Academic Lovers to Enemies to Lovers: The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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Everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”. For Professor Samantha “Sam” Threadneedle, the main character of Melina McKay’s moody and dark academia romance The Headmistress, that adage becomes very true. Three Dragons Academy, a remote all-girls boarding school that has been her home since she was an orphan left on the school’s doorstep, is close to financial ruin. Disquieted by the prospect of losing everything she has ever known and loved, Sam makes a wish for change. She is stunned, however, when change comes in the form of the new headmistress, Magdalene Nox. Magdalene has a reputation for being a ruthless administrator who will not hesitate to fire everyone if it means getting results. While all of Sam’s colleagues rush to hate Magdalene, there’s more to this new headmistress for Sam. Magdalene has haunted Sam’s dreams ever since their passionate one night stand three months ago. Soon, Sam and Magdalene are butting heads about the future direction of the school all while resisting their urges to re-create that special night.        

As a main character, you can’t help but root for and sympathize with Sam. She is a textbook example of a people pleaser, constantly giving of herself to her students and colleagues at the expense of her own needs. For example, she’s still in the closet at the beginning of the novel because she has wanted to avoid adding stress to the previous headmistress. She’s headstrong and combative when it comes to protecting those she loves, which can cause her to heedlessly jump into fights. She’s a lesbian white knight, ready to fight any fight, even if it means coming out the worst for it. It’s a personality type that I’ve always been drawn to, and her character arc of learning to balance her needs with the needs of others is something I very much relate to. 

In Magdalene, you have a very swoon-worthy love interest with great emotional depth. While she’s initially set up to be an “Ice Queen”, Sam and the reader discover that there’s more to her than that. She is not cruel because she wants to be. Her bluntness does not come from a place of animus, but rather from her drive to get things done. Just like Sam, she’s incredibly driven to save the school, even if it means making the tough choices. She knows she is going to be portrayed as the villain no matter what and plays that role because she knows it’s the most efficient way to save the school. However, there is also this sweet side to her that begins to emerge as her and Sam’s relationship develops. By the end of the novel, Magdalene ends up being this really lovable multifaceted character who also happens to be drop dead sexy. The fact that all of this is conveyed solely through Sam’s point of view is a testament to Milena McKay’s writing.   

Not only are Sam and Magdalene great characters by themselves, but the dynamic between them was a delight to read. Flashbacks to their one night stand appear early in the novel, so you know that these two have great chemistry. However, they almost immediately start butting heads upon Magdalene’s arrival at the school. Sam and Magdalene are both very driven and stubborn people, which makes for very entertaining arguments where sparks can really fly. Seriously, if I had a nickel for the amount of times I whispered “okay, now kiss!” during their arguments, I could afford to buy this book multiple times over. When they aren’t butting heads, the banter between them is infused with this playful flirtiness that I just ate up.    

In terms of story, I loved how tightly interwoven it was, with external conflicts seamlessly feeding into the internal conflicts between Sam and Magdalene. While forbidden romances between bosses and their subordinates are always fun, the fact that the external conflicts of the story kept forcing our couple together added that little bit extra. You have two stubborn characters who are insanely attracted to one another yet keep finding themselves on opposing sides of the same argument. It is in these disagreements where a lot of their relationship begins to develop and where the central tension between them lies. Furthermore, there are other external subplots that continue to crop up throughout the story and influence the narrative. There’s an anti-woke board member who’s hellbent on returning the school to its “traditional values”. There’s a group of queer students who could be forced to leave the school. There’s the bitter former headmistress causing trouble for both Sam and Magdalene. There’s even a mystery surrounding a series of “accidents” that seemed to be aimed at either injuring or killing Sam. While that does sound like a lot, none of them feel neither superfluous nor distracting. Instead, they are really well-balanced and serve to create a captivating story of two people falling in love despite all the challenges around them.   

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Three Dragons Academy with Sam and Magdalene. If you’re looking for a steamy romance with great characters, moody atmosphere, and enthralling story, I highly recommend giving The Headmistress your undivided attention.

