A Vampire Pandemic: Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

the cover of Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

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Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin isn’t your ordinary vampire book. In this world, vampires are known as Saras: people who are infected with Saratov Syndrome, a brutal pandemic that changes how society functions. You can’t get into a place without first pricking your finger on a scanner meant to identify anyone who is a Sara, and if you go out on your own at night, you’re taking your life into your own hands. Mia is a young woman in her twenties whose mother was turned into a Sara when Mia was a kid, and we follow her as she navigates the codependent, abusive relationship she has with her mother throughout the years.

The best thing going for this book is the world. I was instantly enamored with the concept the moment I started reading, and when things lagged, I stayed because of how interesting I found the Saras. Mia is her mother’s bloodletter. They have a daily ritual: Mia draws her own blood and pours it into her mother’s cup, and that is how her mother gets by without murdering other humans in front of Mia. Treating Saratov Syndrome—treating vampirism—like a pandemic is an inspired idea. I could see the bones of the Covid-19 pandemic shaping the story through curfews, isolation protocols, and an emphasis on people leaving the house at their own risk. As a healthcare worker, this resonated with me and gave the story meaning that I hadn’t expected to find. It’s also such a fresh take on vampires. Saratov Syndrome is probably one of my favorite depictions of vampirism. It’s a disease with no cure. It produces both Saras and people bent on killing them in the name of self-defense. Caffeine, alcohol, and rusted metal become known deterrents to Saras, and you see how the world is changed from our reality in order to make room for that.

The relationship between Mia and her mother is also a high point for Night’s Edge. The book oscillates between present Mia and past Mia, showing us their fraught relationship beginning with her mother’s death/subsequent Sara-turning through where they are now after more than a decade. This is the strongest relationship in the entire book. There’s a love interest, of course—her name is Jade, and she’s everything Mia is not. However, I found myself more intrigued by whatever was going on between Mia and her mom. Throughout the book, you have to watch as Mia slowly figures out that her mother is an abuser, and it hurts when a promise her mother made in the past is broken the next time we switch to the present. When her mother first becomes a Sara, you see her try to avoid hurting Mia for a while, but that soft edge is gone from her in the present. The mother she had before is not the mother she has now. Mia’s life is shaped completely around not exposing her mother’s secret and always being there for her every need or whim. She thinks that she has to spend all of her time protecting her mother from a world that doesn’t understand her the way Mia does. She’s never dated anyone. She doesn’t do anything with her life. She works morning shifts at a bookshop, and she attends to her mom every other moment. This is it. This is Mia.

Then she meets Jade at the coffee shop next door, and her life slowly begins to change. Mia feels an instant spark of connection with Jade. Jade is nice, bright, and seems to feel that same spark for Mia. Their relationship takes shape quickly. Suddenly, Mia is seeing a world outside of her mother’s control. You would think, then, that their relationship would be really interesting. However, Jade is a cardboard cutout of a person. That sounds harsh, I know. She’s supposed to be a stark opposite to Mia, a fun-loving, colorful-eyeliner-wearing, rocker chick who shows Mia what life could be like if she got out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s all she is. There are no moments of growth for her, no character development, nothing. Jade is the same person at the end of the novel that she is at the beginning of it. While Mia starts to seriously consider and make an effort to leave her mother behind and go with Jade across the country, Jade is just kind of there, an escape plan, a plot device to move Mia’s story forward. Anytime the two interacted, I found myself wishing that Jade would give me something more to hold onto. I wanted Mia to see Jade and figure out what her life could be herself, without Jade telling her what she could do and where she could go. (Spoilers follow) Jade offers to let Mia come with her when she leaves to go on her next adventure, and Mia agrees, following someone else’s plan for her life again. Mia eventually choosing not to go with her is one of the few times Mia makes a decision for herself, and I saw her growing as a character when she did that. She doesn’t make a lot of her own choices, so I cheered for her whenever she did.

All in all, this was an okay read. The end of the story is a bit of a letdown to me (Mia fails to make a decision, and something happens anyway), but other readers might not see it as such. If you want a refreshing take on vampires and codependency, give this a shot! Trigger warnings for: child abuse, blood, death, violence/injury (including domestic violence), and a scene involving active shooters at a musical event.

