A Sapphic Sherlock Series in Space: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is Malka Older’s second novella in the Mossa and Pleiti series, set in the far future, when the last of humanity is in a thriving colony on Jupiter amidst an expanding series of platforms and rails. Like the the first novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, Unnecessary Obstacles is a murder mystery, with the inscrutable but brilliant detective Mossa taking the lead on investigating a series of disappearing persons cases and her girlfriend Pleiti filling in the vital gaps with her academic connections and slightly superior people skills.  

This novella series perfectly fits the cozy mystery niche. While there is a little danger for spice, Mossa and Pleiti spend most of their time hunting down leads and deciphering what they find, letting a reader sit back and enjoy the ride. As a second book, I really enjoyed that Mossa and Pleiti are working to settle into their relationship. I also like that this book fills out their characters a little more. There’s a fun field trip to Jupiter’s moon, where Mossa grew up, which fills out a little of Mossa’s character and a little of Jupiter’s society. It was interesting to see the sentiment towards a shuttle ride and driving their own vehicle versus the ubiquitous rail cars of the planet. And Pleiti, who in her role at the university is attempting to reconstruct an Earth-style garden, is dealing with the political fallout of the first novella. I enjoyed seeing them work together again, more deliberately this time, and I enjoyed that their search led them to different areas than the first book. They also take a long distance railcar trip, which I found a delightful idea and I can’t believe isn’t a romantic novelty trip on Jupiter.

Although I did ultimately enjoy this novella and have a fun time reading it, I did feel like this one was a little slower compared to the first—the mystery didn’t seem as urgent, and although we did get some new environments on the moon and in the student clubs, I found that this book had fewer of the really cozy world-building details from the first one—or maybe it’s that there were more locations but we passed through most of them fairly quickly. I also felt like, while Mossa had taken their new relationship status to heart and was intent on improving upon her own shortcomings, Pleiti felt stuck in her past mindsets. Mossa was strangely the one doing the best communication in this book, which Pleiti should really think about in my opinion. However, I still liked this book and would read several more in this series —hopefully with more world-building and relationship development each time. I think this Jupiter colony is so fascinating, and this is a series that could sustain an whole progression of mysteries without being too repetitive. 

In conclusion, this series is one of my favorite recent sci-fi developments. I love that the recent trend towards really developing novellas has given scope for amazing authors to present us with fun little stories that aren’t doorstops. Sci-fi and mystery is also a pairing of genres that I love. If you enjoyed The Mimicking of Known Successes, this book is a nice treat, and if you’re looking for a short cozy read, you should definitely add this to your list. 

Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

Two Takes On Intersectional #MeToo YA Lit: What Works and What Doesn’t

Trigger warnings (apply to both books): sexual assault, grooming, minor instances of racism (mostly microaggressions)

Trigger warnings (Missing Clarissa): kidnapping, gun violence

Trigger warnings (For Girls Who Walk Through Fire): ableism, supernatural violence

This past month, I read two books that struck me as remarkably similar. Both were multiple perspective YA books that dealt with themes of sexual assault, justice, and intersectionality. While Young Adult has always had its books willing to tackle difficult and sensitive issues, these two belong to a new wave of intersectional, #MeToo-era lit that is still defining itself as a sub-genre. I will use these two titles as samples to look at what works and what doesn’t with a specifically queer perspective, but also considering each book as a whole.

Missing Clarissa cover

Missing Clarissa by Ripley Jones is a Nancy Drew story for the 21st century. It follows Cameron and Blair as they create an investigative podcast focusing on a 20-year-old disappearance from their hometown. Cam is the primary main character: big, bold, and messy, she’s all heart and impulse and is very much the driving force behind the narrative. Secondary main character Blair is thoughtful and insecure. As the two investigate Clarissa’s disappearance, they must confront personal bias and journalistic ethics.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose is The Craft meets Promising Young Woman. It focuses on Elliott, a victim of sexual assault who forms a coven with other victims to seek revenge on their attackers. As the girls dedicate themselves to this path, they find that it takes a toll on them in return and ultimately learn that revenge and healing are two very separate things.

Let’s start with queer content. Each book features a queer POV character who comes out during the story. In Missing Clarissa, it’s Cam, who becomes awkward around her crush and usually finds some reason to walk away like the teenage disaster that she is. Their relationship is a little rushed, but it’s sweet, and it fits with this character who throws herself headfirst into everything she deems worth her while. The humor in the book hit home for me. When Cam comes out to her mom and to Blair, both reply that they kind of knew—the Megan Rapinoe wall was a pretty big clue from a girl who doesn’t like soccer!