When Your Hyperfixation is Sapphic Books: A Shortlist of Sapphic Autistic Narratives

I recently read a report from the University of Cambridge about how autistic people are more likely to be queer than allistic people, with specifically autistic female-identifying people being three times as likely to identify as some form of queer. If you are interested in reading more about this, you can read the abstract. This got me thinking about how there has been a recent uptick in autistic narratives, especially in young adult and middle grade books. Once I got thinking about that, I went down a little rabbit hole of autistic queer literature, and found some fantastic titles that I’d love to share with y’all! Without any further ado, here are five of my favorite autistic sapphic titles.

the cover of The Ojja-Wojja

The Ojja-Wojja by Magdalene Visaggio and Jenn St-Onge

Val and Lanie are two middle-graders trying to retain their individuality in small-town Bollingbrooke, despite the metaphorical targets on their backs due to being queer (Lanie) or autistic (Val). When the two complete an ancient ritual and summon the Ojja-Wojja, Val, Lanie and their group of friends have to defend the town against the demonic presence before it destroys their town.

The Ojja-Wojja is great for people who heard “Alien Party” by Sid Dorey and went “wow…they’re right! Being queer or autistic is like being an alien!” 

the cover of Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl by Sara Waxelbaum and Briana R. Shrum

Margo is an overachiever, autistic, and newly out as gay, while Abbi is known for being visibly queer and failing US History. The two team up to cover their blind spots; Margo receives Queer 101 lessons in exchange for Abbi receiving history lessons.

Margo Zimmerman Gets the Girl is a fun, tongue-in-cheek read that I couldn’t put down. If you want a book about a Jewish, autistic protagonist and plenty of queer rep, you’ll want to pick up this one.

the cover of Cleat Cute

Cleat Cute by Meryl Wilsner 

When Phoebe joined the US Women’s National Team, she had no idea that she was taking Grace’s spot after the veteran got injured. The two clash due to their personalities, until a daring kiss brings them together. The two work together both on and off the field as the World Cup approaches. Grace wrestles with a potential autism diagnosis and Phoebe is diagnosed with ADHD, making this the AuDHD romance of your dreams.

I would recommend Cleat Cute for people who are fans of Ted Lasso and A League of Their Own.  

the cover of The Luis Ortega Survival Club

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes

In this YA revenge story, a queer and autistic girl is struggling to put into words what happened and decide if she has the right to be mad with the cute, popular person she had sex with at a party—where she didn’t say no but she definitely didn’t say yes. But when she finds other students determined to expose this predator, she decides to take him down.

This is the autistic revenge story that fans of Do Revenge will want in their TBR stacks.

the cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon

This dystopian sci-fi novel features Aster, an autistic person who works on the HMS Matilda as a descendant of the original passengers journeying to a Promised Land. However, the ship’s leaders have imposed a brutal enslavement on the passengers of color, including Aster, and she learns there may be a way to end it if she is willing to start a civil war.

Aster’s autism is integral to the story and not for trauma-related reasons—her perspective on the HMS  (and the reader by extension) is thoroughly informed by her being autistic.

As always, you can get any of these books through your local library, indie bookstore, or through the Bookshop links above! Happy reading!

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

An Enemies-to-Lovers Space Opera for the Ages: No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black

the cover of No Shelter But The Stars

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No Shelter But The Stars by Virginia Black was published on January 23, 2024 and follows Kyran Loyal, the last in her line of family royals for a planet that has been lost to her people for years, and Davia Sifane, a woman from an empire Kyran was raised to rebel against. When a battle takes place and everyone around them perishes, they are left to fend for themselves on a desolate moon. With no one to rely on but each other, they have to decide if they can put aside their feelings about their pasts and work together to survive for an indefinite period of time in an unforgiving environment. 

Virginia wrote a gorgeous novel that captures the things that make us all human. At its core, it is a story that explores all the things that connect us, no matter our backgrounds. Through Kyran and Davia she presents raw emotions–pain, grief, frustration, anger, fear, and gay panic over a pretty woman, despite the fact she’s your mortal enemy. At their base, these are the things that transcend all others. She has created an environment where these two characters have no other choice but to feel all of those things. There are no distractions. Her exploration of what happens when there is nothing else left but two human beings, and what that looks like when everything else is stripped away, is truly breathtaking. 