LA as a Not-So-Urban Jungle: Undergrowth by Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim

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Seventeen-year-old Mariam finds herself surviving a Los Angeles that has been overrun by a magic jungle of horror. Along the way, she meets a group of other survivors, and together they become a family. But Mariam has her secrets. She magically heals and cannot die thanks to a deal with the devil her father made on her behalf. And the jungle they find themselves in has been caused by her father as well. She must learn to put her faith in others and earn their trust in return to undo the mess he made.

There’s a strong sense of setting here that feels a lot like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The lush descriptions of an LA gone to hell under a horrific jungle and the introduction of Mariam as a tough-as-nails type make it an intriguing story and give it a strong start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold.

Mariam tries to keep herself emotionally distant to avoid the pain of loss but ends up getting attached to a rag-tag found family. But she still tries to hold her secrets, and that ends up hurting them. At every turn in the story when Mariam is given a chance to be honest, she chooses to lie and continues to create a rift between herself and her new family. She never seems to learn that taking this route causes more pain and danger, and so it doesn’t feel like she undergoes a major character arc.

Additionally, the pacing happens too fast to feel like her attachments are believable. Her crush on Camila quickly evolves into a deep connection between the two girls, but it doesn’t seem organic. Despite this, the relationship that starts to blossom between them is sweet, and it adds a sense of levity to the apocalyptic situation.

Throughout the novel, the author sprinkles details about Mariam’s cultural heritage, with tidbits like talking about her Ramadan dinners and the names she calls her family by. Readers can appreciate the subtle way Mariam’s background comes to light, giving her some depth without overexplaining everything.

There is also a transgender character, Hana, whose identity is revealed in a moment when her hair has to be cut because of lice. It adds another interesting layer to the story without turning into a teaching moment. The author writes many of these character revelations well, showing representations of body dysmorphia and disability in the middle of the end of the world.

As the novel ends, it all happens rather fast and feels like it gets tied up in a neat bow, considering the situation. There is a lack of satisfaction with so many unanswered questions about the world itself. It’s never discussed exactly how long the jungle apocalypse occurred until the very end. The story never shows how the world outside of LA coped or reacted to the events outside of a few glimmers of a military scene at the beginning.

Overall, none of the characters have much development, especially not Mariam or her dad, the villain. But it does get a happily ever after for her and Camila, and it was a fun adventure.

Sapphic Satanic Panic: Rainbow Black by Maggie Thrash

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In her debut adult novel, Rainbow Black (March 19, 2024), Maggie Thrash (she/her), author of the critically acclaimed young adult graphic memoir Honor Girl, delivers a compelling, witty, and often moving account of Lacey Bond, whose life is forever changed when her parents are arrested and prosecuted for allegedly committing acts of ritualistic child sexual abuse at their rural, in-home daycare during the “Satanic Panic” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The story begins in New Hampshire and spans 27 years (from 1983 to 2010). It is told in flashbacks from Lacey’s point of view.  In the first few pages of the book, readers find out that adult Lacey and her girlfriend, Gwen, have been implicated in a murder from fourteen years earlier. The story then flashes back to the ‘80s and unfolds over the course of Lacey’s adolescence and early adult life.

Lacey’s parents are arrested when she is 13 and they remain incarcerated pending trial. As a result, Lacey and her 20-year-old sister, Éclair, who is as brash as she is beautiful, are left to navigate their legal defense, as well as the media circus that ensues. As Lacey struggles to come to terms with the reality of what is happening to her family, she is also coming to terms with her sexuality.  While she and her family have seemingly always known that she is a lesbian, her exploration of this aspect of her identity is undoubtedly impacted by the crisis in which they find themselves. Although adult Lacey is somewhat insufferable, Thrash endeared me to young Lacey, who is paradoxically both precocious and naïve, and above all else, a survivor.