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire by Kim DeRose cover

In For Girls Who Walk Through Fire, it’s Bea. Bea mentions once getting butterflies in her stomach around a girl, Bea later comes out to her friends, and finally Bea is given a passing mention that her family accepts her. Otherwise, we see nothing else of Bea’s queerness; we don’t see her tell her parents, experience attraction, feel represented by other queer women (perhaps because she doesn’t encounter or seek out any). “Good” representation can be subjective. However, I think both the shallowness of the representation itself and Bea’s role in the story make this feel like the author wanted to be inclusive, but didn’t take time to become understanding. Bea is not the main character—that’s Elliott. She isn’t the primary foil—that’s Madeline. It seemed like she was queer only to make a comment on the misconception that a person can be “turned” by sexual assault. This incredibly harmful misconception deserves commentary, but the inclusion here feels more like an effort to be comprehensive than genuine. If the book didn’t have that line, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I thought that was the metatextual reason Bea was gay, in the interest of the book more comprehensively commenting on girls’ experiences of sexual assault. However, Bea’s sexuality was given far less page time than Bea’s experiences as a Black girl or Chloe’s experiences as an adoptee or Elliott’s experiences in a single-parent household. It felt like, in an effort to include as broad a range as possible, the author had to leave some experiences under-developed. I wish she had chosen to represent a few experiences well rather than making this broad, albeit very well-intentioned, effort to include everyone.

This was further complicated because Bea loves Harry Potter. All things in context: loving Harry Potter isn’t a red flag in many circumstances. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is so determinedly intersectional that centering the works of a prominently transphobic author in the queer character’s narrative makes a resonant statement. Bea’s queer, thus queerness is included; the most prominent queer character has a close, comfortable relationship to this book by an author who actively opposes trans rights. I’m not trans, but on behalf of my trans siblings, this made me uncomfortable.

Inclusivity is another matter worth considering in these books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire wants you to know how inclusive it is. Only… is it? Yes, two of the supposed main characters are girls of color, but they’re the most underdeveloped main characters who are victims of assault first, and victims of racism second, and people… somewhere in there, I guess. The characters had little personality—and that could be okay. It’s fine to write from a single perspective. But that is not the approach this book takes. It tries to show the lives of all four girls in the coven. Because two of the four supposedly main characters are poorly developed, it feels perfunctory.

In Missing Clarissa, main character Cam is Latina and her love interest is First Nations. Though microaggressions occasionally occur and are addressed, this novel falls squarely into the category of inclusive, not representative—and I see nothing wrong with that. I believe we need books that center questions of identity and books that feature characters who are incidentally diverse, whether that is with regard to race, queerness, or any other category. Writers can include an underrepresented character without defining them by their traits rather than their personhood. Cam is impulsive, determined, well-meaning but terrible at thinking through to the consequences of her actions. She’s caring but insensitive. Bea is anxious. And Black. And gay. And there’s little else to describe about her because most of her page time is dedicated to this shallow approach to inclusivity.

When it comes to disability, too, one book is clearly more thoughtful. Cam from Missing Clarissa is ADHD-coded. Not often one to think before she acts, she often stumbles and, near the end of the book, makes a massive mistake that will have any other impulse-challenged readers like myself wincing in recognition. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire treats disability as a punishment. Literally. Many of the spells inflicted on the rapists amount to making them disabled. Again, context matters: it’s not that the boy is blind, for example, but that he is losing his basketball scholarship because he’s blind. But one instance stands out. Elliott hears about another witch whose attacker is no longer able to control his bladder and walks with a shuffle, and has a moment of essentially wishing to seek him out and laugh at him. This comes from a place of victimhood, but still stings as a disabled reader.

For Girls Who Walk Through Fire deals in dichotomies of power. The dichotomy throughout the narrative is usually between male and female—all the coven members are girls who were assaulted by boys or men. Their attackers enjoy more social and physical power in a world that centers masculinity. When their magic doles out punishments, it often renders their attackers disabled, letting the girls feel stronger. They are now experiencing the world not for which gender is centered, but for how ability is centered. If this had been handled better, the parallels acknowledged of the different social strata, I could have appreciated it. But it’s not. Instead, disability is, by implication, associated with weakness and cruelty.

