Alexa reviews Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss

Learning Curves is a 70-page novella with little conflict and a fluffy love story between two women at college. One of them is a Puerto Rican lesbian studying family law, and the other one is a white panromantic asexual woman with ADHD. You shouldn’t expect a huge epic plot: Learning Curves is more about everyday life, college, celebrating Christmas, a huge, loving Puerto Rican family, and two women falling in love.

I admit that I easily get bored if I’m reading a longer book with so little plot, but 70 pages was just the perfect amount to still hold my attention and let me enjoy all the little moments. I loved how overly supportive Elena’s mother was, and I loved the two women cooking and baking together, especially Puerto Rican dishes.

There were so many of these little things that I loved. Cora is bookish and loves reading about “magic, dragons and queer people”. Both women are very casual about mentioning their queer identity, and while she doesn’t elaborate, Cora also mentions how even the community itself can be hostile towards certain identities. There was also a throwaway mention of cocky-gate (controversy over one author literally trying to trademark the word “cocky” in romance novel titles), which made me laugh, although it might have been strange to people who didn’t know what it was referring to.

I did have a couple of issues, or rather some things that I found strange but weren’t necessarily bad. This novella felt like it was written from an outsider’s perspective, which isn’t automatically a problem, but I really would have appreciated more insight into the thoughts and feelings of Elena and Cora, or at least one of them. I also felt like the blurb was very misleading: while the two women go to college and meet at one of the classes they have in common, there is really not much focus on their careers, and basically no mention of either of them not having time for love like the blurb says. Moreover, I sometimes found the dialogue strange or clunky. And finally, this is a minor pet peeve, but there were a few acronyms that were never really explained and as a non-US person whose first language isn’t English, I still have genuinely no clue what they are. I could sort of guess from context, but I generally don’t want to be Googling acronyms while reading a book.

I was originally going to rate this 4 stars, but the ace rep and the way it was handled in the relationship pushed it up. I loved that Elena immediately accepted both that Cora is asexual and that she doesn’t want sex, and it wasn’t an issue for a single moment. It might not be the most “realistic”, but it was really nice to finally read a relationship between an asexual and an allosexual person where the allosexual person is the one who agrees not to have sex instead of the asexual person indulging their partner. Another thing I see a lot is that while the non-ace person agrees not to have sex, they still talk about how this is a huge sacrifice for them, which I find really guilt-trippy, but this absolutely wasn’t the case here.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this author’s works in the future.

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.

Marthese reviews Gretel and “Dragon Essence” by Niamh Murphy

”She had trusted two strangers in her house, offering them food and shelter. It was nonsense not to trust her.” – Gretel: A Fairytale Retold

With GDPR the copious amounts of author newsletters were at best purgatory. The ‘please subscribe to us’ emails were really great to weed out authors that I am not so interested in reading anymore. One author’s newsletter that I kept was Niamh Murphy’s. This author sends a lot of freebies and previews, is interested in fantasy and historical fiction (she’s actually a historian!) and sends advice and tips on where and what to read. I particularly liked her newsletter of Sapphic Fairytale Retellings! Anyone subscribed to her newsletter has received the short stories I will review below!

Despite knowing of this author, I hadn’t read any of her stories before last week, but now I’m intrigued. I started by reading “Dragon Essence: A Prequel to the Dark Age Trilogy.“This was, and and still is currently, free with a newsletter subscription! I have never read a prequel before the actual series, but this particular prequel was good at introducing the world and making the readers invested in seeing more from from it. The prequel is very short and can be read during a lunch break.

The plot surrounds Andra, a Captain of the Dragon Ward. Andra’s lover, Olwen is a mage set on getting a hold on a dragon egg – which Andra is bound to protect. Olwen gets killed, and the way to bring her back to life may see Andra breaking all sorts of oaths. This was a refreshing read, though very morally dubious. Why I could understand why the characters were acting in a certain way, I didn’t feel it was 100% okay. Be forewarned, there is violence on mythical creatures and violence of the human kind. The story contained also a preview of the first book Dragon Whisper. I love queer fantasy, especially with dragons and I’m interested to see how the wizards vs druids and the humans vs dragons elements will play out. I also do not know many queer fantasy books/historical fiction books with druids.