There are too many things I loved about this book to put in this review, but one of my favorites is her use of language and language being more than a means of communication. These two women literally speak different languages, and yet they have to find some way to communicate. And they do. What I loved about Virginia’s decision here is that it is clear Kyran is guarded and protective of her language. In many ways, it is all she has left of her people and of her loved ones. So even as she starts to open up, she still refuses to share that part of herself with Davia. Davia, on the other hand, is not as protective of her language (which made sense to me in the context of how she grew up), and Kyran actively tries to learn it. I loved this aspect of Kyran and Davia’s relationship development because it created such an intimate way to bond. And I happen to think there is something inherently romantic and beautiful about learning another language for someone. I love how language and teaching one another is a thread throughout the story, with one of my favorite moments coming in towards the end.  

Kyran and Davia come from very different backgrounds. Kyran has never really had stability, and has been searching for a home for most of her life. That instability is owed to Davia’s home–one of privilege and wealth. It is hard to imagine that these two would have anything in common, but again, Virginia is so good at finding that commonality between two very different characters, and showing you that these two share much more than a desolate moon on the outskirts of a galaxy. Despite coming from vastly different worlds these are two women that were tasked with carrying on a legacy and duties neither really wanted. Because of that, there is a complicated and beautiful exploration of competing emotions about becoming stranded. Of course there is sadness and anger about their losses, but additionally there is relief and a sense of freedom that comes from being somewhere where nothing is expected of them. Those loss of expectations, and feeling relief about that, also comes with guilt. Virginia presents these dueling emotions so well, and were among my favorite parts. 

This story was both gorgeous and haunting. I rarely get literal goosebumps from books, but I did several times while reading Kyran and Davia’s story. Their evolution from enemies, to tentative allies, to maybe friends, to eventual lovers was so immaculately crafted that I was often left breathless. These two are enemies by birth, and not by choice. Each grew up with an idea of the other, and yet I found their evolution to be believable. The characters are so rich, you can tell there was an immense amount of planning and thought that went into every detail of their arc, both individually and together. And it is why it works so well. 

The thing is, when you read such a well crafted story, it also has the power to leave you feeling so many emotions. Virginia had me crying with just two words. Two words that said and held so much, and that is a testament to everything she had written prior to that point. The ending to this story felt so perfect to me. I read it and felt in awe with how someone could write a conclusion that seemed so fitting and perfect, but that I still never saw coming. That, to me, is the sign of an incredible author. Virginia Black’s words moved me in a way that makes me so thankful there are sapphic authors out there writing incredible stories like No Shelter But The Stars. I am in awe of how Virginia created a story that had such moments of softness–in direct contrast to the harsh reality these two women were living. She is an amazing storyteller and I can’t wait to see what she does next. 

While I could go on, I’ll just say I cannot recommend this book enough. You will not regret it.

An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

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Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Supremely Steamy Slow Burn: Losing Control by J. J. Arias

the cover of Losing Control

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For my first romance of 2024, I decided to read Losing Control by J. J. Arias. I had heard so many great things about this author (shout out to the Strictly Sapphic podcast) and knew that I really wanted to check her work out sometime. So when my friends gifted me a copy for Christmas, I knew what I had to do. I am so happy with my choice. This book is a nearly perfect steamy slow build romance with tons of emotional depth.

Losing Control is the first in her new series of books set at the Miami-based Dominion Talent Agency. Andrea Ortiz is one of the top talent agents at the agency. The definition of straight-laced, she has gotten where she is by always following the rules, whether they be from her parents, teachers, or her boss. It’s led her to a fairly simple and straightforward life, but that’s the way she likes it. This life is upended, however, when she’s tasked with managing Roxy, better known as the wild and sexy pop star Roxxxy. Roxy’s latest antics have resulted in her tour manager quitting right before her nationwide tour is about to begin. Unable to find a replacement on such short notice, Andrea has no choice but to go on tour with Roxy in the hopes of keeping her out of further trouble. As Andrea and Roxy spend night after night together on Roxy’s tour bus, a connection forms between them that threatens to make Andrea break all her rules. For Roxy, this connection may finally be the thing that allows her to let someone in and see the real person behind the stage persona.

