Meagan Kimberly reviews Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler cover

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Waking up with amnesia in a cave and having no knowledge of who or what she is, the protagonist of Fledgling undergoes a painstakingly slow journey of discovering she is what’s called an Ina, or more popularly thought of as a vampire. She appears as a 10-year-old child but finds she’s actually 53 years old. As the story progresses, she learns more about her family, the way of the Ina, and who killed her family.

Because of her appearance as a child, Shori’s relationships with her symbionts are highly uncomfortable. More than that, she’s a Black child, which portrays how Black girls are often hypersexualized in real life. It’s also significant that although she’s Ina, she’s also a Black child, and that she is the result of experimentation, which can’t be ignored, as historically the U.S. government has experimented on Black communities.

The story unravels at an infuriating pace, but it makes sense as readers learn about what happened and about the Ina at the same time Shori does. Butler’s writing is effective in showing how frustrating and maddening it feels to have knowledge slowly come to you but no memory of how you know things.

While Shori engages in sexual relationships with both her male and female symbionts, it doesn’t seem like she particularly identifies as being on the bi/pan spectrum. On paper, it seems like it should be defined that way. But because Shori’s relationships are instinctual because of her Ina nature, it’s hard to say how much of her feelings are part of her sexuality, rather than part of her survival instincts.

Their relationships also bring up important questions about consent. When Shori finds herself needing to take over the symbiont relationship of Celia and Brook, her brothers’ former symbionts after they died, they agree to the bond. However, the chemical and hormonal responses between both Shori and the symbionts make them physically repulsed by one another and resist the transition. So, can this truly be considered consent?

The Ina culture hinges greatly on the separation of sexes between males and females being seen as men and women. The way Butler has written this society shows there’s no nuance for gender identity and what that means for the roles each individual plays in their culture. But much of what Shori learns about herself and the Ina comes from the word of Iosif, her father, meaning she must rely on the word of others around her to know how to behave. Butler shows that Shori trusts them based on instinct, so it presents the question of how much does social conditioning become encoded in one’s DNA?

There are so many layers and complex themes that Butler addresses with Fledgling. It would be impossible to hit every note in one book review. Overall, it’s a weird book with a lot to make readers uncomfortable. But if you can roll with that, then this is certainly a new take on the vampire mythos that I wish we’d had more room and time to discover. It reads like this was meant to be part of a new series, but it was the last novel Butler wrote before she died.

Trigger warnings: pedophilia

Danika reviews I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

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Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have been academic rivals since Chloe arrived in this Christian small town high school with its suffocating rules and homophobic culture. But at prom, as the fight for valedictorian is almost at a close, Shara kisses Chloe and disappears. She soon realizes Shara kissed two others that night: her boyfriend, Smith, and the broody boy next boy, Rory. She’s also left a series of clues for them on how to find her.

If this sounds like the plot of a 2000s-2010s YA novel to you, Chloe agrees, who says Shara has cast herself in a John Green novel. Chloe resents Shara: she’s the golden girl of Willowgrove Christian Academy. She’s pretty and blonde and has a quarterback boyfriend, straight As, and lights up every room she walks in. She’s the principal’s daughter. She can do no wrong.

Chloe feels like the opposite, like an outcast. The only thing they have in common is their GPA. She is out as bisexual in a school where no one else is out as queer. In fact, one of her moms was the first person to come out at Willowgrove when she went there, and it hasn’t seemed to have changed much. Chloe hates this town, this school, and her classmates who seem to thrive there. Her friends are the other rejects: closeted queer kids and theater nerds.

She’s not going to let Shara swan out so easily, not when she’s so close to showing her up. She wants to prove to everyone that she is better. So she wrangles together Rory and Smith to find her. They were once best friends and now can barely speak to each other, especially now that Shara kissed both of them.

Each chapter counts down how many days since Shara left and how many days until graduation, giving the chase the tension of a clock ticking down. Also, who can resist a scavenger hunt? Chloe becomes obsessed with these letters and clues: how they reveal that Shara wasn’t the angel everyone thought she was, just as Chloe always suspected. How Chloe is cracking the code and proving herself smart enough to find Shara. In fact, she’s so obsessed that she stops paying attention to her friends, who she hasn’t told about the clues, and even her schoolwork.

