What Janine is Reading: LGBTQIA+ Books in a Mix of Genres
Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake
This book had a cute start and an interesting premise. I really liked the author’s earlier book, Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, but although this book wasn’t bad, it wasn’t quite as good. Astrid, whom we met in the last book, is standoffish and proper, having had that drilled into her by her cold and exacting mother.
Early in the book the other heroine, Jordan, spills coffee on Astrid’s dress as she’s coming out of a café where Astrid is about to meet her friends. Astrid is planning meet Natasha Rojas later that morning. Natasha has a reality show called “Innside America” and they plan to feature Astrid and her interior design firm in an episode focusing on the renovation and redesign of the historic Everwood Inn. Naturally Astrid is upset and lets off steam by asking for Jordan’s number so she can contact her about reimbursement for the dry-cleaning bill. Jordan is so shaken and upset that she later pulls over and cries.
When she shows up to the meeting with Natasha and her producer, Astrid learns that Jordan is the granddaughter of Pru Everwood, the inn’s owner, and will be one of the carpenters on the show. This inauspicious start has Astrid and Jordan clashing.
I almost never enjoy rivals-to-lovers in light contemporaries because they frequently come across as immature and that’s the case here. Thankfully it’s resolved fairly fast. But then Natasha, who noticed, wants more clashing for the cameras so they have to fake it.
The bigger conflict though is that Jordan hates Astrid’s design and even Natasha thinks it’s soulless. When Astrid discovers that Jordan has made her own design and it’s much better, they agree that Astrid will use it but also take the credit. Both the inn and Astrid’s business need the publicity from the show too much for Jordan and Astrid to tell the truth. If they did, the episode would get canceled. But falling in love makes the deception doubly difficult.
I liked Jordan—she had an interesting and painful backstory that I don’t want to spoil. Astrid however was a little too stiff to be someone I enjoyed reading about. The romance started out cute and I liked the way Astrid’s realization that she was bisexual was handled. There was no panic or shame; both her best friends were queer so it was easy for her to get used to the idea. I did find it contrived that she didn’t think much about what her mother’s reaction to her relationship with Jordan would be until her mother found out and Astrid was faced with it.
Jordan she felt more real to me and I liked how naturally she acted (especially relative to Astrid, who was much more self-conscious). Because Jordan’s backstory had put her through some painful stuff, she was described as shaken and underconfident. But that was only portrayed in a few scenes at the beginning; most of the time she acted much more comfortable in her skin than Astrid. So it was jarring when others were overprotective or doubted her ability to overcome her lack of confidence.
As the book progressed I also started losing interest because the internal-to-the-relationship conflict mostly resolved itself and then there was only the external stuff (Astrid feeling guilty about taking the credit for Jordan’s design) to resolve. The fallout from that felt a bit unlikely and some of the ultimate wrapping up of that particular conflict was also hard to buy. I do like the queer community Blake portrays, though. It feels authentic.
Every time Delilah was given a line in this book, I perked up. She’s such a charismatic character. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Delilah Green Doesn’t Care and it fell short of that mark. Nevertheless, I’ll probably read Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date when it comes out. As for Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail, I think I’ll give it a C+.
The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas
I’d heard great things about Aiden Thomas (especially about his book Cemetery Boys) and the premise of this one sounded good so I got it from the library. It’s a takeoff on The Hunger Games set in a Mexican-influenced fantasy world. Teo is a seventeen-year-old trans boy and is unexpectedly chosen for the sunbearer trials. It’s a contest that is held every generation or so to determine which one of a dozen or so teens will be sacrificed to the sun god, Sol. The sacrifices power the sun god’s protection of their world from evil gods who were banished to the stars.
All the teens in the competition are the children of a god or goddess and a human lover but Teo’s mother is a minor deity, so he is considered a bronze and doesn’t expect to be chosen for the trials. His mother is the goddess of birds and while Teo possesses a smidgeon of her abilities, he is self-conscious of his female-colored wings and they give him gender dysphoria, so he binds and hides them instead of using them. Which is too bad because he will need to use them to survive the trials.
Teo is one of the teens chosen by Sol, though it never should have happened; usually only golds are picked to be contestants. Teo’s good friend, Niya, is also chosen, and she is a super strong gold (Niya too has an LGBTQIA+ background, lesbian in this case). Teo and she team up to protect Xio, who at thirteen is the youngest contestant. Like Teo he is a bronze and hasn’t trained for the trials for years like the golds have, so he’s vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Aurelio, another gold, and one whom Teo was once best friends with and then fell out with, is a candidate to win the trials. Teo can’t help notice how hot-looking Aurelio now is but he also can’t forgive him for the way he snubbed him when they were six or so.
