Nat reviews Sour Grapes by Eliza Lentzski

the cover of Sour Grapes

If you’re mostly familiar with Eliza Lentzski from her Don’t Call Me Hero series (which I really loved) you’ll notice this is quite a departure from that grittier, mysterious style and more in keeping with the contemporary vibe of her more recent novels, including The Woman in 3B. Sour Grapes was an especially fun read for me, because my day job is in the wine and spirits industry, and I love it when my interests collide. Sapphic romance in a winery? Always a yes, and thank you. One of the things I really enjoyed about Sour Grapes was the attention to detail around the winemaking and even the agricultural aspect involved. A lot of the book is dedicated to discussing the craft with accuracy, so if you’re studying up on your level one Sommelier test, this might be a fun way to ingest some wine knowledge.

Speaking of studying up, June St Clare, who’s recently purchased a winery with no winemaking knowledge or even a desire to own said winery, knows absolutely nothing. But owning a winery had been her partner’s retirement plan for them — at least until her untimely, and fairly recent, death. The timing of events was something I struggled a bit with, how quickly June processed her partner’s unexpected death, or more accurately didn’t seem to process. Her partner Alex has only been gone a few months, but there’s a distinct lack of fresh grief from someone whose lover of 20 years has just suddenly died, which I think might have seemed less strange if the author had included a bit more internal dialogue. There are some indications throughout the book that their relationship was less than perfect, but June’s behavior felt more in line with someone whose spouse passed away at least a year or two before, and that detail nagged me quite a bit.

This brings us to our grumpy love interest. I love an Eeyore, and Lucia Santiago doesn’t disappoint. She was definitely my favorite character of the book, and I would have really enjoyed reading from her viewpoint as well, but then maybe that would have made her much less mysterious and brooding. Lucia is the assistant winemaker of June’s new venture, who is brilliant when it comes to viticulture and hatching amazing ideas, but severely lacking when it comes to people skills. Of course Lucia is less than thrilled to meet the clueless, new owner of the winery where her family has been working for decades behind the scenes. Her issues with the doors money can open leads to an interesting sidequest, where Lentzski uses Lucia’s character, who’s Mexican-American, to effortlessly bring attention to immigration issues, farm labor, and unions. If Jorts the cat could read, he’d be so proud!

Overall, this was a solid showing with a few scrapes here and there. The ending felt a bit rushed, almost frantic. I know a common complaint with some romance novels is that that the characters get back together too quickly after one of them does something incredibly stupid in the third act. When the “Bad Decisions” part of this book came along, the last couple of chapters kind of sped out of control. Lucia’s acceptance of June’s return felt very out of character with her brooding, better-off-alone persona, and I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more. I also didn’t love June’s constant pity parties, and by the end I almost felt that Lucia could have done better, but the heart wants what it wants! Despite the flaws in Sour Grapes, all in all it remains a fun summer read that would pair well with a Napa cab sauv.

Nat reviews The Verifiers by Jane Pek

the cover of The Verifiers

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Are you looking for a dystopian mystery in the vein of Dave Eggers’s The Circle, with a high stakes, lesbian Nancy Drew vibe and a heaping side of Person of Interest (where no gays are harmed in the making)? Then this is the book for you, my friend. Part speculative fiction and part murder mystery, Jane Pek’s The Verifiers is set in a world (or future) where matchmaking services are the most common way to find a partner, not entirely unlike current times, though their algorithms and importance in this novel’s society are more extreme. 

The data collected is even more invasive than what exists in our real world, collection that all but completely eliminates your privacy in order to best fulfill your needs. Enter our aspiring dating detective, Claudia Lin, who works for a company called Veracity, every bit as secretive as the CIA. Her job as the newest member of the team is to help make sure that the people on these ubiquitous dating apps are who they actually claim to be. 

Claudia is curious to a fault, a natural problem solver, an avid fan of detective novels, and stubborn enough to get herself into a bit of a situation when she can’t let an unsolved mystery drop. She’s young and sometimes makes questionable decisions. But while there are serious themes explored in the book, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Verifiers is a murder mystery that grows into a twisty, fun house mirror conspiracy where one can’t quite figure out who to trust. 

