Sinclair reviews The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell 

The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell

The Solstice Gift by Avery Cassell is a queer love story in the best sense of the words. It doesn’t follow the traditional, heterosexual tropes of how the two characters meet and following them through their courtship, but comes in with the love story well under way, and continues with new and radical sexcapades that bring the couple closer together, exploring identity, gender, sex, kink, and love in the process.

The couple, Behruz and Lucky (who you might already know from Cassell’s full-length novel Behruz Gets Lucky, reviewed on the Lesbrary by Anna), are older, both butch, very much in to all kinds of kinky fuckery, and come up with a new way to celebrate winter solstice: with a threesome. What starts as a one-off lark becomes an annual tradition, and becomes elaborate in its ritual and execution.

As a queer, kinky person myself, I loved Cassell’s descriptions of the negotiations, both from a non monogamous and a kink perspective. Cassell clearly knows about the genders, sexualities, open relationship philosophies, and kinks in this book. I love the elaborate references to queer and literary culture — many of which I didn’t understand, but I still like how that adds richness to the prose and feels like a conversational with queer and literary history. 

I love reading a queer book with characters who are older, and with a couple who are both butches. Despite more and more representation, graphic sexuality for folks who are over 40 is still rare, and butch/butch desire is not nearly as common as many other gender combinations. I also appreciate how easefully they navigate the openness of their relationship. The book doesn’t go into the envy, jealousy, or insecurities that can come up for open relationships, but I didn’t really miss that content. It just felt like it was more of a queer kinky fairy tale than a real-life depiction of what navigating threesomes is like (I don’t know about you, but in my experience, they are often sexually frustrating, feel incomplete, and end up with someone feeling left out). And sometimes, frankly, I just want the fairy tale version — I want everyone excited to be there, getting off, communicating with exquisite precision, and generally having a gay ol’ time. 

It’s a quick read, just over 100 pages, which makes it light enough to zoom through but still full of content and characters that have stayed with me. When I picked up the book again to make notes for this review, I caught myself just turning the pages, jumping in to yet another year’s solstice gift story, since it was so easy to pick it up again from any point and be hooked into the story. 

The Solstice Gift was the winner of the 2020 Pauline Reage Novel Award from the National Leather Association International.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 8, Leroy King and the Triple Daddies  (2017): 

Picking the Solstice Gift for 2017 turned out to be easy-peasy. That was the year that our ancient Subaru Forester, Ruby Tuesday, finally shuddered to a halt and nearly went into the Subaru graveyard in the sky, but we decided to put in a last-ditch effort to get it repaired. The owners of the shop we’d been going to, Gay’s Gearhead NoHo Car Repair, had retired, so we asked around for a new mechanic. The consensus was that King’s Automobile Services was the cat’s meow. King’s Automobile Services’ slogan was “King’s: Where queens are kings, kings are queens, and service reigns!”, and they were known for a series of peppy commercials that featured the owner, a dapper stud named Leroy King. Leroy looked to be in her mid-50s, had greying dreadlocks, a fondness for wearing a forest green bandanna as a neckerchief, ironed grey mechanic’s overalls with “King’s” embroidered in curly red script across her chest, deep-set dark eyes behind retro black eyeglasses, and a sparkling gold labrys inlaid in one of her front teeth.

Of course, we had other contenders, but Lucky and I were totally crushed out on Leroy and the others faded into the background like distant stars to Leroy, a luminous full moon. Yeah, we had it bad and this is how it went down.

Read the rest of the excerpt over on Avery Cassell’s site here.

Maybe it’s a little early to start thinking about your own solstice gifts, but if you know some queers who like books, kinky sex, ethical non-monogamy, and queer literary references, this will be a great treat. 

Buy it directly from Avery Cassell at their Etsy store (and pick up an embroidered bandana while you’re there, too).

anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.

Sash S reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

It’s a new year and a new decade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate an old classic. For that reason, I’m starting the year by revisiting Tipping the Velvet, which was published in 1998 and is set in Victorian England.

‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’ isn’t an especially striking opening line on its own, but after the incredible journey this book will take you through, it’s one of those opening lines that sticks with you as something incredibly iconic. The direct address to the reader, the reminder of our protagonist’s humble beginnings, how evocative the concept of oysters becomes after hearing the protagonist describe her family’s oyster restaurant in fond detail. The way Nancy’s love interest describes the smell of her like “a mermaid”. Waters’ prose brings everything vividly to life.

It’s a coming of age story about Nancy, who falls in love with the performer Kitty and follows her to London. But it’s so much more than that. Tipping the Velvet is a huge novel which spans a time full of change in Nancy’s life, taking us through various areas of London in the process. This review is light on details because a lot happens, but it’s best just experienced.