After I finished “Dragon Essence” I felt like reading the series…only it is not yet out. So I read Gretel: A Fairytale Retold, which as you probably guessed is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel: one of my favourite childhood stories! Gretel isn’t that long and is a bit fast paced, but then again, so was the original story. Hans and Gretel are introduced while running away from wolves and fortunately they are saved by a woman who offers them lodging until Hans heals. Gretel and Hans are away from home and have been looking for work. Maeve, the woman who saved them, lives in a cottage in a fort – all on her own. Gretel and Maeve grow closer in a really sweet way (and sexy way too as it involved a first-time sex scene in the woods!), but Hans is ever suspicious of the ‘witch’. Gretel has always had Hans and Hans had always had her back…until both those things are not true anymore. This story has a happy ending for the couple! It also has one of the best concluding lines from a character that I’ve ever seen.

While short, I think this story was great. It is a fast-paced story but there was no ‘love-at-first-sight’. It also featured a realistic fracturing of a family bond and growing romantic bond. I found Maeve to be an interesting character because she’s kind and feminine but still strong, physically and mentally. I absolutely hated Hans. Perhaps if it was longer, we could have seen a nice side of him. The writing was simple but effective and emphatic. This novella is currently free!

Overall, this is an author I would look into more. Niamh Murphy also has a youtube channel where she talks about books. I enjoyed discovering this author especially because of the fantasy and  retellings with a dash of history. I look forward to discovering new authors of those genres.

Rebecca reviews Sparks Fly by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

Sparks Fly by Llinos Cathryn Thomas is a cute space romance novella between two older women with a happy ending. While I did like the characters and the plot, I wish Jo’s character was more developed and the setting was better written and more established.

After twenty-five years of dedication and determination, Marianne Gordon has finally achieved her dream of becoming principal of the prestigious Vesper Station School for Zero-Gravity Artistic Display. However, her big moment is ruined when she is forced to co-principal with Josephine Knight, a famous zero-gravity performer who is recovering from a terrible accident and who doesn’t know anything about teaching. Both women must learn to work together and sparks soon begin to fly between them. They must also stand together when the future of Marianne’s beloved school is in jeopardy.

I like that the book shares perspective between Marianne and Jo. They both have very distinct voices and personalities. However, there’s always a drawback to featuring two viewpoints because one character always suffers. While I do like Jo, I really wish I knew more about her, especially her past.

The romance between Marianne and Jo is sweet and fairly well-developed given the book’s length. I really like that they learn to appreciate and understand each other before the romance takes off. I’m also very happy that both characters are older women who act their age and handle their conflicts maturely and organically.

I went into this book expecting to really love the space setting but I was disappointed by it. The setting is not as well established as it could be. I did not feel fully immersed in this futuristic space world at all. Furthermore, I also want a better explanation of the performing art that is such an integral part of the story. I struggled to figure out what exactly it was and what was happening and my confusion really took me out of the story.

Sparks Fly is a fluffy and good read. I like the characters and the romance is sweet. Although I wish Jo had been better developed and I wanted the setting to be much more fleshed out, I did like this novella. If you like happy endings and are looking for a super quick read, check out Sparks Fly!

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Megan G reviews Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn 

Lai has spent her entire life training to be a priestess for the gods, taking in her mother and grandmother’s steps. Yet, when her trials arrive, she finds herself rejected by the gods after a mysterious vision from her favourite goddess. Confused and lost, Lai makes the decision to leave the only home she has ever known, and venture out in search of her true fate.

Keeper of the Dawn is a novella with the plot of trilogy of novels. So much happens that if you get distracted for even a moment, you can lose your place in its chronology. Now, this allows for a quick read, but honestly, I would have preferred the story be longer. There is so much that goes unexplored that could have strengthened the story. Every aspect of the story is important, too, meaning that Gunn could not really afford to cut any of it. The problem was that, because it was a novella, a lot of what happened was condensed greatly, to the point where at times several years passed over the course of a paragraph.

The length also affected the characterization of essentially every character, but Lai, the protagonist, in particular. By the end of the story, I felt like I barely knew her outside of her devotion to her religion and her ancestry. Because of this, I found it difficult to become invested in her and in the relationships she formed, especially the romantic relationship she enters about half-way through the novel. I would have loved to learn more about Lai and about her motivations. As it is, her desires seem shallow, and I am unsure if she really felt a connection to her goddesses outside of the fact that her mother and grandmother were strongly devoted.

Something I did not realize when I began this novel is that it includes an asexual character! Which was quite a pleasant surprise, even if I’m not entirely sure if I’m comfortable with the way it was handled (before she admits her lack of desire for sex, she is questioned by her girlfriend about what “normal couples” do in bed. The use of the word “normal” to describe a sexual relationship felt a bit off for me). I would not advertise this as an asexual novel, however, as I feel that anybody reading it exclusively for asexual representation will feel let down.