One of the key elements that can make or break a romance, especially a slow burn romance, is the tension between the characters. As a reader, it’s not enough to be told that characters are into each other; you need to feel it. J. J. Arias does a masterful job of making you feel the sexual and emotional tension between Andrea and Roxy as it gradually builds throughout the book. From their first meeting, you can sense the energy between them in the prose. Every sentence and paragraph is expertly used to build a palpable sense of inevitability between Andrea and Roxy, even if the characters themselves think it impossible. You know these two want each other; you feel it as it continues to escalate and drive them to do things they never thought they would. What makes this tension even better is how Arias mixes the sexual and emotional sides of this tension. Andrea and Roxy don’t just want to have sex with each other. There’s more to it than that, even if they don’t know it quite yet. All of this works together to make the slow burn a roaring fire that slowly builds into a blazing inferno.

Of course, tension is only good if there is a payoff. Arias knows this and delivers a highly satisfying payoff. (Slight spoilers for the last quarter of the book, highlight to read) She forgoes the trope of a third act breakup and instead gives us what could be described as an extended epilogue filled with incredibly steamy sex scenes and fantastic emotional character moments. At this point, the tour is over, and Andrea and Roxy are back in the real world. They’ve decided to be together, but that means figuring out what that means for both of them, their careers, and their personal lives. I personally loved this because it allows us to see how Andrea and Roxy continue to develop as a romantic partnership. Additionally, the sex scenes are so good because not only do they give us tasty 5-alarm spice, but also show how much these characters care for each other, how far they’ve come, and how deep their love is now. (End of spoilers)

Losing Control is a wonderfully steamy book filled with fantastic characters that you want to be together. The tension between characters is palpable and the payoff is very satisfying. If you’re a fan of spicy sapphic slow burns, I highly recommend this book. Personally, I can’t wait to see what J. J. Arias has cooked up in the rest of the series.

Sweet Sapphic Chaos: The Fiancée Farce by Alexandria Bellefleur

the cover of the Fiancee Farce

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“She was a total fucking goner. Whatever magic Tansy was made of, Gemma wanted to drown in it, revel in the honeyed heat burning her up from the inside out. It was better than the finest bourbon she’d ever had the pleasure of sipping.”

After losing her parents and a traumatic romantic experience as a teen, Tansy Adams focuses all her time and energy on her late father’s bookstore. To dodge questions about her love life, Tansy invents Gemma, a fake girlfriend inspired by the stunning cover model on a best-selling romance book. She never expected that real-life Gemma would step into her life, play along, and announce they were engaged, imploding that white lie into a full-on farce. Gemma van Dalen, the outcast of her wealthy family, needs a spouse to inherit Van Dalen Publishing, her grandmother’s legacy. In exchange for Tansy’s hand in marriage, Gemma offers to save Tansy’s beloved bookstore before it’s sold off. Can their marriage of convenience work, or will Gemma’s scheming family get between them?

“As for feeling like you’ve failed, well, failure is an inescapable part of life. But failing doesn’t make you a failure. And I’m sorry your father made you feel like the two were synonymous. You are more than your achievements, Gemma. You are brilliant, and ambitious, and you are good, do you hear me? And what you do or do not achieve in this life has no bearing on your value.”

Oh. My. Goddess. That’s right: goddess, because that’s exactly what these two cunning, sassy women are. Alexandria Bellefleur has taken the generally predictable “marriage of convenience” trope and turned it into an emotional, powerful story about finding the love you don’t realize you deserve. Both Tansy and Gemma are full of so much pain, their family trees full of broken branches (and in Gemma’s case, poisonous barbs). For them to find love and family in one another so unexpectedly (for them, at least, because, come on, that’s what we’re here for), so flawlessly…it’s not only swoon-worthy and sweet, but a relief. It’s the insane, instant, undeniable chemistry between Tansy and Gemma that empowers their every interaction from the start, but unlike other marriage-of-convenience stories, smut doesn’t drive their relationship. What starts off as a business relationship blossoms from a friendship to a true partnership. Gemma is sweet and giving as she navigates her first real relationship, while Tansy comes out of her shell to defend Gemma when no one else has. These goddesses support one another, even when the relationship is only a farce, until it all becomes real. The character development between them both is a flawless example of how empowering love—and having someone by your side—can really be.