Pek sweetens the deal by treating you to a a smart, sarcastic underachieving protagonist, one who also happens to be queer and Asian. Additionally, there’s some complex family drama afoot and some social commentary on how technology affects our lives. More of this is explored at the end during the “big reveal,” including a look at how the creators of the technology justify their decisions in the name of providing a greater good. 

The Verifiers made me think of Zen Cho’s writing style in Black Water Sister, both in Pek’s treatment of the main character and in the flow of the novel. There are similarities in the MC’s family issues, though instead of meddling aunties, we have a dysfunctional sibling and mother relationship. There’s an overarching mystery to be solved that transforms the MC in ways that allow her to deal with issues in her private life. Both novels have a steady, page-turning flow and a solid helping of witty, amusing internal dialogue that had me snorting out loud, the same brand of snark that had me chuckling through Cho’s book. If Black Water Sister was your cuppa, you will likely enjoy this as well. 

And back to the sapphic aspect of this book, Claudia is queer (though not out to her mother), but this remains secondary to the story. We do still witness her dealing with issues in her personal life, sexuality included, as she navigates the challenges central to the book. There’s also some exploration of ethnicity and cultural identity in being an Asian American sprinkled throughout. 

This is Pek’s debut novel! And while it’s a standalone, you can’t help but notice that she’s setting you up for a sequel, perhaps even a series. (Fingers crossed that this is true.) I would happily binge watch five seasons of this on Netflix, following our plucky verifier as she solves mysteries each episode within a larger overarching conspiracy, topped off with a slow burn workplace romance. Ahem, JJ Abrams, are you listening? 

Nat reviews Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

the cover of Stud Like Her by Fiona Zedde

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I actually read Stud Like Her for the first time as soon as it came out, and thought about reviewing it then, but then I thought *everyone* was going to be reviewing it because there are so few books about studs loving other studs. As I was rereading it, I realized I had actually not seen much written about it. 

While this book isn’t erotic romance, it does frequently present imagery of sex, sexual desire, and attraction. There’s a lot of pining for the body of another in great detail and sprinkled generously throughout. If that’s not your jam, this may not be the book for you. But if it is, read on!

Our tormented main character, Chance Cooper, is a stud; meaning she’s a masc of center Black lesbian, and she just so happens to be attracted to other butch women. She’s pushed aside this attraction for nearly a decade, essentially still living in the closet. Much of the book centers around her fighting the constraints of her community and having the courage to live an authentic life. 

Zedde tackles a lot of subjects that are tough to wrangle, so expect a fair amount of angst and frustration as Chance works out her issues. One of the difficult themes is internalized homophobia, with studs loving other studs being seen as “too queer” in the Black community. There’s a lot of shame assoicatied with her attraction, and discussions of being “out” not as a gay woman, but as a gay women attracted to another stud within the gay community. We see these restrictive, hetronormative rules applied to queerness, leading to the same destructive results as if Chance were simply in the closet as a lesbian. This bleeds into another theme, internalized misogyny. The rigid butch/femme structure of Chance’s community leads to toxic masculinty. There’s a lot of us vs them, femmes vs studs heteronormative attitudes that are not doing anyone any favors. 

One of the things I really liked in the book was Chance overcoming her insecurities and breaking away from destructive friendships. As with most queer stories, and in real life, found family is the thing that keeps us afloat. We often see examples of supportive and loving friendships, contrasted with  toxic and problematic family. In this case, it’s the opposite, with Chance having a supportive and loving family, but the worst ever so-called friends.  Like I said, no shortage of angst, but to see our MC come out on the other side is worth the sweat and tears. 

All that serious business aside, there are still plenty of playful moments and humor throughout. We mostly get this after meeting Garret, the young stud who Chance wants to date even though she’s terrified of what others will think. Garret the Hotness, or G-hot, is an Instagram star who gives zero foxes about what other people think of her. She’s young and idealistic and exactly the sort of polar opposite that Chance needs to course correct and finally be happy. 

Overall, consider this an angsty romance filled with self reflection, overcoming fear of rejection, and self-loathing, while exploring issues within the Black queer community. I’m on my second read of the book now, so put it on your summer reading list!

Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

the cover of My Home Is On the Mountain

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If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Nat reviews the Pirates of Aletharia by Britney Jackson

the cover of Pirates of Aletharia

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Get ready to don your trusty tricorns for a high seas adventure full to the brim with pirates, betrayal, forbidden magic, and the plotting of sweet revenge. Pirates of Aletharia is so much fun I can’t wait to read it again. An equal parts cocktail of fluff and angst — a search for redemption while enjoying a few nights of too much overproof rum. 