Although not as developed as I would have liked, the relationship between Lai and her love interest, Tara, is quite sweet. It provides several nice scenes, and is a necessary reprieve from the action within the novella.

A few short warnings about this novel is that it isn’t explicitly racially diverse, so while technically you could assume all the characters are of different ethnicities, it is most likely that Gunn wrote them all to be white. There are non-explicit mentions of dangerous levels of homophobia, but these mentions are brief. There is also some fatphobic implications, in that there are only two characters throughout the entire novella who are described as fat, and both are villains. As well, there is quite a large amount of violence throughout.

Overall, Keeper of the Dawn was an enjoyable story. The only true complaints that I have can all be reduced to the length of the story, which was far too short for the amount of plot that Gunn included. I would still recommend it to any lovers of fantasy, though, especially those looking for fantasy with a queer female protagonist.


Danika reviews The Cybernetic Tea Shop by Meredith Katz

I’ve got to say, with a title like “The Cybernetic Tea Shop,” I expected this to be a fun, silly, quick read. Instead, it was thoughtful and quiet, seeming to take up more space than the pages it occupied. This is set in a world where sentient, sapient robots were once mass-produced, but given the ethical problems they raised, they’re now illegal to make. Hundreds of years later, some of those original robots are still around, with questionable legal personhood and a lot of animosity aimed at them by a public who wants to forget the whole thing ever happened.

But it’s not about the sci fi world, really. That’s just backstory for Sal, who has been running a tea shop for more than 200 years, continuing after her old “master”/partner died, while facing constant harassment and even violence. She meets tech Clara when she visits the shop, and despite Clara’s wanderlust and Sal’s complicated situation, they hit it off.

Although the word isn’t used, both Sal and Clara are asexual. Clara explains that she doesn’t have sexual attraction to people, even when she has a romantic relationship with them (and Sal isn’t programmed for that):

[Sal:] “I mean, I’m not designed to be sexual. That’s to say, I can act on others, but I don’t want—”
“That’s okay. Me neither.”
“Oh, but—”
“It’s not something I need from someone else,” Clara said firmly, willing Sal to understand. It wasn’t something that needed explanation, but something that too many people had wanted one for. Love, romance; those were things she’d felt before, even if she wasn’t often inclined toward them. But she didn’t need anything from or with that person, never felt attracted to them even with the addition of love. If her body wanted something, she could spend five minutes with her hand. Another person never needed to factor into that for her.

(I include that quotation because before reading this, I saw that people referred to it as having asexual representation, but that it didn’t use the word “asexual.” I wasn’t sure whether there was just no sex on the page, or whether there was more textual rep, so I wanted to put the paragraph out there for anyone else wondering.)

I really appreciated how character-based this is. In a small amount of time, I felt like I really got to know both the character and how they complemented each other. I’m interested to read more by this author! (Especially when I found out after reading this that we live in the same small city! What a fun coincidence!)


Susan reviews Fearless by Shira Glassman

Fearless by Shira Glassman is a short and sweet romance about a newly-out divorced woman, her crush on a music teacher at her daughter’s school, and falling back in love with music.

I quite liked this one! The story takes place over two days of rehearsals for a high-school music event, where Lana’s daughter is playing, and they get snowed into the hotel. Lana was very sweet, and the story’s depiction of her struggle to work out how to meet people as a middle-aged newly-out queer woman felt very realistic to me as a queer woman who has also struggled to find community. Plus, her kindness and obvious pride in her daughter’s accomplishments really touched me; Fearless is a story of such lovely affection, both familial and romantic, and I found it so warm and lovely.

The romance itself was slow-building in a realistic way – it’s very much about a crush and the flustering rush of feelings at the start of a new relationship! Mel is depicted as talented and kind, and it is very easy to see how Lana found her attractive! Especially because a lot of the story is spent on establishing common ground between them and talking about their shared love of music, which is something I always appreciate. But I especially liked the arc running through it of Lana coming back to music herself after twenty years; the fear and longing felt very believable, and Mel’s understanding of it despite her own confidence was really good to read.

Honestly my only complaint is that some of the descriptions of people felt a little clunky to me, but it wasn’t distractingly so, so your mileage may vary! If you want a peaceful story without much conflict, but with a well of kindness and warmth running through it, Fearless is worth checking out!

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.