When discussing sapphic characters online, there are some common labels of “disaster bisexuals” and “useless lesbians.” Somehow, the sapphic main characters in this book manage to both be useless disasters. Shara and Chloe are obsessed with each other, and anyone reading will know — even if this wasn’t a romance novel — that they’re in love with each other. But they’re so wrapped up in their rivalry and the lies they’re telling themselves that they can’t see it.

While Chloe and Shara seem to be in their own world, there’s a whole other story unravelling outside of these two characters. This story has a lot of say about growing up queer in a Christian conservative small town. Chloe can’t wait to escape (just like her mom did before her, though she came back), but others find value in this town and want to fight to make it better. Chloe also slowly starts to realize that her view of Willowgrove is limited, and it’s not as straight and cis as she assumed, even if students aren’t out.

I was intrigued by the premise of this one, with the scavenger hunt and mystery element, but it began to drag for me in the middle. I love a flawed main character, but both Chloe and Shara are sometimes insufferable, with extreme tunnel vision. Then the story changed gear, and the ending chunk pulled me back in with the emerging storylines from other characters. It was also fun to see Chloe and Shara bounce off of each other: they are both so stubborn and opinionated that their collision is intense — that is, until they realize they might want the same thing after all.

You probably don’t need my recommendation to read this: it is Casey McQuiston after all, but you have it anyway. If you want a rivals to lovers F/F scavenger hunt YA romance that steadily gets more queer as you go along, pick this one up.

Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

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Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Meagan Kimberly reviews Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

the audiobook cover of Something to Talk About

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Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner follows Jo, a famous actress, writer and showrunner in Hollywood, and her assistant Emma. When they appear at an award show together and seem incredibly intimate, rumors of their romance begin to swirl. This ignites questions of the dynamic of their relationship and pushing from their family and loved ones. Miscommunication and shenanigans ensue.

I listened to this on audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie and Xe Sands. If it hadn’t been for listening to the audio, I probably would have DNFed this book, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, but I know if I’d been reading it in e-book or physical copy, I wouldn’t have plowed through it. But that’s just my personal taste.

From the way the book starts, I had high hopes for what it could accomplish, but it fell short in my opinion. It’s established early on that Emma is bisexual, out to her family and comfortable in her identity but not shouting from the rooftops, and that Jo is a lesbian only out to her best friend and parents (not even Emma knows until about halfway through the book).

In the beginning, Jo’s issues with Hollywood’s racism are addressed as she deals with comments from entertainment reporters who believe she’ll have “too soft a touch” to properly write a screenplay for the action franchise, Agent Silver, the James Bond of this world. Emma pegs it right away as racist, coded language because Jo is Asian, and Asian women are often stereotyped as soft and submissive.

Emma’s dedication to Jo and Jo knowing Emma so well is established right away. It’s clear they have a close relationship that goes beyond employer and employee; it’s a solid friendship. Truthfully, that’s what their relationship feels like throughout the entire book. The romance that eventually blooms doesn’t feel organic. It feels like it’s stemming from the pressure of the rumors and the insistence of their friends and family that they are, in fact, in love.

The relationship dynamic between Jo and Emma always feels like an intimate friendship. Even the most romantic moments feel platonic. Their friends’ and family’s teasing about their rumored dating relationship is cringe-worthy. It’s never mean-spirited, but good intentions don’t necessarily mean the behavior is appropriate.

Part of what makes the dating relationship feel forced and inorganic is the power dynamic difference. Wilsner actually addressed this pretty well throughout, showing the characters’ recognition of how Jo had influence over Emma’s career, as well as the age difference.

However, when the rumors first started spreading, Jo insisted on not making a comment because she’d never commented about her love life, and she wasn’t going to start now that the rumor was her dating a woman; it would seem homophobic. Jo’s points in not commenting about her dating life are valid and solid reasons. But the way she believes she’s right comes off as dismissive and invalidates Emma’s feelings about the situation.

It was hard to become invested in the characters’ inner lives because these characters are people who don’t let anyone see too deep into them, including the reader. Their development both as individuals and together as an eventual couple feels surface level. Even the supporting characters are often described as knowing them so well, but it’s always a statement made through exposition and rarely shown within behavior and relationship dynamics.