Emilia Drakon is in the midst of escaping the gallows of her public execution in the land of Illopia when we meet her. This daring escape and our introduction to the Villain (yes with a capital V) of the story here is key, but note that this incident takes place in chapter one rather than as a prologue. The meat of the narrative starts several months later, making the transition feel abrupt, and even making the first chapter feel a bit rushed. But aside from a bit of rough seas at the start, the book hits its stride quickly. Just be prepared to stay up late reading it, is what I’m saying.

While the book has dragons, magic, and swashbuckling aplenty, the banter between the broken but lovable main characters are where the author knocks it out of the park. They say if you write excellent characters the reader will follow them anywhere, and this is a great example. While there is a fair amount of action, much of the book is character development, heavy on the repartee. At some point I looked up and thought, it’s been like a hundred pages, where even is this boat going? And then I realized, I honestly didn’t care about where the compass was pointed or how it was even getting there. All the important stuff was unfolding between Captain Maria Welles and Emilia Drakon. 

Though sometimes silly and often indulgent, the author will treat you to chapter after chapter of verbal foreplay and I am totally here for that. One minute we’re snarling and sneering and hating each other, the next we’re leaning close and murmuring with our bodies pressed nearly together and our cheeks warm for no particular reason at all. There are sword fights and a bit of stabbing amongst friends, and of course the threat of mutiny (because pirates). You can also expect lots of enthusiastic consent, and perhaps even a lesson in knot tying. Ahem. You know, like one does on ships. There’s even a Villain monologuing scene near the book’s end, and who doesn’t love that

The side characters were fantastic as well and quite integral to the story. Judith, the ship’s Cook and  the captain’s best, if not only, friend is not only gay as the day is long (and a big fan of the rum no one else will touch) but she’s extremely important for the reader getting to know the real Captain Welles. She also features quite heavily in Emilia’s portrayal, making her a very well rounded and valuable secondary player.

Pirates of Aletharia is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I can’t wait for the sequel just so I have an excuse to read the first one again! 

Trigger Warnings: violence, offscreen torture

Nat reviews Plain English by Rachel Spangler

the cover of Plain English by Rachel Spangler

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Rachel Spangler is probably one of my most read authors of sapphic romance because they are so darn reliable. I’ve never been disappointed. In my mind, I often refer to Spangler as “the author who writes sports romance,” and yeah, I’m a big sucker for a feel-good sports story. But Spangler’s writing is much more diverse than that label gives them credit for, and their newest book Plain English showcases that range.

I’d already read Full English last year, the first book in the English series, which is set in the small English town of Amberwick. Plain English, the third book, features many of the same characters. (I somehow missed the release of Modern English, the second book – more on that later.) It doesn’t matter much if you read the three English books out of order, but it’s always fun to have that experience of already knowing some of the established cast. That said, from the synopsis I was generally expecting a pretty straightforward continuation but with more royalty, angst and motorcycles. 

We’re introduced to a very flawed, sometimes infuriating protagonist Lady Phillipa Anne Marion Farne-Sacksley of Mulgrave. (Titles, titles, titles, announced in my best Robert Baratheon voice.) Lady Mulgrave, whose preferred name is Pip, or also literally any name that isn’t “Lady” Mulgrave, is a bit of a playboy with a Peter Pan complex. Here for a good time, not for a long time. We meet Pip in a way that immediately showcases their gay disaster profile: while sneaking out of a one night stand’s bedroom and wrecking a vintage motorcycle in a field within the span of a couple of hours. 

Enter Claire Bailey, a financially struggling artist looking to find her way after trying to keep her head above water in London for the last decade. Claire might be a bit of a mess herself, but she’s well on her way to getting that mess sorted. Learning (mostly) from past romantic mistakes, and moving forward with a new chapter of her life. Claire unexpectedly meets Pip by way of the aforementioned embarrassing motorcycle fiasco, and she immediately catches the aristocrat’s eye. Of course Pip is exactly Claire’s type, a type that embodies some big red flag energy wrapped up in a handsome, irresistible package. Claire knows any kind of relationship will end in disaster, and that Pip has a life and a path already mapped out due to the nature of English custom and aristocracy. And thus the perfectly reasonable idea of embarking on a short term relationship with plenty of boundaries (ha!) and absolutely no complications whatsoever (haha!). 