Danika reviews Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman cover. It shows an illustration of two women kissing and a cat playing with yarn.

I feel a little bit silly reviewing Knit One, Girl Two, because what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Especially considering that this is a novella! So consider this less of a review, and more of a reminder that this sweet little novella exists (and that you can get it for about $2!)

This is a cute, mostly fluffy story that has a wide appeal: Jewish readers, queer ladies (including bi women), and artists will all find aspects that have special interest to them. It was also nice to read about a fat love interest. This definitely felt like a “slice of life” story. It’s realistic, and as if you’re just being dropped into a short period of these people’s lives, but the characters seem to live outside the words on the page, as well.

Both the main characters are cisgender, but there is a scene that shows the queer community that they are in, and it has lots of trans minor characters. They only get a handful of lines, but it was still nice to see that.

As always in Shira Glassman books, the Florida setting is significant. Danielle is a painter, and she is inspired by Florida landscapes. Clara dyes yarn, and she collaborates with Danielle to use the colors in her paintings to design the blends in her yarn.

This isn’t entirely a traditional romance novella: there is a romance, but it’s just as much about Clara and Danielle’s art, or their relationships with their siblings, or their shared love of fandom. If you’re looking for a quick, light, but satisfying read, pick this one up!


Julie Thompson reviews Mistletoe Mishap by Siri Caldwell

For science professors Kendra and Viv, winter vacation means catching up on paperwork and maybe squeezing in research, too. They’re a long-term couple with a wonderful rhythm, but romance gets buried beneath the layers of routine. Long hours dedicated to the geology and immunology departments at the university plus professional obligations equals short evenings at home. En route to the university one morning, a radio personality fields comments from callers offering advice to a woman interested in pausing her sex life in the months leading up to her wedding. Inspired, Kendra proposes a twelve days of Christmas-style contest as a way of turning around their stagnant sex life. Whoever can make the other orgasm the most by the end of the contest is the winner. Siri Caldwell weaves a satisfying mixture of sugar and spice, wonderful character chemistry, and relatable intimacy fluctuations. I appreciate that neither woman is portrayed as being the “ideal”, as far as sexual expression. It’s an oft written formula that one partner needs to be “fixed” or “brought up to speed” in order for Happy Ever After. Viv isn’t publicly demonstrative with affection, while Kendra, though not Ms. Octopus hands, is a bit more so. When they’re at home, well, it’s not for lack of passion that they’ve been in a dry spell.

Each chapter starts with the current score (i.e. Kendra 0, Viv 0). Chapter beginnings feel like opening Advent squares, the anticipation of what treat awaits adds to the festive atmosphere, though neither woman is particularly religious. Mathematical calculations, strategizing, and other shenanigans add humor as Kendra and Viv establish parameters, and scope out tryst locations. Sex is a large part of the story’s focus, but it’s not the only component of their partnership that the two women explore. For anyone who is or has been in a long-term relationship, physical and emotional aspects ebb and flow over time. The story stays outside of first person point-of-view territory, opting instead for third-person limited on Kendra’s side. As a result, the reader is privy to some of what Kendra is feeling, but much of the couple’s thoughts and feelings become clearer as they get to know each other again.

If you’re in the mood for a heartwarming, sexy holiday story, heat up some peppermint hot chocolate and curl up with Mistletoe Mishap.