I don’t mind revenge stories. I’ve watched the entire Saw series, which is a hot mess about a sadistic torturer/killer called Jigsaw who puts people in ironic traps. For Girls Who walk Through Fire could take a few notes. When Jigsaw forces a man to blind himself, it’s both horrific torture and explicitly tied to his voyeurism. When the book does it, well, yes, the boy posted revenge porn, a despicable act. But without the parallels drawn explicitly and within the context of other disabilities “inflicted”, it sends a clear message that being disabled is somehow indicative of immorality.

How do these two books discuss sexual assault? In both cases, with tact. We see the histories of the girls who walk through fire, and each is presented as traumatic and devastating. In Missing Clarissa, Cam and Blair discover that a powerful man has a history of abusing his position to prey on young women. Though they seek out the victims, they recognize what is and is not their story to tell. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire shows how assaults are confusing and horrible for those who experience them; Missing Clarissa shows how outsiders can approach the subject with respect.

Finally, I want to consider the messaging of these two books. For Girls Who Walk Through Fire is a split: half is about revenge, half is about healing. And the revenge is shown to physically poison the coven. At the same time, healing, acknowledging trauma, and coming together is shown as the right course. To me, this felt exceptionally empty, largely as a consequence of the book’s other failings. The characters being poorly developed made them difficult to identify with. Maybe this would be cathartic for victims of assault and I don’t mean to diminish that, but I can only speak for myself, and I felt no investment in these girls. Ultimately, having a character-focused ending without well-developed characters feels hollow. Not only that, the book makes sure to mention failures of the justice system, which is representative of real life… and a further problem. If the message is that seeking revenge won’t help, the justice system won’t help, but victims can find strength through their shared trauma, then the message becomes, yes, some, perhaps many, women will be assaulted, but they’ll find a way to be okay. It’s true, I suppose. But it also seems to put too much responsibility on victims. Similarly, I found it frustrating that each victim was determinedly innocent-coded. Though it acknowledges that women are blamed for their assaults, it doesn’t feature any victims who were drinking, were promiscuous, were doing anything that might earn them social blame. It felt like the narrative was afraid or unwilling to humanize those girls. To become powerful, they have to be victims—the right victims—and they must be, of course, victimized. A hollow and unsatisfying final note disguised as a victory.

Missing Clarissa has a much narrower focus, and because of that, is a much stronger book. It’s about media responsibility, as told through the story of two girl who start a podcast. And yes, one is a queer, neurodivergent Latina who needs to temper her enthusiasm. And yes, one is a shy girl who finds her voice. All of that happens along the way. Most importantly to me, Missing Clarissa knows that life is messy. It knows that people are messy. It knows that human beings can be mean and petty and that doesn’t make us evil, and sometimes, even if you were completely right and your risks found justice, you have to face the consequences of your actions. It’s a more morally complex narrative, for that, a much more satisfying one.

I hope I’ve shown here how similar yet different these two books are. I hadn’t realized I was dipping twice into this budding subgenre, and was struck by how well one book told its story and how poorly another did. Sometimes less is more; often, authors achieve better results by not trying to do everything. I’m glad I read both. But I would only recommend one, and I think you know it’s Missing Clarissa. I look forward to seeing how the story continues in its sequel!

A Queer Futuristic Take on a Classic Mystery Setup: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles By Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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I love sapphic novellas with an unconventional blend of genre elements—so of course, after reading The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older last year, I eagerly awaited the sequel, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles. I had the sense I’d enjoy it even more as a series, with the chance for the lead investigators, Pleiti and Mossa, to deepen their relationship as they uncover further mysteries in space. I’m pleased to report that I was right.

I can best sum up this series’ mashup of elements with the following detail: At one point in the second book, Pleiti, who lives on a platform attached to the rings of Jupiter, sends a telegram to Io. As a series of standalone mysteries featuring a Holmesian duo, the books’ narrative style evokes the classics. As sci-fi novellas, they explore a future where humans were forced to leave Earth centuries ago due to a climate apocalypse. The compact page count lends itself to tight plots and focused theming, as well as worldbuilding the reader can easily absorb. As a sapphic love story, Pleiti and Mossa’s tale is one of college girlfriends who went their separate ways, only to come back together in a high-stakes environment that reignites their tender partnership.                   

