Rachel reviews Small Angels by Lauren Owen

the cover of Small Angels

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Dark, Gothic, and atmospheric, Lauren Owen’s new novel Small Angels (August 2022) is perfect for fans of spooky queer fiction and it’s out just in time for autumn! This book is definitely one to add to your Halloween TBR. 

Small Angels begins in a small English village with a story that unfolds across decades—or centuries. In the present day, Chloe has looked forward to her wedding to Sam for months, and to her there is no more perfect place to hold the ceremony than at the local village church, Small Angels, in the place where Sam and his sister Kate, grew up. But Small Angels is no ordinary church, and the residents of the village know to stay away. Soon, the locals recount harrowing stories of violent hauntings and dark rituals associated with the church and the infamously reclusive Gonne family who tended it, and what’s worse, Chloe begins to see and hear things she can’t begin to explain. 

At the same time, Sam’s sister Kate has been reluctantly drawn home for her brother’s wedding. Narrating her memories, Small Angels and the nearby Gonne family estate hold many painful memories. Escaping her parents’ fighting as a teenager, Kate was drawn into the lives of the four Gonne sisters and their complex relationship with Small Angels. She learns that the woods behind Small Angels are home to a malicious and unsettled ghost whose violent death has led him to haunt the woods and the Gonne estate. For generations, the Gonne’s have appeased the ghost and prevented him from attacking the villagers beyond the woods, but a terrible event disrupts the tentative harmony of the Gonne’s and the ghost. 

Chloe’s wedding begins to awaken something in the woods beyond Small Angels, and if Kate and the one remaining Gonne sister can’t stop it, there’s no telling what might happen. 

Although the plot of this book seems complex, Owen unfolds Small Angels beautifully. There is a lyrical, unsettling quality to the novel that threads together a number of events and perspectives in a way that I found engaging and intriguing. Owen develops the world of the novel slowly, framing the events around an isolated English village as both out of time and place, and yet vividly real nonetheless. 

The ghostly mystery and paranormal action of this novel make it a perfect read for fall, and Small Angels strikes an excellent balance between literary fiction and horror writing. Each of the characters was effectively drawn, and multiple perspectives allowed for a thorough representation of the world in this novel and all of its intricacies. I felt as though the pacing of this book left me unable to put it down, and I finished Small Angels in a matter of days. I highly recommend this book for fans of Alix E. Harrow, V.E. Schwab, or Julia Armfield. 

Not to mention, this is a queer novel! I haven’t seen that aspect of this text as widely talked about (probably due to my own failing), and I didn’t know when I started reading that the novel would be partially centered around a lesbian love story, but it was a pleasant surprise and a very happy discovery. I highly recommend Small Angels as a spooky read for any time of the year, and I’ll definitely be reading Lauren Owen’s fiction from now on. 

Please add Small Angels to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Lauren Owen on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

the cover of Briefly, A Delicious Life

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Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews Not Good For Maidens by Tori Bovalino

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A retelling of one of the nineteenth century’s queerest poems, Tori Bovalino’s new novel Not Good for Maidens (June 21, 2022) is a fast-paced paranormal adventure-thriller that quickly became one of my favourite books of the year.

The novel adapts and retells Christina Rossetti’s famous Victorian poem, “Goblin Market” (1862). Not Good for Maidens follows Lou, the teenage daughter of a family of women who are intimately familiar with the twisted and dangerous corridors of the goblin market. Although her mother and her aunt have done their best to shield Lou from their haunted past, history inevitably repeats itself when Lou’s teenage aunt Neela is kidnapped and taken to the market. Although Lou has only read about the manipulative offerings of fruit and treasure, she knows how tempting the goblin market can be before it turns deadly. But Lou quickly realizes that she is the only one who can save Neela by learning the spells, songs, and tricks that will allow her to outsmart the goblins, enter the market, and retrieve Neela safely. Safely, that is, if Lou can manage to pull her out before the market disappears for the year and Neela is lost forever.

In short, this book was fabulous. If you’ve read and loved Rossetti’s original poem, then this retelling seems as though it’s been a long time coming. Bovalino balances the nuances of the poem with her own original narrative, crafting a literary world that is both fantastical and deeply rooted in the bonds between women. The text highlights and explores the power of female friendship and queerness, and I loved the way the novel seamlessly wove a history and a fantasy world around the goblin market.

Even if you have yet to read Rossetti’s work, this book will appeal. The world and the writing are immersive, with a lot of vivid detail. The characters are unique and develop alongside the supernatural world, and Bovalino’s rich descriptions really bring the goblin market to life. I loved that this novel highlighted the queerness of the original poem by centering queer lives in the narrative and by representing queer identities in nearly every character. This was such a refreshing take that thoroughly impressed me.