Shira Glassman reviews Ripped Pages by M. Hollis

Ripped Pages is a cute addition to the thank goodness growing collection of YA where a fairy-tale princess’s happy ending is with another girl. I’ve said before that since for so many of us, fairy-tales are our first exposure to romance, whether it’s bedtime stories or Disney movies, and that means for those of us who are attracted to the same gender, these same fairy tales were the first place we learned we didn’t exist. That’s what’s so soothing about being included in fairy-tales, even when we’ve moved beyond the age where they comprise the bulk of our romantic daydreams.
The story is a Rapunzel retelling that changes several details to carve its own place in the world–instead of adhering to the original legend where a baby is stolen from loving parents, this time it’s the cruel father himself who locks his daughter away from the world (not because she’s a lesbian, but because she stood up to her father when he said awful things about her or her dead mother.) It’s got to be baffling and invalidating for children of abusive parents to see story after story where the only reason a parent was abusive was that they were the step-parent or kidnapper, when they know they’re enduring such hardship from a blood connection. Hopefully some of the folks out there like that will take comfort in Valentina’s escape.
That escape, actually, is the main focus of the story, as well as Valentina’s new life with the family of the pan-or-bi girl who rescues her. Ripped Pages‘s short length and fairy-tale narrative structure (it literally starts with “once upon a time, in a land far, far away”) mean that Agnes, the love interest, isn’t the most fleshed-out of characters, but if you go into this expecting a fairy-tale instead of a fully fleshed-out fantasy novel it’s a satisfying and complete little read.
The worldbuilding was one of my favorite things about this book. The location is never identified, but I know the author is Brazilian and the names and place-names at least to my outsider eyes seem Brazilian or at least Brazilian-adjacent. (The geography seems to be made up of multiple small countries.) On a more intimate scale, Agnes’s family life, which includes a brother with a husband, several younger siblings, and two affectionate parents, was a neat enough place to “visit” that I’d gladly go back there for a sequel.
Speaking of the treatment of queerness in Hollis’s worldbuilding, the books Valentina finds in her tower include references to women loving each other, attraction to multiple genders, nonbinary people, and asexuality, both of which appear so seamlessly and naturally that it really shows how easy it is to do that when you’re writing in a fantasy world where you literally control everything.
See here:
There were girls kissing other girls! They could kiss whoever they wanted! And some people in the book didn’t want to kiss anyone. There were even those who didn’t call themselves men or women, but something else, something entirely their own.
and then, when another character is speaking:
“I love men, women, and people who are neither or both at the same time. Why do you ask?”
See? This stuff is pretty easy, once you remember that since you control everything about your fantasy world, you don’t have to adhere to any specific period in Earth’s real history. (That being said, there are still valid reasons to include discrimination and/or erasure–for example, getting to watch characters like you vanquish your IRL foes. I’m not saying either way is right, just that Maria Hollis’s way needs to get way more airtime!)
It’s hard to do complicated in a story that’s only fifty or sixty pages, but I liked the nod to the complex emotions that go along with escaping a bad situation and then having to think about it again when towards the end of the story Valentina has to decide how to move forward with her healing. I liked the decision Hollis made about how to tie up that particular loose end.
And of course I was charmed by a reference to pitanga, also known as Suriname cherry–the casual appearance of tropical fruit in fantasy lit being a particular interest of mine.
Really, the only thing that would have improved it for me is if I had a better grip on Agnes, other than as “the spunky love interest”, but the story still works without that particular kind of depth.
There are several trigger warnings, but the author has provided all of them in the intro page: Ripped Pages contains scenes of emotional abuse, forced imprisonment, child abandonment, minor violence, and trauma recovery. Shira’s additional note: when Valentina’s mother dies in the beginning of the book, it felt realistic and familiar to me as someone who has lost a lot of family, so if that’s something that’s likely to set you off, tread lightly until Valentina is already in the tower.
Shira Glassman is the author of the fluffy queer Jewish fantasy series the Mangoverse and also light contemporary f/f romances like Knit One Girl Two. Her next release, coming this winter, is the superheroine/damsel in distress adventure Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor, which you can TBR on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36321936-cinnamon-blade-knife-in-shining-armor


Danika reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

I will admit, I was sold immediately when I heard “Bisexual werebear novella.” The book opens with Zelda (yes, Zelda) irritated that her transformation into a bear is continually destroying her wardrobe. She works for a fashion magazine, so she doesn’t take this lightly.

This is such a fun, light read. It’s quippy and snarky and smart, including a character calling Zelda out for deriding something as lame, and her replying by saying “You know I don’t–I’m sorry. Cultural indoctrination is a monster.” Later, when a guy on the bus makes a lewd comment, she thinks,  “Could be an uncouth backpacker, fresh from a holiday in the Pacific, and still drunk on the idea of white supremacy.” And yes, not only is this a bisexual werebear story, our werebear protagonist is also a plus-sized woman of color.

Because this barely (ha) breaks 100 pages, it keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, even if it is mostly romantic entanglements. Speaking of romance, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning in this review that the romance is mostly M/F. Zelda has several male love interests and one female love interest, but like Kushiel’s Dart, I would say that although the F/F pairing gets less “page time,” it has the most significance. If you don’t want to read about M/F romance or sex, though, you probably should skip this one. I will also note that there’s some use of fae glamor which is nonconsensual, so I would give a trigger warning for the implications of that. (It is called out in text, though.)

This was quick, fun read that definitely lived up to its premise. Between this and my previous read, River of Teeth (which is excellent and queer, but the lesbian character is a side character, and there is no F/F content), I’m really starting to fall in love with novellas!