Overall, the story itself was entertaining, but the characters and their interactions felt like they needed something more.

Content warnings: Homophobia, biphobia, racism

Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

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The Summary:

According to J.M. Barrie and Jeffrey Boam, lost boys don’t grow up because they don’t want to. They don’t want to relinquish the heady explorations and unending adventures of adolescence for the responsibilities of adulthood. They hunger for an eternity in the blissful twilight between childhood licentiousness and adult liberty, when they are free from any sort of interference or obligation to anything but their own onanistic pleasures.

According to Sonia Hartl, lost girls don’t grow up because they aren’t given the chance to. They spend their lives as daughter, wives, and mothers, caught in a revolving door of infantilizing, idealized identities that tie them to others in ways that leave little room for adventure and self-exploration. The men in their lives repeatedly tell them they either want too much or don’t know what they want – thus, girls need men to tell them what they should want, and then provide it.

These girls are stuck in time, even before they become vampires.

Enter our antagonist, Elton-of-the-unspecified-surname. Originally from the 1890s, this sadistic vampire has spent the past century crushing the rose-colored lenses of a series of teen girls, promising them the life of their dreams before leaving them for undead.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Holly. Recently abandoned by the man who said he’d stay with her for eternity, she’s settled into a sustainable (if not entirely comfortable) routine. With her perpetual perm and teenaged face, (not to mention the supernatural connection that keeps dragging her to whatever town Elton has moved onto next), she’s stuck shuffling from one minimum wage job to another, the tedium of her eternal existence interrupted only by library books.

That is, until Elton decides to return to their hometown with the hopes of screwing over a new girl. Back in the town that hosted her awkward teenage years, Holly is hunted down by Elton’s vengeful other exes, Ida and Rose. They want to destroy the creep who made them this way, and they need Holly’s help to do so.

Of course, the plan is quickly derailed when Holly finds herself falling for Elton’s new target. Bright, droll, and achingly insecure Parker reminds Holly a lot of herself a few decades ago, and what starts as an attempt to save her from Elton’s schemes quickly becomes an impassioned romantic entanglement that leaves both of these lost girls grappling with the ethical compunctions of eternity. One vampire, one human, they are both drawn to each other by their shared familial strife and need to be seen. They find in each other a genuine appreciation of their personal ingloriousness. For the girls they are and the women they will never be.

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

I went into this book with high expectations. I’m glad many of them were met, though the ending left my taste buds feeling like they had gone ten rounds with a grape-jelly-and-beef-jerky smoothie. It’s the first YA novel I read since I graduated high school, and I know I would have been thrilled to read it when I was sixteen and disillusioned and dating people I cringe to remember now.

But reading it now, I found it hard to ignore that The Lost Girls is not quite the girl-gang story it’s been marketed as. For one thing, there is a looming existential melancholy that would be more at home in an Anne Rice novel than a Lumberjanes comic. It’s less a gleefully violent celebration of friendship and girl power than it is a realistic look at the odd camaraderie that comes from shared traumatic experiences and the romance that comes from having someone who really seem to understand you when the whole world doesn’t seem to. Hartl gently pokes fun at the ”not like other girls” mentality while also describing the sort of upbringing that might foster it in the first place.

Other good moments are when Hartl lampshades the genre this book owes so much to – teen supernatural romances. Elton is a conniving dirtbag of the highest order, a master manipulator who knows just how to play the sensitive brooding romantic and seduce teen girls who mainly process the world through “Austen, Brontë, or poetry”. He’s even got a pocketful of rose petals to shower over his girl du jour and show her how whimsigoth he is, all the while wearing away at her self-worth so that she’ll be more amenable to the idea of ditching her family to run off with him and get turned. Yikes.

In contrast to the performative nonsense of that relationship, Holly and Parker seem to connect more because of shared a) interests and b) trauma. Because what good LGBTQ+ horror novel doesn’t feature paragraphs upon pages of trauma-bonding? It’s practically a genre convention.

But the great moments are when it digs deeper into the subtext of that shared history, showing the nuances of women’s relationships to each other and the ways social isolation makes one susceptible to abusive relationships. I appreciated how Hartl took the time to sketch out Holly’s relationships with other women – platonic, romantic, and otherwise. While the male love interests in this novel are non-caricatured sendups of the “nice guy” and “seductive sleazebag sociopath” archetypes, the women are given much more depth and humanity.