Don’t let the cheeky, playful banter between these two fool you. Claire and Pip are some of the most raw, vulnerable characters I’ve seen on the page in romance recently. The first love scene and the communication between them as they both navigate uncharted waters was perfectly executed. I also appreciated how Claire and Pip’s close friends set aside their personal feelings and frustrations to support someone they care about in their time of need, while acknowledging that Pip still has their own issues to work out. There’s a lot of hurt/comfort happening throughout, so buckle in. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Please excuse me while I jump forward to gush a bit about Pip’s character. We see a lot of adult characters in romance processing past trauma, healing, grieving – but we don’t always get to see them in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Especially one involving gender identity. This was an unexpected aspect of the book, and I cannot stress how much I loved it. There were some moments in the book, especially as Pip deals with their conservative, controlling family, that really punched me right in the feels. I want to tell you so much more about it, but it’s best to just experience it for yourself. (End spoilers.)

Back to this book existing as part of a series – one reason I might recommend checking out Full English first is to experience the growth of a particular side character who returns in Plain English. We first meet Reggie in Full English when she’s just a pup, experiencing her adorably awkward and earnest interactions with the adults who recognize something familiar in her, which is explored further in Plain English. It is precious. You will love her. 

That said, I also realized while reading the book that I’d missed the second installment in the series, Modern English, and caught up after I started writing this review to make sure I hadn’t missed anything big. If you want more of an introduction to how aristocracy works and all those stodgy English rules, then maybe you’d prefer to read all three in order. Of the three books, Plain English was hands down my favorite, but as a series, they complement each other so well that it would be a shame not to read them all.  

Nat reviews The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall

the cover of The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

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Sometimes we pick up a book with certain expectations – sometimes we also discover that those expectations are way off the mark. When I set out to read The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea I knew this: it was a YA book with romance, it was gaaay, the cover was kind of cute (so pretty!), and it was a fantasy setting with mermaids and witches (obvs from the title). 

Here’s the thing, I was not emotionally prepared for what the book actually contained. I was still recovering from the turmoil of reading C.L Clark’s The Unbroken (which I highly recommend) and I needed something light to cleanse my reading palate. A pirate adventure on the high seas, perhaps! As someone who doesn’t read much YA, I thought, hey, this is probably gonna be an angsty, romantic tale with sidelong glances featuring mermaids! Magic! Fun! Haha. What I did not realize: this was going to be a dark, brooding journey about serious issues like colonialism and childhood trauma and sexual assault and one that does not shy away from depicting their brutality. That it would make me feel feelings. Sad feelings, which are right on the top of my big “No, Thanks” list right now and for all of the next decade. 

Now, after all that you might be thinking that I did not enjoy the book. Not true! I think this is a wonderful book! You just need to make sure to adjust your expectations

TLDR: Seriously, do not judge this book by its cover. AND Yes I did like the book but I’m still hella mad about everything that happened in this fictional world.

Our two young protagonists are not set up for success. Flora, who lives as Florian, is a young, Black gender bending pirate just doing his best to survive on a slaver ship called the Dove, and doing morally frowned upon things like pirates are known to do. Saddled with guilt and fiercely loyal to his only family, his brother Alfie, who, by no fault of his own, is kind of a screw up. The relationship between Alfie and Florian is depressing and complicated. In fact, every single relationship in this book is like that. 

Both of our MC’s are morally ambiguous, well meaning, gay disasters. For Florian, an orphan in constant survival mode, it’s along the lines of “I thieved and kidnapped and maybe even did a murder to survive, but it doesn’t define me. I want to be better.” For Evelyn, daughter of an elite Imperial family, it is “everything I knew about my insulated and privileged but miserable world is wrong. Am I the baddy? I want to do the right thing.” 

While Flora and Evelyn are struggling to right the wrongs of their pasts and in the world, the villains are out there just deliberately being evil. This book has no shortage of characters to despise. I’m talking no-redeeming-qualities dot com, with possible sociopathic tendencies. The murdering, rapey, sadist kind of villains who you really want to see walked off a short plank and snacked on by shark teefies. Nameless Captain, I’m looking at you. And don’t even get me started on that sneaky witch in the Floating Islands. 