I can’t recommend Not Good for Maidens enough as the perfect read for fans of queer paranormal fiction. It promises to be one of the most talked about queer novels of the summer.

Please follow Tori Bovalino on Twitter and put Not Good for Maidens on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

The Lost Girls cover

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The Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anna marie’s 3 best sapphic books of 2021 so far, with honourable mentions

Here are some of the best sapphic books i’ve read so far this year, which i think everyone should read immediately considering how incredible, prescient, inspiring and sexy they are. 

  1. The gilda stories by jewelle gomez
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

this is my favourite vampire story i’ve ever read and i’m sad it took me so long to get to it because it’s a delight. Jewelle Gomez writes so tenderly about Gilda, the main character, who becomes a vampire after escaping slavery in the south in the 1850s. We then track through time, in and out of different people’s lives and into the future, but always following Gilda’s path. The way this novel animates history, demonstrating it’s ongoing effect on the present/future as well as community, especially black queer community, through the figure of the vampire is wonderful and inspiring. The changes that are made to traditional vampire lore/representation (which is so heterosexual usually) allow the novel to explore a whole wealth of meanings and experiences normally forgotten or seen as unimportant. The way the vampires in this novel drink blood is one of my favourite things about it because it’s so reciprocal and caring, basically a form of mutual aid between vampires & non vampires and not just a transactional or sometimes violent relationship. the afterword in my edition is by alexis pauline gumbs which was also so beautiful and definitely worthwhile reading too if you have access to it! – about black feminist legacies and the implications of writing a queer black woman vampyre both in the 1990s & in 2016 or so when a new edition was published.

Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes – all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of the struggles of those times sustained her, somehow.

  1. Lucy by jamaica kincaid  
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I think some might find the inclusion of this book on a sapphic book list a surprise but i wanted to include it because the eponymous character, in my opinion, has a sexuality that is queer (or at least not heterosexual), because it includes making out with her best friend, peggy. Much like the novel this short novel is based on (Villette by charlotte bronte), Lucy is a judgemental and, to some, unlikeable character but i love her! I found being ensconced in her life and hearing directly from her was so fascinating; sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes curious.

Kincaid’s novel is mostly a coming of age story about what happens to lucy when she moves from the west indies to north america to work as a nanny for Mariah and Lewis’ children. She develops a complicated and interesting relationship with Mariah along the way and thinks about her own mother back at home. All the relationships in this novel are extremely vivid and extremely fraught with differing emotions and differing levels of power which makes for a really variegated glimpse into lucy’s mind and life. I don’t think i’ll forget lucy as a character or her experiences for a really long time!!

  1. Plain bad heroines by emily m danforth
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I’m pretty sure this 600+ page novel was made for me to enjoy – as someone who identifies in a lot of ways as a plain bad heroine (sometimes known as a dyke), i felt like i had to read this this year and i’m so glad i did. It’s a campy horror film pastiche with sapphism at it’s centre. Part fin-de-siecle horror book, part love letter to horror films and literary gossip novels, it combines the best of all these into an ambitious and at points genuinely terrifying (at least for me) novel that includes two main storylines, one at a rhode island boarding school in 1902 and a contemporary one which follows three plain bad heroines as they attempt to make a horror film about what happened.

It’s at times uncomfortable, at times sexy, at times gruesome and sweet, and whilst i did have a preferred storyline (the 1902 one which starts off with the tragic deaths of flo and clara by yellowjackets as they run away from family obligation and heterosexuality), i thought they ultimately melded together so well. A delicious, lesboerotic romp with a fun and distinctive writing style which included footnotes!! My favourite!!! Absolutely would recommend this to anyone who can read. 

Honourable mentions go to children’s murder mystery novel jolly foul play by robin stevens, which is set in a 1930s boarding school, and the mercies by kiran millwood hargrave, an ambient and beautifully written historical fiction novel set in the late 1610s in norway.

Danika reviews The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould cover

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Logan has lived her life on the road with her two dads, Alejo and Brandon, as they scour the country for locations for the newest episode of their ghost-hunting TV show, ParaSpectors. She and Alejo are close and their relationship is easy, but she’s always felt distanced from Brandon, and sometimes it seems like they outright dislike each other. When Brandon goes to his and Alejo’s hometown of Snakebite, he claims it’s to scout the location for the show, but when he stays for months without explanation, Alejo and Logan follow him. There, Logan faces a small town hostile to her as an out lesbian as well as to her dads. A teenager went missing when Brandon arrived, and the town is sure he’s involved. Then more kids start turning up dead, and Logan’s not sure even she trusts her father…

This is a creepy, atmospheric YA horror/thriller about a force possessing someone in a small town and getting them to kill teenagers. For the first half of this book, I thought I knew exactly where it was going, and wow was I wrong. Most of the story slowly unfolds, only raising more questions as it goes, and then the last chunk of the book is full of revelations and twists.