As a lady loving lawyer, I was drawn to this book because of its queer and legal themes. For the most part, I loved Thrash’s writing style.  It is smart, incisive, and wry, and she is a great storyteller.  I also particularly appreciated her shoutout to the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program, which was a highlight of my bookish childhood.  I would definitely be interested in reading more of her work. That being said, I could have done without the constant foreshadowing. While I understand that the book was marketed as “part murder mystery, part gay international fugitive love story”, the repeated hinting at what was to come felt like overkill in a novel which was naturally unfolding for me. There was also an instance of authorial intrusion (a literary device in which the author breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the reader, interrupting the narrative flow of the text) that was somewhat jarring and felt unnecessary as it did not advance the plot or add to the story in any meaningful way. I also thought the 395-page book was a bit long-winded and could have still been just as powerful, if not more so, had it been shortened.

Overall, I really liked Rainbow Black and would recommend it if you’re looking for an interesting story that weaves together queer identity, intrigue, and the law. Special thanks to HarperCollins Publishers and Edelweiss for the advanced copy.  Rainbow Black is currently scheduled to be released on March 19, 2024.

Trigger warnings for child sexual abuse, sexual assault, statutory rape, drug abuse, murder, homophobia, transphobia, and racial slurs.  

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Dramatic Supernatural YA Horror Read: Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

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Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson is a young adult fiction novel that follows sixteen-year-old Olive as she navigates unwitting friendships to save a ghost that she accidentally-on-purpose brings into the material plane in order to find out if the Nothing that she saw when she “died” after an allergic reaction is really all there is at the end. She is constantly thinking about the Nothing; it becomes such a preoccupation and such a big source of anxiety for her that she abruptly ends her friendship with her best friend Davis, and she has to figure out how to be by his side again post-Nothing when his new girlfriend pulls both Olive and Olive’s school enemy Maren into his life.

I’m not usually a YA person, but the premise of Here Lies Olive was so good that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did! I liked this story a lot more than I expected. The author really captures the drama of being a teenager in a way that I found myself able to get into. At times when I typically would have started rolling my eyes or DNF-ing any other YA novel, I instead found myself able to accept the over-the-top reactions to the dramatic situations Olive and her friends find themselves in due to the way Kate Anderson set up the story. Of course Olive is dramatic; she’s a teen who died, came back to life, and is now terrified about the dark, lonely fate that she thinks awaits her and everyone she’s ever cared about. Of course she stopped hanging out with her best friend and thinks that losing his friendship will hurt less than losing him to the Nothing; she’s a teenager. She doesn’t know any better. I completely understood where Olive was coming from. It reminded me of how big every emotion felt during my own teenage years, and I didn’t even have ghosts or the Nothing to deal with. Olive is definitely the sort of character I could see a younger me finding a lot of solace in.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the budding relationship between Olive and Maren. I’m a big fan of enemies to lovers, and while their rivalry wasn’t as strong or visceral as I typically like my rivalries to be, it still seemed plenty important to Olive and Maren, and that was good enough for me to keep reading. A slow-burn has to be a very specific brand of slow-burn for me to love it, and I think Olive and Maren almost hit that mark within this genre.

What really kept me reading, though, was the supernatural aspect of the book. I really love the way Kate Anderson made sure to keep the ghostly details going throughout the story. I was worried that, at some point, the ghost stuff would drop off to be replaced by just regular teenage life, but the book’s supernatural element was up and in your face until the very end. Even the town Olive lives in is spooky! Nearly everybody has a job somehow associated with death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one hundred percent of the population claimed that Halloween was their favorite holiday. Olive always thinks of the Nothing once she comes back from it, and the moment she brings Jay’s ghost into the fold, she stays with him, intent on righting her wrong and getting the confirmation she craves about what truly happens after death. Olive never loses her curiosity with the thing that led me to pick up the book in the first place, and that kept me holding on when I could have dropped off.

Here Lies Olive still contains some of the regular qualms I have with the Young Adult genre: a villain revealed in the third act who the main character could have figured out was the villain in the first act, parents who talk to their teenagers like they either have no time for them or like they’ve all gone to therapy, and a solution to a problem at the end that feels way too perfect. But I still enjoyed it, and I would easily recommend this book to anyone who wants a YA novel with a bit of a dark twist.