Despite all but one of them being, you know, not human.

Holly’s blossoming romance with Parker is the stuff gaydreams are made of: a delightfully charming flirtation between two people who start off at odds with each other but grow to genuinely care about and find pleasure in the other’s company. The progression from mistrust to affection to full-on making out is excellently paced. There are tons of cute moments that more than make up for the unsettling tension that arrives whenever Elton shows up, either in person or as a topic of conversation.

We rarely see platonic friendships between women centered in horror fiction, and watching Holly have to reckon with the ways her blind devotion of Elton frayed her connection with someone who cared about her as much as Stacey did was painful and real. Their relationship is shown to have its own share of scars and power imbalances (both before and after death), and the way these were slowly drawn out and elaborated on was refreshing to see. Trite as that description might sound, it really felt like splashing a handful of cool water in your face on a muggy summer morning, and looking at the world with fresher, clearer eyes.

And anyone who’s read Poppy Z. Brite will get a morbid laugh or two from Stacey’s post-death choices.

Of course, this made the ending hurt a hell of a lot more. If only Holly’s dynamic with Parker had half as much balance. If you are looking for a fun, happy-for-now ending between two fluffy sapphics with a healthy power dynamic, this is not going to end well for you. But if you are looking for a strange, humorously gory teen revenge story with eclectic characters and interesting metaphors for the power our histories have over us, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The vampire lore was creative, with a lot of unique touches and a certain grounded matter-of-factness that fit Holly’s more world-weary side well. If you are faint of heart or prone to squeamishness at the thought of severed human limbs being used to construct furniture or unsparingly gory descriptions of precisely how those limbs were severed from their bodies, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. But if the thought of visceral violence in the vein of Kill Bill or Exquisite Corpse (but in an SFW, ya-targeted way) appeals to you, so will this book. It is very macabre, very detailed, and very entertaining. Maybe not 80’s splatterpunk paperback levels of unhinged, but it’s still got a relative lot.

But be forewarned, the ending does delve into some iffy territory. For all the hype about the ex-girlfriend-stealing-the-girl-premise, their actual romance between the two women seems to be an afterthought. Especially given the ending.

The Born Sexy Yesterday trope got lambasted by Anita Sarkeesian for a reason, and that reason is the discomforting vulnerability at play. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Parker is literally reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate with no memories and therefore no opinions. The way Hartl describes Holly casually dismissing her old feelings towards Stacey after forgetting what it meant to be best friends sets up concerning in-lore implications for when she later reads potential romantic sentiments into Parker’s hand holding and expects this complete amnesiac to return her feelings. End of spoiler.)

I hope there is a sequel that grapples with these implications, because otherwise I am left with a hastily resolved, half-baked, dubiously consensual dynamic of the sort I never tolerated in m/f supernatural romances (despite it being all too common there). The writing also does veer into the amateurish at moments, with some painfully puerile lines that echo the worst excesses of un-beta’d PWP fanfiction — which is bothersome, because it is juxtaposed with all the absolutely squee-worthy ways Holly describes Parker’s smile.

Seriously, I will scream if I am subject to another description of “bee-stung lips”. I have seen bee stings. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. Especially if they are infected.

To end on a more positive note, aroace readers might be cheered to find representation in Ida, an avant-garde vampire artist (and Elton’s first victim), whose favored mode of creative expression involves repurposing the limbs of unfortunate humans she has drained.

Trigger warnings: gore, violence, murder, abusive relationships, attempted sexual assault

Kelleen reviews Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

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“Queer, feminist, angry, and beautiful.”

When I say I want sapphic romcoms, this is what I want. I want sapphic romcoms that pack an emotional punch. That present the diversity and the affinity of queer womanhood. That have queer women who call themselves queer with no explanation and bi women who have loved men. That have complex family dynamics that both are about queerness and absolutely are not. That feel like romance novels with romance tropes and everything that we love about romance and are at the same time fundamentally, intrinsically, profoundly, and lovingly queer. Romcoms that f*ck and also fall in love. Romcoms with real, wild emotions and feminism and humor on every page. Romcoms that were written for queer women about our own lives, to be enjoyed only secondarily by everyone else. When I say I want sapphic romcoms, I mean I want this book.