As much as I loved every interaction between Gemma and Tansy, it’s difficult to love everything that happens outside of their sweet sapphic bubble. The toxic men—namely Tucker, Gemma’s cousin, who manipulated teenage Tansy and shared underage nudes of her—seem unrealistically cruel. Tansy’s step-mother goes from a social ladder-climbing step-Bridzilla to suddenly sympathetic. None of the secondary characters have real layers, making them no more than pawns to the story’s plot progression. Because of that, none of the conflicts or twists are surprising. The boardroom scene/resolution seemed beyond unrealistic, regardless of how sweet the gesture was. You may need to expand your suspension of disbelief and focus on the sapphic sweetness for this one.

Recommended for fans of Stars Collide, Cleat Cute, and Love at First Set. This heartwarming sapphic romance is full of feels: a stunning addition to any shelf.

✨The Vibes ✨

❤️ Fake Dating
❤️ Marriage of Convenience
❤️ Bi MCs (Bi4Bi)
❤️ Sapphic Romance
❤️ Mental Health Rep
❤️ Opposites Attract
🌶️ Spice

A Steamy Lesbian Historical Romance in France: An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

the cover of An Island Princess Starts a Scandal

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“A person could live a lifetime in six weeks, Your Grace. Entire lives have been changed in less.”

Picture this: it’s summer, your sunscreen is applied, and you’ve taken the day off to spend solo on the beach. You’ve already taken a dip in the ocean. You lay out your towel and get all your fun drinks and snacks ready, and you pull out An Island Princess Starts a Scandal: a steamy F/F romance set in 1889 Paris. Bliss. That’s how I read this title, and it was the perfect setting for this romp of a romance read.

I’m not usually a big romance reader, especially historical romance, but this changed my mind about what a historical romance novel could be. It has such a fun premise. Manuela is a lesbian engaged to a wealthy man, but she has a summer of freedom in Paris with her two best friends before she gets married. She plans to spend this time exploring the sapphic side of Paris in one last debaucherous adventure.

There, she meets Cora, a wealthy businesswoman giving off Anne Lister vibes. Basically the only thing of value to Manuela’s name as a single woman is a small parcel of land she inherited, and Cora needs it to complete a lucrative railway project. Manuela agrees to sell it on one condition: Cora needs to be her guide to the lesbian nightlife of Paris. Oh, and did I mention they already met once before at a queer sex club?

This made for a perfect beach read. I always love seeing the gay side of Paris in the late 1800s/early 1900s, especially the art and literary side. Manuela is a painter, so we see a bit of that: Manuela sees examples of women who have managed to make a living doing their art, something she thought was impossible.

That setting combined with the premise had me hooked from the beginning, and the dynamic between Manuela and Cora kept me reading. Manuela is reckless, indulgent, and clever, while Cora is more tightly wound and ambitious. They clash, but they’re also instantly obsessed with each other. Both are leveraging their power over each other before the land deal goes through for good, and they’re both pretending they’re fine with this being a purely physical, limited time fling.

I can’t leave off that this is perhaps the steamiest romance novel I’ve ever read. There are a lot of sex scenes, everything is described, and everything is described in detail.

I did sometimes get hung up on the writing style, because there are a ton of sentence fragments. They’re a stylistic choice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write that way, but they’re frequent. I did sometimes snag on that and get distracted from the story.

This is part of a trilogy of romance novels, each following one of three friends as their love stories play out simultaneously during this summer. I liked seeing glimpses into those stories, and though the other two are straight romances, I still might pick them up, since I had so much fun with this one. This is the second book in the series, technically, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by starting here.

If you’re looking for an immersive and sexy romance to escape with for a while, I highly recommend this one.

A Return to Dragons: Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay

the cover of Magdalene Nox

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Magdalene Nox by Milena McKay, was published on November 21, 2023, and takes the reader into the world of Three Dragons Academy for Girls. It is a story thirty years in the making, and gives us a peek into the mind of the new Headmistress of the all-girls academy, Magdalene Nox. For those of you who haven’t read the first book in this series, The Headmistress, I recommend starting there, though this can absolutely be read as a standalone.

In the prologue, readers meet Magdalene Nox on the very day she was kicked out of Three Dragons Academy as a student, thirty years ago. It is clear that being removed from the school is an incredibly painful experience for her, though Magdalene tries to hide that fact with stoicism. Even as a teenager, Magdalene is a force. And as often happens with women who do not bend to the systems and structures put into place by powerful men, the establishment does what they can to snuff out her spark. Unfortunately for them, Magdalene is not easily deterred. 