Content warnings for death (obviously), ghosts, and some gore that I didn’t expect but actually really liked.

Alexandria Bellefleur Continues to Make Seattle the Romance Capital with The Fiancée Farce

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In a year of reading romance novels, I have learned a lot about the genre. First, and most importantly, I enjoy it so much that I usually read an entire novel within a single twenty-four hour period. Another thing that I have noticed—something that threatens to temper that enjoyment from time to time—is how often romance plots revolve around class differences and wealth. Romance, it turns out, often costs money. Considering one of the main conventions of the romance genre is the grand gesture, that should be no surprise. Most of the time I can overlook this pesky intrusion of reality, but I was less successful in doing so while I was reading Alexandria Bellefleur’s latest, The Fiancée Farce (2023).

Before getting into The Fiancée Farce, I want to talk about Bellefleur’s previous three novels: Written in the Stars (2020), Hang the Moon (2021), and Count Your Lucky Stars (2022). These three Seattle-based novels share a cast of characters who I very much wish were real people with whom I could be friends. As someone who wishes she still had her Rainbow Brite doll, I am partial to Elle, one of the main characters of Written in the Stars. Darcy, the grumpy to Elle’s sunshine, is a great combination of ice and red hair. I could also easily see myself as Annie, the protagonist of Hang the Moon, who has found herself directionless and alone. She comes to visit her best friend Darcy in Seattle and meets Brendon, the man who wants to sweep her off of her feet.

Okay, so the M/F romance in Hang the Moon was definitely my least favorite part of these three novels. My second least favorite part, though, was Brendon’s obsession with grand romantic gestures. The convention of the grand gesture bothers me on some level because I don’t really think that it proves much of anything about one’s feelings for another person. Indeed, to me, it proves access to wealth and/or resources, which is why it should be no surprise that Brendon is the CEO of a matchmaking app company. Now, don’t get me wrong—Bellefleur approaches issues of class much more effectively in Count Your Lucky Stars. And, yes, I know that romances are escapist. Still, give me J.Lo’s “My Love Don’t Cost a Thing” over Richard Gere at the end of Pretty Woman any day.

Another potentially expensive romance trope is the marriage contract trope. While I understand the convention of money changing hands in a fake dating/marriage contract situation, six million dollars is quite a lot of money. That is how much Tansy Adams needs to keep her stepmother from selling her father’s beloved independent bookstore, above which she lives in an apartment filled with memories of her deceased parents. The novel begins with the culmination of a six-month-long deception, the purpose of which is to mollify her overbearing family. According to Tansy, she has been dating a woman named Gemma. Except Gemma isn’t real. Well, that isn’t entirely true—Gemma is real, but she is a romance cover model who Tansy has never met. Well, that also isn’t entirely true—Tansy hadn’t met Gemma until she arrived at her cousin’s wedding. The same wedding where Tansy had just inadvertently caught the bouquet.

The Fiancée Farce exists in the same Seattle as Bellefleur’s previous three novels. If Bellefleur is not on the city of Seattle’s payroll yet, she should be, because I have never seen a better advertisement for the Emerald City than her novels. Of course, the reality of living in Seattle requires a cost-of-living conversation, a conversation that lives at the heart of The Fiancée Farce. Ultimately, the plot of the novel revolves too closely around the exchange of money to capture the whimsy of Bellefleur’s previous three novels. Gemma’s family, the van Dalens, as well as her friends (who have clearly spent some time with Rory Gilmore and Logan Huntzberger in the Life and Death Brigade) too persistently hammer in the trope of immoral wealth. There is also a subplot involving Tucker van Dalen that I could have lived without. We get it—rich people often don’t behave well.

