she was captured, and how out-of-left-field Durga’s death was. We barely get a opening to learn the world-building, then bam! it’s all gone to hell.

I understand, now, having read the whole thing, that getting Cas on board the pirate ship as early as possible was necessary. But because that’s tied to her failure at her job and the death of her charge, I felt like I was being asked to care about Durga with very little time given for me to do that, then mourn his tragic death with no real underpinnings for that feeling. It didn’t feel earned, but other than lengthening the beginning of the book, I don’t really see a solution for it. (And that could easily throw off everything else, so this is a fairly minor criticism.)

73 - Magic Triumphs

#73 – Magic Triumphs, by Ilona Andrews

  • Read: 6/3/19 – 6/5/19
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

It’s over. It’s over and it’s beautiful. My ability to write an objective review of books in this series sailed a long time ago, so I’ll just say, I was crying at the end, I was satisfied, Curran is the best, I’m happy with the way they solved their Roland problems, and DRAGONS. (Not that we hadn’t already met Roman’s dragon buddy, but still, DRAGONS.)

I pretty much got all the small character moments I wanted to see, because a series this long has a lot of side characters to provide endings for, if they haven’t already passed out of the story. And the epilogue sets up an interesting (potential) new story line to pursue (possibly.) If it happens, I’ll give it a try.

I wasn’t that worried I’d be disappointed, because I am so emotionally invested, but the series has truly gotten better as it goes instead of getting worse. I was reasonably confident, but I’m thrilled to be proven right!

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