The next thirty years lead to Magdalene’s vengeful return to Dragons, to burn it just like it burned her.  She has gone from school to school and built her reputation for being ruthless and smart. She is courted and pursued. Everything she has been working towards comes to fruition when she’s presented with the offer of new Headmistress of Three Dragons. What she finds there both surprises her and takes her on a journey she never expected. 

When Milena announced she was releasing Magdalene Nox, the Headmistress from Magdalene’s point of view, I was both elated and nervous. Could this story told from another point of view be as incredible as the first? Is it even possible to recreate a story that is just as gorgeous as its predecessor? Well friends, in case you were wondering, the answer is not only is it possible, but it turns out it can be done even better. This story manages to feel fresh while staying true to the original novel. There are scenes that parallel chapters of the Headmistress, but are told from Magdalene’s perspective and offer insight into the woman we have previously only experienced through Sam’s eyes. It provides a depth to someone that holds her cards very close to her chest. 

Milena’s style of writing always takes my breath away. I think she is one of the best when it comes to crafting imagery and creating metaphors that are so apt you can’t help but think about them for days and weeks after. She paints a picture with her words that is so vivid you feel like you have been transported there and can visualize it perfectly. Aside from her technical strengths, there is a poetic nature to her prose and you can’t help but get lost in it. The pull Magdalene feels toward Sam is written so well, you feel it right to your core. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the intimate scenes in this novel are perfection, and Milena writes them with a care that ranks amongst the best of authors out there. The way she writes tension and love, yearning and longing—often within a single page—is something to behold. 

This book expands on characters we have met previously, and introduces one of my favorites: Candace, Magdalene’s mother. Mother-daughter relationships can often be complicated, and this is a prime example of that. Candace is brash, fierce, and loves her daughter. How Candace shows that love is arguably flawed, though I’m not sure even she would say any different. Their interactions shed light on the woman that “raised” Magdalene, allowing us further insight into everything that makes Magdalene, Magdalene. Though flawed as a mother, I loved Candace as a character. 

We also get to see more of Magdalene’s interactions with her ex-husband, Timothy. Milena managed to put boyish charm, regret, and longing into everything he does. Those scenes were laced with pain, but I imagine that was the point.

I think one of the great privileges to come with this book was a front row seat to Magdalene Nox falling in love, and re-falling in love. Getting to experience that, to witness her internal feelings evolve and progress feels like being let in on a secret that is to be guarded closely. We don’t often get to see things from the perspective of a character like her, and all it showed was how well Milena knows her characters. There was nothing that felt inconsistent with what we know of her from the Headmistress, but rather builds and adds in such a way that makes total sense. To experience that love, the pain and betrayal, and the conviction of her, was a joy. (It also meant we got to see more of a ginger cat, and those scenes were a delight.)

Milena herself has said that this book was a want, not a need. This story didn’t need to be told—The Headmistress could have stood alone. But, the thing about this novel being about “want” is that it shows. There is a passion and a care that is obvious throughout. I think it’s clear when an author loves a character and a story as much as their readers, and this is one of those books. Milena not only did Magdalene’s story justice, she elevated it in a way that only an author who has worked on their craft and reflected on their previous work can. This was a book born of love. A love for her characters and a love for those readers who also cherish them. I cannot recommend this beautifully written book enough.

A Painfully Realistic Teen Romance: Cupid’s Revenge by Wibke Brueggemann

the cover of Cupid's Revenge

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I will admit that the cover really influenced me in picking this one up. I think it’s stunning. But I’m glad I did!

Tilly is only non-artist in a house of passionate artists, and she’s always felt left out. Her parents don’t really understand her, and they also have never seemed very enthusiastic about being parents. (I had to put the book down for a moment because I was so overcome with anger at them.) What’s worse, though, is that they’ve let her know that her Grandad with Alzheimer’s is coming to stay with them. In theory, it’s so they can take care of him, but Tilly knows they’re completely unreliable and that it’s going to become her responsibility to look after him.

She’s also terrified that he’s going to die in their house. She already experienced loss in her life and struggles with the grief. Tilly used to be part of a trio of friends, along with Grace and Teddy. They grew up together and were inseparable. Then Grace was hit by car and died when she was thirteen, and Teddy confessed to Tilly that he was in love with Grace and never told her. Grace’s death looms large in both their lives, and Tilly sometimes imagines her in the room with her, commenting on her decisions.