It’s wonderful to have a protagonist so refreshingly frank about her sexuality. She realises she’s in love with Kitty and that’s it–there’s no crisis about it, that’s just how she is. Nancy is a lovely character to follow through this story, so fully realised that you can see just why she makes all of the decisions that she does. There’s sex and heartbreak and everything in between on Nancy’s journey.

There’s so much, too, to relate to in this book that transcends the time period it’s set in: realising who you are, falling in love for the first time, moving from your hometown and realising you don’t fit there any more when you try to go back; seeking validation in love and sex; realising what’s truly important in life. Waters holds up a mirror and reflects back at us these incredibly poignant life experiences that are relatable no matter who you are or what your sexuality is.

It’s a love story and it’s a story about Nancy learning to love herself and pick herself up and move on as much as it is about her romantic and sexual relationships with women. The ending is something that I think anyone who’s had a first love, or believed in any strong cause, will relate to. it is so, so emotionally raw and incredibly hopeful.

I love this book. I’ll always love this book. It’s a delight. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Rating: ****

Alice Pate reviews A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Trigger Warnings: drug use, underage drinking, referenced underage sex, adult/teenager relationship

Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

A Line In The Dark may be marketed as a YA thriller, but I personally believe all the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the mystery.

The author, Malinda Lo, really shines in her portrayal of relationships, both romantic and platonic. Perhaps this stood out so much to me because I’m reading her book immediately after slogging through some pretty mediocre writing, but the emotions shown in her characters felt so rich, and full, and satisfying. The main character, Jessica Wong (Jess), has a secret crush on her best friend Angie. Every word in the first few chapters about this crush felt like it was pulled straight out of my own closeted high school brain. So naturally, when Angie starts seeing this other girl, Margot, who goes to a nearby boarding school in town, I could feel my own heart breaking right along with Jess’s.

But this isn’t your typical love triangle. Remember how I mentioned this book is a thriller? About halfway through the book goes from a quiet and reflective piece about the main character and her internal struggles to a drama fueled “he-said-she-said.” The death of Margot’s best friend, Ryan, has the cast of characters trying to find the culprit and pointing fingers.

While this transition was a little rocky, Lo ties in all of those beautiful emotions and relationships she’d crafted in the first half of the story to form the puzzle pieces needed to solve the mystery. The tone may have shifted pretty dramatically, but the story is still intriguing enough to reel you back in to find out whodunnit.

Ultimately, A Line In The Dark was incredibly entertaining, and at a little over 300 pages, it’s a pretty fast read. I highly recommend picking it up if you have the time.

Danika reviews The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey DragerThis is a story about storytelling, which means I was immediately invested. The Archive of Alternate Endings explores the story of Hansel and Gretel, as it plays out in the returns of Halley’s comet throughout time. From the first chapter, I was delighted by the skill at play here. Two stories, which concern different people in different time periods, wind around each other and play off one another. The first chapter felt complete in itself, a bittersweet story set during the AIDS crisis while also being about the Grimm brothers. I wasn’t sure how this would play out in novel format, but the next chapter lived up to it, following different people and times, but with enough threads that I felt sure they would twine together by the end of the book.

It turns out that Archive attempts to do many things: it’s not enough to be about storytelling as demonstrated in the tellings of Hansel and Gretel over the ages while being framed by Halley’s comet. Until very recently, something this experimental wouldn’t also be queer. At least, it wouldn’t be queer the way this book is, introducing multiple gay men protagonists in the first chapter and lesbian protagonists in the second. Only a few years ago, you might see a novel like this end up queer—they might slip that in later in the book—but it wouldn’t be right away. That would be seen as limiting your audience even further. I’m relieved to finally be in a place where books like this are published, where they aren’t limited.

As I mentioned, this attempts to be a lot of things. Each story has a pair of siblings: stand ins for Hansel and Gretel. This isn’t just a book about stories, it’s also concerned with the relationships between siblings. I ended up liking those first two chapters best, because as this story spirals, it seems to lose cohesion: it’s about not just storytelling and Hansel and Gretel and Halley’s comet and sibling relationships, but also the end of the world, the AIDS crisis, spider webs, and even mouths become recurring themes.

So many characters don’t have names, just relationships with each other, and it was only near the end that I started to understand how they fit together: I felt like I had to take notes to realize how characters like “the illustrator” and “Halley’s niece” were related. It seemed like I’d have to immediately start the book over again to have any chance of really getting it. When I read the notes at the end, I learned that this was originally several short stories published separately and reworked into a novel. For me, they don’t really cohere. I love the concept, but I didn’t feel like it was pulled it off. I lost interest as it continued. There are definite moments of brilliance, and so much potential, but I think I would have enjoyed this better if I had just read the first two short stories, or maybe if it had been packaged as a collection of related short stories instead of being advertised as a novel.