These elements are tied together through the narration of Pleiti, who works at a university’s Classics department, combing old literature from Earth for details that might help the scientists recreate its ecosystem in a long-term project to make it habitable once more. As the Watson figure in this duo, she records the investigations that Mossa, a high-standards whirlwind of an investigator, drags her along for. The dynamic and style bring in that classic element, but they also make the sci-fi worldbuilding surprisingly approachable—it’s not difficult to justify the narrator going on a brief aside to explain an aspect of humanity’s life above Jupiter when she’s a professor recording the events in an old-fashioned narrative voice. The duo’s banter and history lend a coziness to the books that lighten the post-apocalyptic setting and threats of murder.  

With it being easy to disappear over the edge of the platforms and be lost forever, both books so far have dealt with missing person cases, where of course the plot thickens as murder and politics get involved. While I’ll try to avoid major plot spoilers for the second book and for the first book’s mystery, note that as I focus in on the sequel, the rest of the review will necessarily spoil the status quo at the end of the first book re: the main characters and their relationship.

In this second installment, Mossa and Pleiti are investigating the disappearances of a wide array of seemingly unconnected people at the university where Pleiti works. Their investigation takes them all the way to Io, where Mossa was born, and the reader learns more about the history of humans leaving Earth as well as some of the current politics. 

In the meantime, though Pleiti and Mossa rekindled their romance in the last book, Pleiti’s yearning remains in full force, as the characters are in a tentative stage of their relationship. Pleiti is still unsure where she stands with Mossa, and the same overthinking that helps her uncover mysteries proves to be counterproductive as she ponders the subtext of their interactions, not aided by Mossa’s intense personality. While investigating, they are able to fall back on their partnership as a source of security, but the hesitancy in their relationship maintains tension even in those quiet moments. This is my favorite stage to read about in a romance, as the characters share fondness, domesticity, and trust, but still have to navigate uncertain waters. 

One theme that lends itself well both to the book’s small scale and large scale concerns is the concept of home. Being from Io, Mossa has dealt with the preconceptions people have about her. Meanwhile, having been born on a platform, Pleiti is unmoored both by the openness of space travel and the solidity of a chunk of land. Her awkward attempts to prove to Mossa that she can nonetheless be open-minded about Mossa’s home provide a relatable human element to the bigger questions explored. As humanity as a whole has not been to Earth in centuries, the planet feels unreal to Pleiti, with all the classic Earthen literature she studies taking on a fairy tale quality. The idea of the very goal of her research—a return to a place she’s never been—actually happening in her lifetime thus unnerves her. 

This book also touches on themes of classism, as due to the current politics at the university, Pleiti is confronted with the fact that once again a rich man who did horrible things will be venerated. Meanwhile, nobody had noticed over a dozen people disappearing from that same university, in part because many of them had low-paying jobs. At one point, Pleiti wonders with some shame if she had subconsciously thought of a porter as enough of a person to be the subject of a missing person case. This subject is also touched upon on Io, with the discussion of which people had the means to escape Earth to begin with, and some families still being concerned with the supposed status of that lineage. 

As the plot unfolds, Mossa and Pleiti must confront the question of why humans impose unnecessary obstacles on their lives, whether it’s within a relationship or the very structure of society. Thankfully, with this book being just a little over 200 pages, there aren’t many obstacles to getting lost in its vision of the future.

Content notes: In addition to the obvious topics related to a climate apocalypse and (off-screen) murder, this book contains one homophobic microaggression and a brief discussion of eugenics. 

How Queer is Queer Enough?: A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll

the cover of A Guest in the House

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I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Emily Carroll, and A Guest In the House was no exception. The subdued, gothic scenes of the quiet horror of compulsory heteronormativity interspersed with technicolour dream sequences were extremely effective. I felt deeply for Abby, who seems to sleepwalk through her life, doing what’s expected of her, until she learns about her new husband’s deceased first wife, Sheila. Soon, Sheila is appearing to her in dreams and then even when she’s awake, casting doubts about whether her husband is responsible for her death. As Abby begins to doubt her husband, her careful quiet life unravels, and she goes to dramatic lengths to try to save herself from Sheila’s fate.