While I just discussed Logan’s story in the summary, this actually has two point of view characters (plus some asides narrated by The Dark). Ashley has lived her whole life in Snakebite, and she loves it here. Her mother is the backbone of the town, and she’s determined to follow in her footsteps. She has a close-knit group of friends, and her and her boyfriend, Tristan, have an idyllic relationship–or they did, until he disappears. While everyone else seems to either accept that he’s died or they think he just skipped town, Ashley keeps up the search. When Logan arrives, the town turn against her, but Ashley and Logan find an unlikely partnership. They both want to find out what happened to Tristan–Logan, in order to prove her dad innocent, and Ashley, to find Tristan alive.

Soon, as more bodies appear–including Ashley’s friends’–they begin to suspect something supernatural is happening. Ashley gets visions of Tristan and even of past happenings in the town. Brandon and Alejo seem to be keeping secrets about their past here, and Ashley and Logan are left on their own to try to solve this mystery before more people die.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought it worked really well in that format. I liked getting immersed in the unsettling world of Snakebite, and I was happy to let the story unfurl slowly because of that. Ashley and Logan are also really interesting characters. Logan has been out for ages and is very sure of herself and immediately angry at this town for its hostility towards her queer family. She’s unafraid to start fights and has no interest in getting on anyone’s good side. Ashley, on the other hand, has always been the placating kind, trying to be the perfect daughter, girlfriend, and friend. Tristan’s disappearance forces her to assert herself, because she’s the one advocating for keeping up the search. She is confused by Logan and her growing feelings for her. It’s this exploration of compulsory heterosexuality (not named, of course) that I found fascinating.

If you’re looking for a creepy read or listen, I highly recommend this one.

Sash S reviews Spellbound by Jean Copeland and Jackie D.

“Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes…”

If you want a read that’s fast-paced, fun, and filled with well-rounded and likeable characters, look no further than Spellbound, a perfect blend of paranormal action and lesbian romance.

We start directly in the middle of the action, with protagonist Raven Dare—sexy, solemn and mysterious in equal measure—doing what she does best: hunting demons. Armed with gold knives and a wit that’s just as sharp, Raven kicks butt whilst quipping about American Idol, and it’s all in a day’s work for this demon hunter with a tortured past.

In a story about time-travel, supernatural monsters and women-fearing cults, it is the characters in Spellbound that are the true heart of the novel. There are a great many interesting dynamics at play between the central cast, and as a reader, you’re immediately drawn to them. The four main women are strong in their own ways, and their interactions are alternately warm, fierce and sizzling with tension. It’s great to see them clashing with the main villains of the novel, but just as fun to see them in their downtime, and there’s plenty of both due to the novel’s excellent pacing.

Sarah is great fun; immediately likeable and not one to take her strange circumstances sitting down, she takes agency and adapts to the world she’s living in, though finding it bizarre at times. Hazel, too, takes up her new mission with an admirable courage, spurred by the attraction she feels towards Raven. Morgan is aloof, sarcastic, but caring underneath. There are two main love stories in Spellbound, and though different in tone, both are equally compelling.

My favourite thing about this book is how down to earth it is, whilst dealing with the supernatural. Vivid descriptions of car rides, plane journeys and cities build up the real world, juxtaposed with fights against demons and monsters; the authors do a great job of nailing magical realism.

To that end, too, the villains of the story are rooted in very real prejudice despite their paranormal nature: whilst the protagonists clash with banshees and hellhounds, the writers don’t shy away from the fact that the real evils of this tale are prejudice, a fear of women and their strength, and a need to subjugate others for one’s own gain. The supernatural elements of Spellbound are a great vehicle for a story that’s ultimately about overcoming these things, celebrating the strength of women and doing what’s right.

This is such a fun read, with excellent pacing, engaging romance and a realistic, compelling cast of characters.

Rating: *****

Mary reviews A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

Ireland? Ghosts? A hot horse trainer?  What more could you ask for?!

Nora is spending her summer exploring the Irish town her grandparents hail from when she discovers her cottage is haunted by a tragic history. She falls in love with the country and the people, her cousins and new friends (and one friend that could turn into more), but her vacation soon takes a drastic turn. She’s started sleepwalking and having awful nightmares, and she won’t leave the cottage for anything or anyone.