Of course, this is a demanding, ambitious book, and I fully admit that it might have just gone over my head. This may be one I have to come back to and spend more time with to fully appreciate.

Mary Springer reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterspoon

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for mentions of homophobia and abuse

The relationship between sapphic women and Christianity is a complicated and sometimes tragic and violent one. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical story based around the author’s life raised by an evangelists in an English Pentecostal community while discovering her attraction to women.

Jeanette is devoted to her religion and the Christian path her mother has determined for her. She’s admired for being a good Christian girl and absolutely faithful to her community. That is, until she falls in love with another girl, Melanie.

Their relationship makes Jeanette so happy she tell hers mother about it, but only finds her mother angry and upset. Up until this moment, Jeanette has been everything her mother wanted her to be, and her mother in turn as loved and supported everything she did (because everything she did was what her mother told her to do). This change is traumatizing enough for Jeanette without what happens next.

Jeanette and Melanie are forced to undergo exorcisms at the church. Melanie, who has always been the more subservient and less confident of the two, repents. Jeanette refuses and is locked in her parlor by her mother. This whole process takes several days and the author does not shy away from it, probably because she experienced something close to, if not that exactly as it was.

Jeanette eventually pretends to repent simply out of a desperate need for food. However, she remains steadfast in her belief that nothing is wrong with her love for Melanie and that she can maintain that love alongside her faith.

Jeanette remains faithful to her religion because of its ties to love. She loves her mother and believes her mother loves her back. She loves the people in her church and up until this moment they have always loved her back. She loved Melanie, and didn’t see how that love was any different than those others felt. Alongside all of this is her, her love in the God of her church and her belief that he loves her back.

Her church takes an opposite perspective, turning to hate her in a snap judgement of her different sexuality. Jeanette finds herself alone, without the love her community that she was so devoted to.

The bravest part of Jeanette is that despite all of this not only does she not stop loving herself, but she never stops being compassionate and kind. She doesn’t let the hatred of her church sink her from her beliefs in her religion or herself.

The book does a great job of showing how the hatred of the Church members is so contrasted by Jeanette, the lesbian’s, purposeful love, kindness and faith. This book was published in 1985, a time when such depicts would have been shocking. The author takes her time to show the community and it’s members, so you grow attached to them alongside Jeanette, and then feel the same pain she does when she is rejected.

The story is empowering in Jeanette and her ability to take everything in stride and continue to love herself and those around her.

Ren reviews Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

During a classic late-night spiral down an internet hole, I happened upon the trailer for the not-yet-released movie based on this book. The trailer appeared to follow the same depressing arc we accept in film as As Good As It Gets For Us, but the book was available at my local library, and the carefully-skimmed-to-avoid-spoilers review I glimpsed on Goodreads promised me a happy ending. I was still wary, but the book was a short one, and let’s be honest: a whisper of queer representation and we all start running headfirst into walls. So I picked it up and went in with the lowest of expectations – mostly just hoping I could get through it without putting it down too many times.

I have pretty specific needs when it comes to period pieces; while I certainly have exceptions, generally speaking, I don’t go out of my way to read period sagas of war or famine or heartache. I want Jane Austen. I want some bumps and misunderstandings that end in the bad guys getting what they deserve, and the good guys coming out on top.

Suffice to say, queer period pieces are usually very much not my thing.

I’ll read them/watch them for the three seconds of pleasant content – because I’m gay and I can’t help myself – but I’m always mad from the get-go because we know how these things tend to play out.

Tell It to the Bees took me wholly by surprise. Shaw is not in a hurry to tell her story, and while I’m not always in the mood to have the plot move along so slowly, the book as a whole is such a quick read, I was okay with sitting back and letting her paint her picture in her own time. Much of this book was read in the company of my girlfriend – currently a nurse, but a Zoology Major in another life – and I constantly interrupted her down-time to fact check bits of information about bees and hive mentalities as I read. There were so many interesting threads to this book, and they were woven together delicately and deliberately. This was my first introduction to Fiona Shaw, and I am now very curious to see what else she has to offer.

Jean is the town doctor. Single. A pretty big deal, for 1950s Scotland. She’s rational and a little distant, and she spends most of what little free time she has between her best friend Jim, and her bees. A fight on the schoolyard brings Charlie Weekes into her clinic; Charlie is quiet and precocious, and drawn to a honeycomb Jean keeps in her office. The two of them bond over her bees in their reserved, introverted fashions.

Charlie’s father leaves him and his mother for another woman, and Charlie – bearing his mother’s sadness on top of his own – withdraws further into himself and the world of the bees. Jean eventually invites Lydia and Charlie to dinner; from there, Jean and Lydia form a tentative connection of their own through Jean’s library.