This was one of my favourite books I read in 2023. The artwork, as usual for Emily Carroll, is stunning. The story is unsettling and captivating. And that ending! I stayed up reading because I had to know what happened next, and then I finished the book not sure how to interpret those final pages. I ended up researching reviews to find different theories. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately picked it up and read it cover to cover again, and while I still have questions, I now have my own theories!

As I read through Goodreads reviews, I became aware of two things. One, people hate an ambiguous ending. And two, somehow many (most?) readers completely missed the queer content of this book, even though it’s not at all hidden. I ended up writing a whole post about this on my queer books newsletter with Book Riot, Our Queerest Shelves: “How Queer Does a Book Have To Be For It To Count?

The description of the book mentions Abby being “desperately in love for the first time in her life,” which can only be referring to Sheila—she has no romantic or sexual interest in her husband. She imagines herself as a knight saving Sheila. She pictures Sheila in revealing clothing, and when the ghost of Sheila calls her out on it, Abby blushes and stammers. More importantly, (spoiler, highlight to read) Abby and Sheila kiss on the page!! It may be a little distracting that they’re murdering someone at the same time, but there’s a kissing scene! (end of spoilers) How can that be misinterpreted as straight?

I’m still a little frustrated that I didn’t hear about this being a queer book, despite researching queer new releases and already being a fan of Emily Carroll. As I said in my Our Queerest Shelves post, “It’s disappointing that we still live in a world where queer people are still apparently harder to see than ghosts.”

If you can handle an ambiguous ending and don’t need your queer reads to be light and happy, I highly recommend this one. It’s an absorbing story with such stunning artwork that I want to frame pages and hang them on my wall. Emily Carroll continues to be one of my favourite graphic novelists, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

An Anxious Nonbinary Lesbian Sheep Solves a Murder: Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans

the cover of Bianca Torre Is Afraid of Everything

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Bianca has overwhelming anxiety, especially social anxiety, to the point that trying to have an everyday conversation is a monumental struggle. They keep a numbered list of fears, like “Fear #6: Initiating Conversation,” “#13 Beautiful People,” and “#11 Parents Discovering They’re a Raging Lesbian.” So they’re definitely not going to ask out the cute girl in their birdwatching group. Or even speak to her at all. Bianca compares themself to lesbian sheep, standing beside each other perfectly still, hoping the other makes a move.

The only person other than family she feels comfortable around is Anderson. They bonded over anime, though Anderson is too cool to admit to liking manga and anime at school.

If it was up to Bianca, they would stayed in that safe bubble forever, but while people watching with their birdwatching telescope, they witness a murder in building across the street by someone wearing a plague doctor mask. Getting up the courage to tell the police is hard enough, but when the cops dismiss them and rule the case a suicide, Bianca is now the only one who can get justice for the neighbour who used to put bird drawings on his window for them to enjoy. (The cops are useless at best in this book, and I appreciated that: it is a murder investigation that doesn’t glorify the police at all.)

This is a satirical mystery perfect for fans of Only Murders In the Building. It’s whacky and over-the-top when it comes to the murder case, but the interpersonal and self-discovery elements feel grounded. Bianca ends up convincing Anderson and Elaine (from the birding group) to help investigate, changing their dynamic and bringing them closer together.

Meanwhile, Bianca is having Gender Feelings. At first, it’s not conscious, like feeling uncomfortable in their body and enjoying being compared to a male character. As they reluctantly explore these feelings, though, they begin to experience gender euphoria by changing their gender expression, coming out to some people as nonbinary, finding nonbinary friends and community, and using they/them pronouns. This is one of the few books I’ve read with a character who identifies as a nonbinary lesbian!

This was a lot of fun, and I appreciated both the satirical murder mystery plot and the well-rounded characters.

“Perhaps the real murder investigation is the friends we make along the way.”

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: More Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

the album cover of Snow Angel

If you have Reneé Rapp’s album Snow Angel playing on repeat, these are the sapphic books you need to read! Pick up the one that matches your favorite song, or get the whole stack if it’s too hard to pick. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop. Click here for Part One! 