Bellefleur creates a cast of awful family and eccentric friends to show that Gemma van Dalen is not like them. The reader, though, is ready to believe that from her first appearance, not to mention that half the book is from her point of view. If Gemma didn’t have a heart of gold, how could she possibly earn the love of down-to-earth and delightful Tansy? I think the answer to that question is what I have taken away the most from a year of reading romance novels: the delight in reading these novels is that I know what is going to happen, and it makes me happy. The author’s main responsibilities are to create characters who I’d like to meet in real life and to ensure the delight of predictability. Of the four novels by Alexandria Bellefleur that I have read in the past month, The Fiancée Farce is the one that sparked the least delight. Tansy is adorable, and Gemma indeed has charm—but I hope that Bellefleur will dump the rest of the van Dalen family into the Puget Sound in her next novel.

Content Warning: revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

The Original Sapphic Vampire: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

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A young girl, Laura, becomes haunted by a figure in a dream that preys on her. Ten years later, that girl, Carmilla, shows up at her home and claims to know her from the dream as well. They become fast friends, but Carmilla holds a dark secret: she is a vampire who is slowly draining Laura’s life away. An old family friend, who coincidentally had a daughter who met the same cruel fate, comes to the rescue, and all is well in the end.

In this day and age, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Carmilla. But it’s easy to see how it could have caused such a scandal when it was published. By modern standards, it’s eroticism leaves something to be desired. But in a time when the glimpse of a clavicle would be enough to set anyone off, it certainly tells a provocative story.

Throughout the story, Laura speaks of a mesmerizing attraction to Carmilla mixed with revulsion.

“I was conscious of a love growing into adoration and also of abhorrence.”

These feelings of repulsion mixed with a curious desire are highly indicative of the nature of internalized homophobia. It’s a feeling many queer people are familiar with when they grow up in an anti-queer environment that tells them their very existence is a monstrosity.

Knowing that Carmilla is coded as sapphic, her entrance into the story also conveys a stereotypical belief about queer people. As she sneaks into Laura’s bed at night to bite her when she is a child, it can be interpreted that Carmilla is a predatory pedophile. It would be easy to write this off as a sentiment of the times, but unfortunately, it’s a belief still strongly held to this day by homophobic people.

There is no denying how erotic and sexual in nature Carmilla’s feelings are for Laura. With romantic language like, “But to die as lovers may—to die together, so that they may live together,” and “I have been in love with no one, and never shall…unless it should be with you,” Le Fanu makes certain there is no room for misinterpreting Carmilla’s affections.

Carmilla as a sapphic character is further villainized with signs of a mental health disorder, making it seem as if all queer desires are simply a symptom of unwellness, which in turn makes mental health issues seem evil. Laura describes an incident with Carmilla, “It was the first time, also, I had seen her exhibit anything like a temper. Both passed away like a summer cloud.” The sudden mood swings she undergoes between pleasant and angry could be interpreted by modern standards as bipolar disorder.

Le Fanu creates a fascinating tension between science and superstition. The characters in Carmilla often talk about being learned, understanding the true spread of illness, and pride themselves on their logic. However, faced with the truth of an immortal being who has taken on several names over the centuries (all of which are just anagrams), it’s hard to cope with the idea that perhaps certain superstitions are real.

Overall as a story, it’s a bit underwhelming. There is a great deal of buildup to reveal Carmilla’s true identity only to have it done and over so quickly in the end. As the General arrives to tell his tale of woe to his friends, Laura, and her father, they come to realize Carmilla for the villain she is. And just like that, with barely a fight, she is vanquished, and everyone goes on about their lives. It’s totally anticlimactic.

However, it’s still amazing to see how the legendary vampire and lore surrounding it persists. One of the things that stood out was how all the characters are constantly stating Carmilla’s unnatural beauty and how attracted they feel to it. This is a quality shared by many vampire stories even today. The folklore of the vampire is just as immortal as the being itself.

Sweet, Chaotic Bisexuals: Love at First Set by Jennifer Dugan

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“Queer chaos trumps moral fortitude, especially when making out is involved.”

For Lizzie, working at a gym isn’t just a job; it’s her home. For now, she’s only the check-in girl (and occasionally, the owner’s punching bag), but one day, she could manage her own. When her bestie (and emotional support himbo) and boss’s son James asks her to play plus-one at his sister’s wedding, she agrees, hoping to find a chance to talk to his parents about a promotion. One drunken pep-talk later and the bride-to-be, Cara, realizes she doesn’t want to get married after all. It doesn’t help that Lizzie is crushing on her hard—or that Cara decides to stay with her brother while getting her derailed life back together. Afraid his sister plans to set him up on a blind date, James urges Lizzie to keep her distracted. Can Lizzie girl the hell up and keep her crush under wraps?