Already, we’ve touched on a good number of my favourite tropes. We have:

  1. Single Lady Doctor Who Does Not Have Time For Townfolk Judgement
  2. Young children with old souls who notice everything
  3. Books. So many books

In the usual fashion, Jean has a male best friend. Jean and Jim grew up together. Jim proposed to her when they were young and was subsequently turned down. Because reasons. Jim marries a pleasant enough woman named Sarah, and (again, in the usual fashion), there is an underlying note of competition between these two women over who best knows the man keeping the two of them together. There are so many pure moments in this book, but the note that struck me occurs just after Jean accidentally outs herself and Lydia during a dinner party. Jean panics and leaves the room. Sarah goes after her. I – the anxious reader – pull my blanket higher in anticipation of the impending dramatic moment when Sarah gets confrontational and threatens to out her to the entire town.

Only, it doesn’t happen.

Instead, in a display of human decency that should be so basic but isn’t (and thus, still took me out at the knees), Sarah accepts it all in a moment and moves straight to comforting this woman who is really only her friend because of her husband.

Men hear things differently from women, Jean. Even Jim, who’s better than most, and knows you as well as anyone. I don’t think he heard you. At least, not as I did… I don’t really understand. But I don’t think your love is wrong, and I’ll defend you against all comers.

It was more than a queer story. There was something so delightfully normal about it that I wanted to stay in the pages forever. I’m glad that we have so many deep, hard-hitting books to choose from, but every once in a while, I just want a queer version of that Jane Austen read. I want to know that there may be some bumps and misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, the bad guys are going to get what they deserve and the good guys are going to come out on top.

Despite what Goodreads tried to tell me, I was stressed to the max while reading this book. Some characters were lovely, and others were so horrid that I was certain either Jean or Lydia had to die/move away/marry a man and pretend the affair never happened. There were tense plot points. There were moments that struck close to home and really captured the rage that can occasionally take you by surprise when you are a queer person living in a hetero world, and can’t do things like hold your partner’s hand in public without it being A Thing. But the queers live happily ever after, and I will be buying my own copy of this book.

Megan G reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique Grant has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime and she has no idea why. Reclusive Hollywood idol Evelyn Hugo has decided that it’s time for the world to know her story – the full, unabridged version – but she refuses to tell anybody other than Monique. Knowing this could completely change her life, Monique gratefully accepts and begins the task of recording Evelyn Hugo’s story. Still, the question lingers: why Monique? And why now?

I’d been wanting to read this book for quite some time before I finally got my hands on it, and let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a fictional biography of the titular Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1950s. Her story is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. From a far-too-young age, Evelyn is forced to make decisions that could potentially harm herself or others in an effort to remove herself from the poverty and abuse of her childhood. Her story takes us from her poverty-stricken childhood to the lap of luxury of her adulthood without missing a single untoward detail. She makes for a very ethically ambiguous protagonist, with deep, ever present flaws. She’s also a woman who has been through hell and back more than once, and who stirs up a great deal of empathy within the reader.

One of Monique’s first questions to Evelyn is, “Who was the actual love of your life?” This is apparently a popular question within Monique and Evelyn’s world, and one that Evelyn refuses to answer right away. Soon, though, it becomes clear that it was actually none of her seven husbands. You see, Evelyn Hugo is bisexual, and there was one woman she loved above anybody else throughout the course of her life.

This is the true heart of Evelyn’s life and her struggle. Her desire to be with the woman she loves mixes with her fear of being outed and losing everything she’s worked for. This fear often causes her to make frustrating decisions, ones that might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Still, it’s clear no matter where she is in life, who she is married to, or what she’s doing who her true love is, and how desperate she is not to lose her.

Monique, the woman writing Evelyn’s story, is just as complex – though maybe not in the drastic ways that Evelyn is. While she’s getting to know Evelyn, she also struggles with her own failed marriage (to which she has yet to receive closure) and a career that hasn’t gotten her as far as the wanted to be. While I couldn’t help but love Evelyn despite it all, Monique was easy to fall in love with. She’s relatable, flawed, and struggling in ways that most of us do. She is also written in a deeply emotive way that often had me reaching for the tissues, even in scenes that aren’t necessarily overly emotional.

While I cannot recommend this book enough, you should be warned that this book deals with a myriad of potentially triggering issues, such as emotional and physical abuse (spousal and parental), homophobia, internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these issues are dealt with tactfully and respectfully, though, and never feel as though they have been included simply for shock value. They make sense in the context of the story and of the worlds in which Evelyn and Monique live.

I truly cannot express how deeply this book made me feel. It is a true tour de force that must be read to be fully understood. Pick this book up as soon as you can.

Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.

Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!