“Pretty Girls”

the cover of Girls Like Girls

In the p.m., all the pretty girls/They have a couple drinks, all the pretty girls/So now, they wanna kiss all the pretty girls/They got to have a taste of a pretty girl

Pretty Girls is a song for people who keep falling for “straight” girls, and a celebration of those exploring their sexuality, even if it feels frustratingly drawn out to the other person. In the same vein, Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko, inspired by the sapphic anthem of the early aughts, follows the story of Coley and Sonya, two teenage girls in rural Oregon who each find themselves falling for the other girl. This lyrical debut novel fills out the gaps in the plot to Kiyoko’s music video, but balances the overall sweetness of the summertime romance with an exploration of grief and what it means to be out in today’s society. I think Pretty Girls would fit in beautifully during the summer romance montages that Girls Like Girls lays out.

“Tummy Hurts”

the cover of she is a haunting

Now my tummy hurts, he’s in love with her/But for what it’s worth, they’d make beautiful babies/And raise ’em up to be a couple of/Fucking monsters, like their mother and their father

In Tummy Hurts, Rapp explores a past relationship through an analysis of heartbreak, grief, and bittersweet predictions of the continuing cycle of unhealthy relationships. This song contradicts and supports the exploration through using a childlike imagery of an upset stomach and the consequences of an unhealthy romance. If you are looking for a book that explores being haunted by a past relationship or dysfunctional relationships, I would recommend reading She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. In this horror young adult novel, Jade is visiting her estranged father and her only goal is to end the five-week visit with the college money he has promised her—but only if she can seem straight, Vietnamese, and American enough. However, Jade can’t ignore the effects of colonization on the house or a ghost bride’s warnings to not eat anything. She is a Haunting explores the concept of places being haunted by dysfunctional family dynamics, just as “Tummy Hurts” explores the haunting of a romantic relationship.

“I Wish”

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers cover

I wish I could still see the world through those eyes/Could still see the colors, but they’re not as clear or as bright/Oh, the older we get, the colors they change/Yeah, hair turns to gray, but the blue’s here to stay/So I wish, I wish

“I Wish” is the Pisces moon of Snow Angel, with Rapp singing about how she wished she didn’t know about death as a concept. This sweet ballad mourns the loss of an important figure and the resultant loss of innocence in the world around her. Similarly, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers explores themes of existential dread, fear of not living up to people’s expectations, and a loss of innocence once you grow up. Twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes to Vegas to celebrate getting her PhD in astronomy, but accidentally ends up getting drunkenly married to a strange woman from New York. This triggers a rush of questions about herself, including why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled in her life, and Grace flees home to move in with her unfamiliar wife. Honey Girl is a story about self-growth, finding queer community, and taking a journey towards better mental health, and it honestly made me cry as much as I Wish did the first time I listened to it.

“Willow”

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Willow/I’ll cry, Willow/Willow/I’ll cry for you

Willow is another sad ballad, in which Renee talks to her younger self (metaphorically) under a willow tree, and tries to reassure them that everything will be alright. This concept of wanting to take away someone’s pain, regardless of your own, made me think of one of my favorite novellas, Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk. Elena Brandt is the hardboiled detective of mystery noire past, with her private eye set up in a magical 1930’s Chicago, and a lady love waiting in the wings for her. However, Elena’s days are numbered and she decides to spend the last of them with said lady love, Edith. Just as she is about to leave the city, a potential client offers her $1,000 to find the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. To sweeten the pot, the client offers something more precious—the chance to grow old with Edith. As Elena dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life, she learns that nothing is as she thought it was. If you want a read that will capture your mind and heart for an afternoon, then grab a copy of C. L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew the End. 

“23”

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

But tomorrow I turn twenty-three/And it feels like everyone hates me/So, how old do you have to be/To live so young and careless?/My wish is that I cared less/At twenty-three

Finally, 23 explores the emotional turmoil and questioning that can come with turning twenty-three years old. Rapp’s lingering lyrics ask why she doesn’t feel like she has been succeeding in life, especially when compared to society’s expectations and assumptions about her career. By the end of the song, Rapp expresses the hope that she can grow into herself as a person and learn to love herself more by her next birthday. In the same vein, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kahn is about a nineteen Black year old college student named Alice, whose summer was going to be perfect until her girlfriend broke up with her for being asexual. Alice had planned on remaining single as to never experience being rejected for her sexuality again, but then she meets Takumi, and Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood. A huge theme in Alice’s story is that of figuring out what you want to do and/or be as opposed to what your family and friends (or society) expects from you, whether it is about your sexuality or career choices. I think Alice would be wistfully listening to 23 right before the climatic third act, as she contemplates what to do.

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.