Delilah Green is a historical romance alpha hero wrapped up in tattoos and soft butch vibes and I am into it. Delilah is a photographer who’s hired to photograph her stepsister’s wedding, and reluctantly returns home to discover that her childhood crush and stepsister’s best friend is all grown up — and very queer. And Claire Sutherland is a single mom and bookstore manager who is just trying to live her best life and take care of her best friend in a retro polka dot dress and sexy librarian glasses.

The way that the love between Delilah and Claire develops is gentle and sexy and hilarious. In coming home to Bright Falls, Delilah must confront her strained relationship with her stepmother and stepsister and come to terms with the grief and feelings of rejection that she’s been running away from since she was a teenager. Falling in bed (and then in love) with her stepsister’s best friend doesn’t help matters, especially as Claire is actively trying to break up her best friend’s wedding to a terrible man. Fascinatingly, throughout this book Delilah and Claire are both allies and adversaries. They embody everything that the other is trying to avoid and yet must team up to save Astrid from herself and her fiancé. And the raging sexual tension between the two doesn’t help matters. The conflict in this book is just so good, the way they are pulled together and run apart.

This is a book about family, and how scary and slippery and beautiful family can be for queer folks. It’s about motherhood and sisterhood and womanhood and partnership. It’s about joy and it’s about grief and it’s about art and it’s about all of it all at once.

These heroines are strong and flawed and sexy and fantastic. They make bad choices and take big risks. They fall in love and try to resist falling in love. And they do it with humor and heart.

This book is the epitome of queer joy and we all deserve queer joy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley for this ARC.

Content warnings: death of a parent, toxic partner

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Nat reviews Chef’s Kiss by Stephanie Shea

the cover of Chef's Kiss

Late last year I started really getting into reading sapphic romance after discovering that a guaranteed happy ending is nothing short of a potent drug. A shot of serotonin right into the veins! As I ventured down the queer romance rabbit hole, I realized that some books are certainly more of a balm than others, and reading Chef’s Kiss was a reminder of why I fell for the genre. While our main characters pull grueling shifts in a Michelin star kitchen, Stephanie Shea’s book provides a heaping serving of your favorite comfort food. 

It’s always fun to read a book set in a city or town you live in and let me tell you, a restaurant romance set in San Francisco was right up my alley. Valentina Rosas is a passionate chef and recent graduate of the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the organization that makes you disappear) who’s just landed a stage, a working interview, at her dream restaurant in the Mission. Through Val’s eyes, we get a glimpse of restaurant life starting from the very unglamourous bottom rung, and I think Shea did a great job of showing the not so shiny side of the industry. The shifts are grueling, the hours brutal and exhausting, even the lowest positions are ridiculously competitive, and some stage positions aren’t even paid.

Shifting perspectives, we get the view from the flip side with renowned Chef Jenn Coleman. A child of a Black mother and Italian father, Jenn knows that it’s hard enough to be a woman in this industry, but as a woman of color? She’s had to work hard to get to the top, and comes across to many as a no nonsense, career first, workaholic. While she has a reputation for being a hardass and a perfectionist, you can see that Coleman uses food as her love language. I really liked that she’s very protective over Val, whose character is Mexican American, and that Shea brings attention to the struggles of women of color in a very white and cis male dominated industry. (Which, to be fair, is like almost every single industry.) I also really enjoyed the inclusion of the Spanish dialogue between Val and her parents! 

While workplace romance is not an uncommon theme, and IRL restaurant hook-ups may be a dime a dozen, the potential for a problematic power dynamic here is something that Shea doesn’t shy away from discussing.  Don’t worry, there’s an HR department to make sure everything’s on the level. This is explored through Chef Coleman’s POV, and we get some mention of the #MeToo movement and the predatory behavior and toxic environment that exists in restaurant culture. 

While Val and Jenn may have their differences, their love of food and community unite them. And, speaking of food, Shea has some fun with her fictional restaurant Gia and its Mexican-Italian fusion menu: spicy enchilada raviolis! spaghetti tacos! taco lasagna! Shea’s romance had all the right ingredients for me: memorable characters, the perfect amount of tension, good pacing, and timely injections of comedic relief, making the title of Chef’s Kiss right on the nose.