That’s already complicated enough, but then Teddy asks her for a favour. He has a crush on a girl named Katherine, but is hopeless about acting on it. He wants Tilly to help him. Katherine is an actor, and Teddy auditions for the same play as an excuse to spend time with her. Tilly is roped into being assistant to the director. Unfortunately, she also instantly and overwhelmingly falls for Katherine herself.

This is the most painfully realistic book I’ve read about being a teenager. At some points Tilly “wonder[s] if I’d have to spend the rest of my life feeling both aroused and miserable,” and that really is what she’s like through the whole book: confused, horny, and sad. I don’t know about your teenage experience, but that felt uncomfortably true to being flooded with adolescent hormones. It’s both the biggest positive and negative of the book.

Also realistic is that this is an instalove story. Tilly is immediately attracted to Katherine at first sight, which I think is pretty typical of teen relationships in real life versus fiction. Both Tilly and Katherine are flawed, which I thought made it more compelling and convincing, but I know not all readers enjoy.

I do want to give some warnings for this, not so much in terms of content but tone. I found this a stressful read, both because of Tilly having to shoulder far more of her grandfather’s care than she should have had to, and because of her stress and guilt about lying to Teddy. I also want to give a content warning for outing. There’s some religious talk, though that’s not a big focus. The pandemic is mentioned, but it’s also not a focus, and it’s talked about past tense. And one more thing, if it wasn’t obvious: there is a lot of sex talk. Including researching sex techniques through reading fanfiction.

On another note, there’s a side character who’s a Polish immigrant, and I found it strange how much he was distilled down to just “the Polish immigrant.” Like this line, where Tilly watches him have a completely normal interaction and thinks, “I wished so much that I was an immigrant who knew no one and hadn’t done anything wrong in this place that was now home.”

If you want to be transported to the awkward, stressful, and often miserable time of being a teenager, this book does it perfectly. I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read it as a teen, I’m sure.

A Holiday Romance with Depth: Season of Love by Helena Greer

the cover of Season of Love

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Every year, I intend to read a bunch of queer holiday romances in December, but I don’t usually follow through with it. The holiday romances that I have read were often flops, which doesn’t help. This year, I gathered together my collection of sapphic holiday romance novels and sampled each one. I ended up picking Season of Love because I clicked with the first few pages the most, and I’m so glad I did.

When I think of holiday romances, I think fluff. So I was a little trepidatious about diving into this one, because it is not the lightest of romance reads: it’s fundamentally a story about grief, trauma, and the damage that comes with it. Even the romance starts with a lot of tension: despite being immediately attracted to each other, Miriam and Noelle immediately bump heads, to the point where Miriam thinks Noelle hates her—which isn’t entirely inaccurate, at first.

Even when they are able to get past that initial tension, Miriam and Noelle do run into (believable) road blocks in their relationship. Their trauma has resulted in them having clashing instincts, like Miriam wanting to run at the first sign of danger, and Noelle fearing abandonment. They have to work to overcome that—but they are also compatible and have a lot of chemistry, so it felt worth it.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this tension and darkness just added depth to this holiday love story, though. Maybe that’s why I was having such bad luck picking up Christmas romances: I actually don’t need it to be all fluff to enjoy it.

Season of Love also has an interesting contrast in its setting: the Christmas tree farm that Miriam, Noelle, and Miriam’s cousins inherit is a Christmas wonderland of over-the-top decorations, just outside the town of Advent. It’s dripping in Christmas charm. But it’s run by a Jewish family (Miriam is Jewish), which adds more depth to the setting and doesn’t let it become too cloyingly Christmas.

Another aspect I loved about this story is right there on the front cover: Noelle is a fat butch woman who Miriam is incredibly attracted to. Despite reading a lot of lesbian and sapphic books, I still don’t see fat butch women celebrated as love interests very often.

That leads me to my only, very minor, complaint: this is a closed door romance, which normally I don’t mind, but we spent so long hearing about the sexual tension between them that I was a little disappointed to have it resolve in a fade to black scene, especially because fat butches have so little representation in romance and erotica.

I’m really glad I read this over the holidays, and as long as you’re up for a holiday romance that isn’t pure fluff, I highly recommend it.