A Thrilling Serial Killer Suspense Novel: The Final Child by Fran Dorricott

the cover of The Final Child

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Content warnings: child abuse, child death, trauma

Back in the 90s, a serial killer known as the Father kidnapped and murdered children, always siblings. Only one survived: Jillian, who became Erin, and she just wanted to forget the whole thing. But Harriett, whose cousins were among the Father’s victims, still needed to untangle the mystery that broke her family so many years ago. Together, the two start to pull at the threads that never made sense, bring back Erin’s memories of what happened the fateful night she survived, and learn who has returned to take up the mantle of the Father.

Harriett channels her obsession through the book she writes about the victims. Rather than focus on the serial killer and the pain he caused, she chooses to uplift the stories and memories of the children whom he murdered. Through her perspective, Dorricott presents commentary on our culture’s macabre obsession with true crime. More often than not, true crime junkies focus on the pain, horror and criminal rather than the victims or survivors.

Dorricott creates thrilling suspense as she drops clues about who the Father is and how Erin survived. There are enough clues to lead the reader in the right direction and figure out at least part of the mystery. But there’s enough doubt to leave you wondering what actually happened until the very end.

It’s interesting to see how Erin starts out hiding within her new identity, choosing to distance herself from “little Jilly” who survived. As the story unfolds and she starts to remember the trauma, she embraces her past as Jillian and uses that to propel her forward into becoming a new Erin.

Harriett and Erin grow closer, creating a trauma bond that starts to turn into a sort of romantic relationship. I say sort of romantic because as events unfold, Harriett drops details that indicate she is on the ace/aro spectrum. She talks about how she had “never thought of being with anybody, never mind a girl like Erin.” However, something about the relationship never felt organic, so it fell flat. It almost felt like they should have grown a close friendship rather than a romance.

Overall, this is a strong thriller, but the romantic subplot let it down.

Sapphic Satanic Panic: Rainbow Black by Maggie Thrash

the cover of Rainbow Black

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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.

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

If you have watched The Sex Lives of College Girls or Mean Girls (the musical), then chances are that you’re familiar with bisexual singer/actor Reneé Rapp. In 2022, Rapp released her debut EP Everything to Everyone, which featured nine original songs about mental health, her queer identity and love. Most recently, Rapp released her first full-length album, Snow Angel, on August 18th, 2023 and will be starting on an international tour in mid-September. Snow Angel has been on repeat in my household for the last month and as is usually the case, listening to sapphic music reminds me of sapphic titles I have read. Down below is part one of readalike titles for songs on Snow Angel. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop.

“Talk Too Much”

the cover of Leah On the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

“I’m here again/Talking myself out of/My own happiness/I’ll make it up ’til I quit/I wonder if we should just sit here in silence ’cause/Ooh/Ah, just shut the fuck up!”

“Talk Too Much” is one of my go-to bi girl songs as I feel that it speaks to how bi women constantly have to prove their sexuality while maintaining the status quo around them. Upon hearing Talk Too Much for the first time, I immediately pictured one of my favorite heroines in her bright yellow dress, sunglasses, and coffee in hand—Leah Burke in Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat. Leah is externally defined by her boldness and confidence; however, she is struggling with keeping her friend group together and whole while also struggling with self-doubt about her talents and her sexuality. I think she would pull off the intense talking bridge Rapp slid into Talk Too Much with immense pleasure.

“I Hate Boston”

the cover of For Her Consideration

“How’d you make me hate Boston/It’s not its fault that you don’t love me/Had its charm, but it lost it/It’s not its fault, just a casualty/And casual’s the way you chose to leave”

I barely made it into the first chorus of this ballad about hating a town due to an ill-fated romance when For Her Consideration by Amy Spaulding came to mind. In this contemporary romance, Nina Rice now stays far away from romance, scriptwriting, and her former community of LA proper after a horrific breakup three years ago. However, after she begins working for queer B-list actress Ari Fox, Nina begins to feel like it may be less terrifying to bring back the good facets of her old life. As she reconnects with her former community and begins to edit her old script, a relationship with a movie star feels like one more impossible thing to add on – but why not at least try? This story is as much a love story about the community found within L.A. and overcoming that hauntedness as it is a love story between script writer and actress.