Lizzie is a beautifully realistic mess and knows it. Growing up with an unreliable, emotionally-abusive mother taught Lizzie she could only rely on herself, while her economic status triggered some serious self-esteem issues. Though her self-reliance and independence are strengths, her unwillingness to trust others also becomes a weakness.

Jennifer Dugan heard the phrase “queer pining” and understood the assignment. Lizzie’s insta-crush on Cara spurs some hilarious self-talk that puts the “com” in this queer rom-com. The constant, silent, somewhat reluctant pining is intense, raw, and real, but her sass and sarcasm never let it get overly sappy. Though Lizzie can’t see it, Cara’s obvious crushing is equally intense, making these two lovesick, bisexual messes the perfect match.

Unfortunately, everything I loved in the first half of the book becomes exhausting by the second half. Lizzie allows both James and Cara to manipulate her into favors that benefit them too often. Her self-proclaimed cowardice spurs the story’s internal conflict a little too much. The self-deprecation that was once funny became painful enough to become cringy, too.

While I love a slow burn, Lizzie and Cara’s relationship is too focused on showing physical development, but not the emotional development. We don’t see the pillow talk or hidden moments between them that lead to them falling in love with one another. The external conflict—Cara’s mother—is written as a two-dimensional antagonist. Her motivation for keeping the women apart is status, but why? (Did she grow up in poverty, or feel shamed by a group with higher social status at one point in her life?)

Vague spoilers below.

My biggest pet peeve is a plot powered by miscommunication (in this case, a complete failure at communicating from the start), and this story relies on it all too much to reach an unsatisfying happy ending that’s tied up in a literal bow. The writing was so strong and held so much promise in the beginning, but I’m afraid the third-act break-up, blow-up dinner scene, ultimatum, and ending didn’t do it for me.

End of spoilers.

Recommended for anyone who loves pining and scheming of Shakespearean proportions. This sapphic rom-com will be a sweet if chaotic addition to your TBR.

 ✨ The Vibes ✨
👟 Sapphic Rom-Com
👟  Bi Visibility
👟  Gay Best Friend
👟  Economic Classes
👟  Shakespearean Miscommunication, Pining, and Scheming
👟  Self-Esteem Issues

“Don’t sit behind the gym counter of your life when you’re meant to be in front of it. “

A Breezy F/F Romance With a Fatal Flaw: Against the Current by Lily Seabrooke

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Against the Current is the second in what promises to be a lovely cozy romance series, based on a queer friend group that lives in the same fictional, medium-sized city. The main characters, Annabel and Priscilla, were introduced (Priscilla a lot more briefly than Annabel) in the first book, If It’s Meant to Be. In that book, Priscilla is introduced as a younger straight woman who has a massive crush on the incorrigible playgirl, Annabel. By the opening of Against the Current, only the “massive crush” part of that remains true. Priscilla is fully aware that her feelings for Annabel are not exactly heterosexual (she takes a bit of time to figure out what that means for her as the book goes on), and Annabel is desperate to shed the “playgirl” from her life. She wants someone a lot more permanent in her life, even (maybe especially) after having had a relationship with the emotionally-unavailable Emberlynn, one of the main characters in If It’s Meant to Be.

There’s no real toaster-oven angst in this one on Priscilla’s part. She’s comfortable having this crush, even if the crush itself is deeply uncomfortable. The angst and main problematic come because Priscilla is a) younger, and b) a swimmer on the college team Annabel coaches, which makes this an age-gap/student-teacher romance if you squint hard enough, even though the gap in question is only four years. The romance itself follows a fairly standard arc with moderate pacing and medium spice, the chapters are narrated first-person by one or the other of the main characters, and it comes to a tidy resolution, with enough of the supporting cast tangled up in their own drama to provide further fodder for the series.

