Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

Morgan Rogers has created a masterful debut novel full of raw emotion and expressive language. Honey Girl is a coming-of age novel that deals with tough topics that many adults may find themselves dealing with today.

Grace Porter is confused. A 28-year-old woman who recently completed her PhD in astronomy, Grace and her friends are in Las Vegas to celebrate her major achievement. What no one expects is for Grace to get incredibly drunk and marry a woman whose name she doesn’t know. She wakes up the next morning with vague memories of what happened the night before, remembering that she got married to a mystery woman who she wants to know better. Armed with friends who support her no matter what, Grace goes back home to deal with the aftermath.

Back home with her friends, Grace struggles with her mental health, with her existing relationships with her family and friends, and with what she wants to do with her career. Hitting barrier after barrier as Grace works to get a job in her field, she is unable to find solace in her father who grows increasingly frustrated with Grace’s ability to adhere to her established life plan. Fed up and exhausted with her current life, Grace decides to search for the person who she believes may hold the answers: her mystery wife. Traveling across the country, Grace finally meets her wife and is forced to deal with all of the conflicting emotions raging inside. Grace cannot outrun reality though and even though she finds some escape with her wife, she must find a way to balance her fears, her new love, her career, and her family.

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You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Young adult fiction hardly ever fails me. When I need a pick-me up read, I can generally find one in the young adult section with little effort. My latest read came recommended by another librarian, so I knew I would most likely enjoy it and it didn’t disappoint!

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson is so many things: a romance, an underdog story, friends becoming lovers, but most of all it is full of yearning. Liz Lighty has grown up believing that she is never enough. She’s awkward, poor, black, and doesn’t fit in with the rich and prom-obsessed kids who go to her high school. Liz isn’t what people expect her to be in her tiny midwestern town of Campbell, Indiana, but she has always known that she has an escape. Liz plans on getting out of this super small town to attend Pennington College to play in their orchestra. Eventually she wants to become a doctor in order to treat patients who have the same life-threatening condition that killed her mom and is ravaging her younger brother.

Liz’s senior year is sailing by and the world finally seems to be on her side. All of that comes crashing down when Liz learns that the financial aid and scholarship she was depending on in order to go to college falls through. She is $10,000 short and has no idea how she will get the money to cover the cost and let her keep her Pennington hopes alive. Knowing that her grandparents would sell their house to support her, Liz is desperate to find a solution on her own.

The solution she finds? She must win prom queen. Why? Her school awards a scholarship to the prom king and queen. The very last thing that Liz wants to do is campaign to be prom queen, but with no other options, she reluctantly turns to her friends to help her win. Her high school’s competition for prom court is elaborate: full of mandatory public events, social media popularity, and fellow contestants willing to do whatever it takes to sabotage Liz so they will win. With her friends by her side, Liz struggles to get over her fear of being the center of attention in order to get herself to Pennington.

At the first prom meeting, Liz meets a new student who rocks her whole world. Mack does not fit into the cookie cutter mold that Campbell tries to put their students in: she’s hilarious, smart, and different enough to repeatedly catch Liz’s eye. The only downfall to Liz is that she is also running for queen. The closer the two get, the more Mack wonders if their relationship will keep her from getting to Pennington. What is she willing to risk?

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth

I think I’ve already mentioned that Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. The strong female lead, the fairly unconventional take on romance, the theme of independence all really resonate with me as a reader. I’ve also mentioned that I was trying this fall to read more spooky books to get into the spirit of the season. One such book I read was Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. I discovered it by chance on the homepage of the library catalog as one of the new books being ordered for the collection, and after reading the synopsis I was hooked. It has similar themes: lots of female characters, unusual and unconventional romances, and a strong theme of struggling for independence.

The book is told in alternating perspectives: first, in 1902, you hear the story of a girls’ boarding school as it’s rocked by a series of grisly deaths, all revolving around a mysterious and inflammatory book. Then, you’re transported to the early 2000s as Hollywood discovers the story of the cursed boarding school and starts to make a movie about it. The movie seeks to capture the horror of the original 1902 events, but succeeds too well as bizarre and frightening events start to happen on set. Caught in the middle are a number of fascinating characters – in 1902, the headmistress Libbie and her lover Alex strive to understand and overcome the boarding school’s sinister atmosphere, and they fail to protect several of their students including Flo and Clara, a bold pair of lovers, and ghostly Eleanor Faderman, who idolizes them. In the modern story, wunderkind writer Merritt, lesbian star Harper, and Audrey, daughter of an iconic scream queen, find themselves thrown together both in fear and mutual attraction as they work on the film.

The appeal of the book is partly its strong characters, complicated and fairly relatable, and partly its wry writing style. Like Jane Eyre, the narrator addresses the reader directly to tell the story (“Reader, I married him”, etc.), and the author really leans into the style, adding lots of footnotes and asides during the narrative. While it’s a fairly thick volume, with lots of story to tell at both points in history, I found that I kept reading without fatigue because of the tense atmosphere and slow-burn action. Typical of horror-style stories, you’re filled with an increasing sense of dread that something awful is going to happen. However (spoiler alert), I was surprised and a bit disappointed that while the 1902 story was full of horrible things happening, and its ending was decently grim, the modern story had a more ambivalent ending, neither grim nor hopeful. I was left with a sense of lingering questions and an uncertain future. As far as I was concerned, the last page could have read The End? (spoiler alert: it didn’t.)

Here’s my theory as to why that is: the underlying theme of both stories is resistance to oppressive norms, expressed particularly in the form of lesbian relationships. This book and its characters are entirely, staggeringly, defiantly sapphic, which comes with certain realities. My guess is the 1902 story had to end grimly, because the outlook for independent women and lesbian love at that time was decently grim. In the modern era, however, things aren’t so final. There’s more freedom and acceptance, but sexism and homophobia still exist, making for an uncertain, cloudy outlook. Therefore, the modern characters couldn’t be said to have completely defeated the curse, but they stand stronger against it. Of course, there’s a lot more going on in the book, especially as the characters struggled for independence in various ways. Some wanted to be independent of everyone, some wanted to be independent from their parents or their past, some wanted to be independent from society’s rules, and some wanted to be independent from their fame. (Their success at achieving independence predictably varied.) Altogether, I thought this was a thought-provoking, engaging book with lots of thrills and chills.

If you like historical fiction, horror fiction, dramedies, or feminist histories, I recommend you try this book. (Although, if you’re afraid of wasps, bees, and yellow jackets, you might want to think twice. They’re EVERYWHERE.)