Briana has lived in relative solitude–by choice. She works with horses, a job she’s passionate about, has a few friends, and a family she rarely visits. Ever since an accident years ago that she refuses to talk about, she hasn’t let herself grown close to anyone. All of that changes when Nora moves to town and ruffles her feathers.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t very engaged with this book for the first third. The plot took its time getting off the ground, but once it did, I was all in! The author makes sure to set the stage for what’s about to happen so that once it does, you can’t stop reading. As the paranormal happenings rise, tensions between Nora and Briana, as well as with her cousin, rise as well. The relationships you’ve spent so much time reading about developing are now at great risk, and so is Nora.

The characters felt real and interesting. Nora had a full personality with a character arc that I felt was complete by the end. The same can be said for Briana, who was a nice contrast point-of-view character to Nora as their perspectives on haunted cottage vary more and more drastically as the book goes on. Their romance was soft and a slow burn that also had its hot moments. It was nice to watch them grow closer over the course of the book.

Nora’s cousins and friends Sheila and Quinn were good side characters that felt real and added to the story. It was fun to see Nora explore her Irish roots and grow some new ones in her grandparent’s new town through Sheila and Quinn and other family members she meets along the way.

The paranormal aspect of the story was a lot better than I expected. I thought it would be more subdued, but as the ghost–or ghosts–drag Nora into their past, I was dragged along as well. It was also nicely wrapped into Irish history and I enjoyed how the setting played a character of its own.

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a paranormal mystery with some subdued romance, this is the book for you!

Babusha reviews the Kate Kane series by Alexis Hall

Cover of Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall, showing a close-up of a woman's face with Big Ben in the background. She is pale, wearing red lipstick, and has a hat casting a shadow over her eyes.

Look, the books I’m talking about here were released at a time when –

  1. I thought I was straight
  2. I thought Twilight was the epitome of vampire romance.

So after four years of going through some intense self-reflection and some brief boycotting of vampires altogether, I realised that I still loved vampires–I just like them as lesbians now.

Which is when I found these books.

The Kate Kane series is literally my go-to comfort read, next to the Whyborne and Griffin series. I mean, a wisecracking lesbian detective with a sense of dark gallows humor that made me emote and laugh my ass off, annoying whiny emo stalker ex-boyfriends who give me a sense of teenage romance lit catharsis, motherfucking hot vampire princes and interactions ranging from awkward to near “sex against a wall” with faery ex-girlfriends, werewolves and Tash the Teetotaler Lesbian: how could I not love this series?

I didn’t think I’d be reviewing this, because I really wanted more and was super bummed there wasn’t, but when Alexis Hall announced he’s going to be writing more of this series, I had to gush about this for a bit.

So this series is darkly funny supernatural detective stories following half-faery half-human, noir  detective stereotype but gay Kate “Katharine” Kane. The book starts with her being hired to investigate a werewolf death outside a club owned by the “Prince of Cups” Julian Saint Germain before &%$& starts getting real between the werewolves and the vampires.

Julian is hot, flirty, and super interested in Kate. The only thing is, Kate has issues with vampires because of said dickhead creeper ex-boyfriend from high school who’s still leaving her portraits on her pillow–because you know… a good guy does that, not his literal evil soulless alter ego.

(Gold star for everyone who gets this reference and for people following AH’s twitter thread of Giles lust!)

With scary dodgy powers she draws on from her scary morally dodgy mom, the Queen of the Wild Hunt, dealing with the guilt and regret of the death of her partner and sometimes epically bad shagging choices while dealing with vampire politics, werewolf supermodels and even Witch Queens to investigate her case, Kate is the epitome of Disaster Lesbian and really shouldn’t be dating hot sylph-like vampires but oh look wait now she’s eating meringue with her.

Professional pride is very overrated, I agree.

The book is so freaking funny and hot with a distinct kind of British “we might as well all die now” humor with Kate and Julian’s push and pull dynamic, funny as all hell running gags of Kate’s constant imagining of her gravestone with inscriptions describing increasingly embarrassing, hot and mundane ways she could die during her investigation and “fucking Patrick” getting punched a lot which made me laugh and yay in my heart of hearts. The next book just gets weirder and hotter, where she is not only trying to do her day job, but also has to deal with some faces from the past, hot sex, strange new roommates, other people’s girlfriends, literal trials and occasional tales of the Pudding Nun’s various adventures.

I have a weird sense of what’s comforting, but it’s any book that makes me laugh so much and yet it also helped me confront my vague sense of shame I felt being super into something that is decidedly problematic as a teenager. I had liked Twilight as a kid, and yes, I was a dumbass teenager, but just because it’s making a comeback on the internet, don’t mean I have to be ashamed and avoid it like it was the plague, just punch it and get on with my day.

It was just a phase after all, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be out looking for my own motherfucking vampire prince now!

Definite four and a half stars, the half for the catharsis.

Content warnings: blood, knifeplay in sex, possessive creepy behaviour from dickhead ex-boyfriends, near alcoholism, light gruesomeness