Where this novel falls short is in the first sex scene, and what follows are both light spoilers and a content warning for coercive sex, so read on at your own discretion. The pair find themselves at a hotel, having travelled for a high-level swim meet, in which Priscilla won a gold medal. They are sharing a room and discussing the significant sexual tension between them. Priscilla is trying to convince Annabel that she knows where she is, what she’s doing, who she’s doing it with, and that she understands their scholastic relationship. And Annabel says, “no,” kindly and clearly. Priscilla pushes right past that no, past at least two others, and eventually wears Annabel’s resolve down and into bed. Not exactly enthusiastic consent. This is a thing that happens in romance novels and has been used in other books as an effective point of contention. But that doesn’t happen here. Annabel doesn’t bring up her feelings the next morning, Priscilla is happy to have bedded her crush, and the friend group admonishes Annabel and warns her off breaking the younger woman’s heart. I waited for the author to flag Priscilla’s behavior as bad at any point in the rest of the book, but she didn’t. I was stunned. Seabrooke is a better author than this, and these wonderful, rich characters (particularly Annabel) deserved so much more. But this was a significant oversight on an otherwise talented author’s part that must be mentioned and highlighted, particularly for any readers that have experienced such coercion themselves.

Overall, the book was a well-written, breezy romance for those times where you just want to disengage for a couple of hours and read about some messy sapphic twenty-somethings being cute and gay. I unfortunately can’t recommend it, as the coercive manner in which the sexual relationship between the main characters starts cast a pall over the whole book as I was reading it. Read the first book. Read everything else Seabrooke has written, supporting a trans author who deserves a lot more visibility. But, unless you read book one and you just can’t not read what happened with Priscilla’s first gay crush, I’d skip Against the Current.

I received an advance review copy of this book from Booksprout in exchange for nothing but an honest review.

Mermaid Obsession Story Treads Water: Chlorine by Jade Song

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In their debut novel Chlorine, Jade Song (she/they) draws upon her twelve years of lived experience as a competitive swimmer to craft the dark and complex inner world of Ren Yu, a Chinese American teenager coming of age in Pennsylvania and stepping—or rather, swimming—into her true destiny: becoming a mermaid.  While Song is clearly a compelling writer, Ren’s voice felt inconsistent and I often struggled to discern whether or not Song was invoking aspects of magical realism.

When Ren is four years old, her mother gifts her a book of mermaid folklore from around the world. Thus begins Ren’s thirteen-year journey from girl to mermaid. Although Ren is largely disconnected from her human existence, her love and tenderness towards her mother is palpable. Despite the cost, time, and energy, Ren’s mother is incredibly supportive of her swimming. Early in the book, Ren’s father abandons Ren and her mother to return to China. As a single parent, Ren’s mother struggles to make ends meet, but consistently shows up for Ren in meaningful ways and even when she does not understand Ren’s motivations.

Ren narrates the novel, which is interspersed with letters from her teammate and closest friend, Cathy. Ren’s obsession with becoming a mermaid and her detachment from both her humanity and the traumatic events in her life make her seem like an unreliable narrator. In contrast, Cathy’s letters ground the book and provide much-needed clarity as to the events that are transpiring, but it is apparent that her judgment is somewhat skewed by her feelings for Ren. Ren never labels her sexuality, but she does explore queer and sapphic feelings and connections throughout the book.

As much as I wanted to love Chlorine, it fell flat for me. Ren’s dissociation from reality made it hard for me to connect with her as a character. I also felt like I was at an impasse throughout my reading experience because I could not figure out if Song was incorporating elements of magical realism or if I was simply witnessing the steady decline of Ren’s mental health. That being said, I really enjoyed Song’s writing style. There is a rawness and honesty to their writing. She also has incredible attention to detail.  There were times she wrote so poignantly, I could feel Ren’s anxiety, desperation, longing, or hopefulness in my own body. I craved more of those scenes.

Even though Chlorine was not my favorite, I would definitely read another book by Song.