There are also some dynamic foils, such as Rake, our captain’s stoic, red haired first mate. He’s our second chances man, both receiving and giving them while still allowing brutality to unfold before him. And let’s not forget the mysterious, non-binary arbiter of justice, the Pirate Supreme. 

Speaking of gender, that was one of the things I really enjoyed in the book. Flora/Florian’s exploration of gender is as complicated as you would expect, while also entangled with her identity as a pirate. How do others see Flora… or Florian? How does Flora/ian look at the world when moving between gender presentations? 

(spoilers, highlight to read) For the romance, I wasn’t convinced that our characters got a truly happy ending. I mean, sure, technically they’re together, but it was kind of weird, creepy “here’s my best offer” from the devil kind of union… romantic like, well, they didn’t die! (spoilers end) Then again, this book never really felt like a romance, more of a dark tinted fantasy with a romantic arc. 

But hey, great news, you can be extremely mad at a book and appreciate it at the same time. Like I sometimes feel about my cat, for instance. Is this book like a cat? Perhaps. It will put its paws all over your tender feelings and then knock them off the shelf, only to try and curl up in your lap hours later. This book, like a cat, is a little of a shite but we love them anyway. 

TLDR, this is a four star read to be enjoyed in the right mindset and with proper expectations. Don’t forget, kids, YA books can mess you up real good. 

Trigger warnings: violence, implied/offscreen sexual assault/rape, drug use, addiction, amputation

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. 

Nat reviews Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

the cover Black Water Sister

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A suspenseful tale of vengeful ghosts, family secrets, and self discovery – it’s funny, it’s creepy, there are twists and turns, gods and spirits, and a queer main character who’s just trying to get her shit together. What more can you ask for? 

Jessamyn Teoh is the daughter of immigrant parents, freshly graduated from Harvard with no job prospects and a struggling long distance relationship with her girlfriend. If that wasn’t tough enough, Jess is preparing to return to Malaysia with her very traditional parents, pushing her even farther into the closet. In a roundabout way, this story shapes up to be a coming of age/coming out story of a late bloomer. Our main character is a self described “shut-in with no friends,” and many of her struggles are internal. This is quite fitting when much of the story is about spirits who can literally enter your body to haunt and possess you, and you can have entire conversations without saying a single word aloud. 

Despite the serious nature of bodies controlled by restless spirits and vengeful gods, while grappling with sexuality and life’s purpose, this book had me cackling the entire time. Our plucky protagonist has a dry wit and plenty of snarky commentary, and then there’s her meddlesome aunties and tiresome uncles, who are equal parts amusing and stifling. And that leads us to one of Cho’s most intriguing characters, Ah Ma, Jess’ spirit grandmother. Ah Ma is larger than life, even in death, and never shy about telling you how she really feels.  

As Jess learns of her family secrets, while keeping a few of her own, she also finds her voice and a newfound confidence, as she’s forced to face her darkest fears. While most of us haven’t literally been visited or overtaken by a dead relative’s spirit, many of us do know what it’s like to be haunted by our own private fears or struggle with the concept of home and belonging. 

While at first glance this might appear to be a straightforward supernatural suspense, and an exciting and enjoyable read (and I want to lure you in with that prospect,) also know that Cho is coming at you with a lot of serious material: sexuality, religion, racism, cultural identity, and the struggles of immigrant communities both in the US and abroad. There’s a lot to unpack and consider if you’re up for it.

As for culture, I loved experiencing Malaysia through Jess’ eyes, as she too is a visitor there. I didn’t know much about Malaysia and religions in that region, so I found myself Googling details throughout the reading, from food to dialect. Meanwhile, Jess is navigating her feelings of not belonging to any particular place, but also seeing a side of her parents that she never saw when they lived in the US. And Cho’s use of language and sentence structure throughout the novel is one of the keys to its success, further immersing us in her world. 

It’s really hard to do this story justice because there’s so much going on, but it’s never in a way that feels overwhelming. It might be better described as a journey composed of many side quests that each unlock awareness in our main character. While this isn’t a romance (or even really about Jess’ sexuality), the novel still leaves us with an optimistic ending and a feeling of closure, which in these pandemic times is very much appreciated. Absolutely one of my favorite reads in 2021! 

Content warnings: violence, attempted sexual assault, implied assault/rape

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.