“Poison Poison”

the cover of We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

“You gеt on my nerves/You’re so fucking annoying, you could poison poison/You’rе the worst person on earth/Forgiving you is pointless, you could poison poison, baby girl”

As I was good-naturedly mumbling along to Rapp’s various expletives in the boppy vitriol “Poison Poison,” I could feel the spirit of Cass in We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman spitting those same words out. Cass is an unlikeable protagonist, hiding out in L.A. until her actions at a big New York City party create a little less gossip. While out there, she gets involved with her next-door neighbor, a documentarian obsessed with filming the high school girls running their own Fight Club. If Cass heard Poison Poison today, she would be wishing her nemesis, Tara Jean Slater, the pain of those lyrics. 

“Gemini Moon”

the cover of Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

“I bet you’re sick of it/Believe me, so am I/Always the problem kid/I could never pick a side/I bet you’re sick of it (Ah-ah)/I could blame the Gemini moon/But really, I should just be better to you”

“Gemini Moon” is a softer, more self-aware version of “Talk Too Much,” where Rapp knows that she will never feel comfortable in the relationship until she works on herself. With “Gemini Moon”’s bittersweet lyrics about self-doubt morphing into self-sabotage, I have to compare it to Jennifer Dugan’s Verona Comics, a bisexual Romeo and Juliet retelling set in the world of comic books. Jubilee and Ridley fall in love at a comic con prom and strive to keep their relationship secret, even as Jubilee struggles with prepping for college auditions and Ridley struggles with his mental health. [SPOILER] The two eventually break up, recognizing that they have to work through their various issues with codependency and depression before engaging in a romantic relationship, bringing to mind the soft-spoken chorus of “Gemini Moon.” [/SPOILER]

“Snow Angel”

the cover of Planning Perfect

“I’ll make it through the winter if it kills me/I can make it faster if I hurry/I’ll angel in the snow until I’m worthy/But if it kills me I tried/If it kills me”

“Snow Angel” is the most poignant and vulnerable song on this album; full of heartbreak, loneliness, trauma, and euphemisms for substance abuse. This may not seem like a song for a light and happy recommendation, but take my recommendation of Planning Perfect by Haley Neil with a grain of salt. In this young adult novel, Felicity loves putting together gorgeous, heartfelt events and takes on the momentous task of planning her mother’s wedding with a month to spare. After her long-distance friend Nancy offers her her family’s apple orchard for the wedding, Felicity and her family end up spending the summer with Nancy and the two friends become closer despite Felicity’s ongoing issues with anxiety, perfectionism, and trying family members. Felicity’s internalization of needing to be perfect to make up for everyone else around her rings true with Rapp’s title track, making Planning Perfect a perfect readalike.

“So What Now”

the cover of Kiss Her Once for Me

So, what now/Should we talk/If we run into each other on the street/Should I keep walking/So, what now/Do you tell your friends/That things ended well/That I’m overdramatic, it was chill/Do you lie and say you don’t wanna see me again/’Cause I do it too

“So What Now” chronicles Rapp’s struggle with an ex coming back to town and not knowing whether to welcome them back into her life or to oust them and immediately invokes to mind Kiss Her Once For Me by Alison Cochrun. Last Christmas, Ellie fell in love with both Portland and Jack, the woman showing her around, only to be betrayed and fired a short time later. In the present, Ellie agrees to a marriage of convenience with her shop’s landlord and to meet his family during Christmas, only to find out that Jack is her future sister-in-law. “So What Now” brings to life Ellie’s frantic attempts to figure out if continuing with the marriage is worth being around Jack and if she’d been too hasty last Christmas with casting Jack aside, making the two a marriage of equals. 

“The Wedding Song”

the cover of That Summer Feeling

“You are my one, you set my world on fire/I know there’s Heaven, but we must be higher/I’m gonna love you ’til my heart retires/Forever will last/I think it went something like that”

“The Wedding Song” starts off gorgeously with a celebration of love between Rapp and her partner and fades into obscurity as Rapp realizes that she can’t remember this once-consuming song that she had created. In the same vein, Garland Moore in That Summer Feeling (written by Bridget Morrissey) has sworn off romantic love after being surprised with divorce papers on Valentine’s Day, and is determined to let go of her past at adult summer camp. However, she never accounted for Stevie, the sister of the man who she’d had a premonition about years ago, and for summer camp to help her heal. I’d like to think that “The Wedding Song” would morph eventually into That Summer Feeling, allowing for peace and second love to come to both Rapp and Garland.

Keep an eye out for Part Two!!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.