Trigger Warnings: Chlorine is rife with casual misogyny, most often espoused by Ren’s swim coach, Jim, who essentially grooms Ren from the time that she is seven years old. There are also discussions and instances of racism, self-harm, eating disorders, homophobia, depression, and sexual violence.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Sweet Summer Bi Vibes: Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

the cover of Cool for the Summer

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“Just because you’re telling a good story doesn’t mean it’s the right story. And I think it’s really important to tell the right story.”

For three years of high school, Larissa had extreme heart-eyes for Chase Harding; the sweet, popular, football star any girl would die to date. After returning from summer break, Chase finally seems to notice her, but it’s not Lara’s stylish blonde bob that catches his attention: it’s the newfound confidence she gained over the summer. Enigmatic, too-cool photographer Jasmine is the one Lara spent all summer beside…and, on more than one occasion, kissing. The girl Lara can’t stop thinking about. The first time Chase flirts with her, Jasmine walks through the doors, only to reveal they’re completing their senior year together—and that she has no interest in picking up where they left off last summer. Everything about Lara’s senior year appears perfect—supportive friends, the most popular boy in school at her arm…so why can’t she get Jasmine and their summer together off her mind?

⚠️ Spoilers Ahead! ⚠️

Cool for the Summer is a light-hearted, quick summer read with definite queer Grease vibes. The story’s sweet, relatable sapphic spin is bound to hook you from the get-go. Lara is a first-generation Russian Ashkenazi Jew who thought she’d spend the summer working at an indie bookstore, only to travel to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with her mother instead. While staying at her mother’s boss’s beach house, she spends time with seemingly stand-offish Jasmine. The two bond in little moments we see through flashbacks—snippets that demonstrate even a summer is enough to discover real, life-changing love. Larissa’s character development, especially as she steps out from behind the shadows her friends have cast, is a beautiful example of how one moment can trigger metaphoric self-discovery and growth. Though her time with Larissa triggered that development, we see the continuous ripple effect it causes.

Adler doesn’t shy away from topics rarely explored in YA, including positivity regarding masturbation and sex. However, I do wish she’d explored some of the emotions behind those moments. Since Lara internalizes a lot of what she’s thinking and feeling, there was no real discussion that would have added depth to those scenes. However, I do wish I’d had this story growing up; it possibly could have changed everything.

I can’t stress quite how relatable this story was for me. Everything from the three-year-long unreciprocated crush to one summer of stolen moments and unexpected feelings that ultimately led to newfound self-awareness and -discovery were all pieces of my own bisexual coming-out story. Sometimes, the ever-after we write in our heads isn’t the ever-after we end up wanting—a realization Lara almost has too late.

This story was an opportunity to shatter a great number of bisexual stereotypes, especially since Lara is in a relationship when she realizes her feelings for Jasmine. There’s a brief comment, made by Chase, that almost delves into and defies those stereotypes of bisexuals “not being able to choose,” but Lara bites back her anger and brushes by it too quickly. While I’m beyond grateful that we’re getting more bisexual and overall queer stories, I do wish we could have opened that discussion. At the very least, it should have been a conversation Lara had with herself— her constant internalizing provided the perfect opportunity for it.

Anyone who’s read one of my previous reviews knows my biggest rom-com trope pet peeve is miscommunication. The entirety of this story feeds off the miscommunication between Lara and Jasmine. While that fear and confusion are real and relatable (I’ve lived through it myself), I do wish there was at least ONE attempt from either of them to try, long before that miscommunication escalates the conflict between them.

With how short this story is, there’s definitely room to explore the emotions behind certain scenes in-depth. Again, Lara internalizes almost everything instead of using a friend as a sounding board, leaving this story with more “telling” than “showing.”

This quintessential summer read is ideal for lovers of YA, happily-ever-afters, and stories of self-discovery. It’s also perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Alice Oseman. Happy reading!

✨ The Vibes ✨

☀️ Summer Love
💜 Bisexual (Questioning) and Aroace Rep
✡️ Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) Rep
🔎 Self-Discovery
⌛ Past/Present Timeline
❤️ Happily Ever After
💕 Love Triangle

⚠️ Content Warnings: Brief Biphobia, Underage Alcohol Consumption, Parental Divorce