I have had a lot of DNFs lately and sadly, this was yet another one. It is not a truly awful book but it’s not good either, and it’s miscategorized as YA. It’s really a middle-grade book—though Teo is supposedly seventeen, he reads more like a fourteen-year-old—he plays pranks and can’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation. Holding a grudge at age seventeen for something that happened when you were six is another sign of immaturity.
Teo keeps joking around despite the fact that he and his friends are in a contest to the death, and not only that, even “winning” is horrible because the winner is the one who will perform the ritual sacrifice and take the life of the teen who loses. The light tone is completely incongruous with that.
It was impossible not to compare the book to The Hunger Games because there are so many parallels and I couldn’t help reflecting on how much lower the stakes feel in this book despite the fact that they should be sky high. Teo might have to kill one of his friends, or to be killed at their hands! The Hunger Games was riveting but The Sunbearer Trials is mostly boring.
Originally I quit the book at 38% but a few days later I went back to skim the rest because I wanted to see how the romance played out. Skimming cemented my opinion of the book. I liked Aurelio but the romance felt so innocent and innocuous—again, MG—and it wasn’t enough to make up for everything else. Teo was also slow to catch on to things around him and others were even slower. The story felt simplistic and the characters were flat. Not recommended for adults. DNF still, because I skimmed after 38% and didn’t read the entire book.
Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum
Atomic Anna is a science fiction saga dealing with time travel, Chernobyl, World War II, and the second half of the 20th century, as well as what is owed to family vs. what is owed to society.
Anna Berkova is a Russian physicist who designed the safety procedures at Chernobyl. The book begins in 1986 with the Chernobyl disaster, which activates a time travel device she once built but never figured out how to use. Anna travels six years into the future and lands at a research facility that was, she later learns, secretly built for her by her former lover, a man named Yasha. Manya aka Molly, the daughter Anna gave up as a baby or young child (I didn’t get far enough to learn exactly how Molly was when this happened) and sent to the US with friends, is there, an adult, shot and bleeding to death.
Molly tells Anna that their granddaughter/daughter, Raisa, can be saved if the Chernobyl disaster is averted—something they have already tried to do once and failed. A couple of hours later Anna travels back to her time and home. She is horrified to witness the disaster, uncomprehending of how her safety procedures could have failed, and stricken with guilt. Since she designed Chernobyl, she also has to escape or she’ll be made an example of, and she finds the same research facility where she met Molly and holes up there with only a caretaker for company.
Interspersed with the chapters about Anna are others about Molly’s childhood and teen years as she grows up in 1960s Philadelphia. Molly knows she was born to Anna, whom she doesn’t remember, but her loving parents, Yulia and Lazar, won’t tell her much more than this about her origins (I wondered how she learned Anna existed, give all their other secrecy about Anna). Molly eavesdrops on them when she is ten or so and learns that Anna designed the Russian atom bomb.
Molly, who already loves comics, begins writing and illustrating a comic book called Atomic Anna, where superhero Anna saves the world. It’s her way of denying the horrible truth she learned about her biological mother. Molly also has recurrent stomach pains (I wondered if this had something to do with exposure to radiation as a baby, but it wasn’t answered in the section I read) and is a bit of an outcast at school during her teen years. When Viktor, a shady but glamorous man in his mid-twenties begins to court eighteen-year-old Molly, she ignores some red flags and the warnings of her parents because she likes his attention so much.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Anna works obsessively toward the goal of preventing the Chernobyl tragedy by researching and experimenting with time travel. Flashbacks also take us back to World War II and the beginnings of her friendship with Yulia and later Lazar, as well as her decision to work on the atomic bomb to stop Hitler (Anna is Jewish). Eventually an experience the older Anna has with time travel changes her timeline and she learns more about Molly’s life. She decides her to veer from her goal of preventing Chernobyl and instead go and help Molly who is in a difficult situation.
Atomic Anna has an interesting concept, but I found the writing rote and the characters kind of flat. Anna wasn’t that likable and neither is Molly. I didn’t feel an emotional tug to draw me into their stories. Dark events kept happening and there was foreshadowing of more to come. That was one of the reasons I quit.
I only made it 28% into the book but for those readers who are interested in reading the book, I’ll mention that there’s a queer element—Anna is attracted to Yulia as well as to Yasha (Molly’s biological father). I didn’t think her attraction to Yulia would go anywhere, though. Yulia loves Lazar and he is a good person. I also didn’t sense that Yulia was attracted to Anna or to any other woman. This book isn’t a romance.
For me, the ineffectiveness of Atomic Anna also has to do with the fact that I remember the Chernobyl disaster. It happened in my lifetime and this feels too soon for an alternate universe account and a treatment that seems a little superficial. My dad is a physicist and that probably made some of the made-up physics in this book a little hard to go with, too. Anyhow, this is a DNF.