A Rapidfire History of Queer Women’s Spaces: A Place of Our Own by June Thomas

A Place of Our Own cover

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This year, I’m doing the 2024 Read Harder Challenge—well, I should hope I am, because I’m the one running the challenge and writing the newsletter this time! (You can subscribe if you want recommendations plus weekly updates on my reading, though some of it is for paid subscribers.) One of the tasks is to ask a librarian for a recommendation, so I asked a librarian friend of mine, and they recommended this one. A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture is just what it sounds like: an exploration of queer women’s spaces, including lesbian bars, feminist bookstores, softball fields, lesbian separatist communities, sex toy stores, and queer women events.

I really liked the idea of this book, and it’s written in an accessible, easy-to-read style, so don’t be worried if you don’t read a ton of nonfiction or history books. There are plenty of interesting facts packed in. For example, I was surprised to see acclaimed children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson pop as someone who fought against racism in lesbian event spaces. The feminist bookstores chapter especially made me nostalgic for a time I didn’t really live through: you really see how much the bookstore owners cared and how they truly created community centres, unlike so many stores that claim that today without doing a fraction of the work these bookstore owners were doing.

At the same time, I think this book had a lot more potential. It felt a bit scattered, jumping around in time within chapters. It also sometimes went on tangents—like talking about Harvey Milk starting a camera store—that don’t really fit into the theme and would have been better left to a footnote. Also, a few times the book skims over what seem like the most interesting stories, like offhandedly mentioning a lesbian bar being firebombed in one sentence but going into depth about the history of another bar instead.

The author is clearly passionate about this subject; they include a lot of personal interviews with the subjects. It sometimes feels like a friend getting so excited to tell you about their interest that they go in a bunch of different directions at once, for better or for worse. There are some really interesting aspects, like reflecting on how lesbian bars are expected to be all things for all queer women: inclusive, but an escape from men and the straight world. A place for dancing and cruising, but also a place where people can chat and find community without having to yell over the music. A high-end cocktail bar and a cheap place for beer. That’s something I also appreciated in Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America by Krista Burton.

I’m glad I read this, but it’s not one I can whole-heartedly recommend because of that scattered feeling. It can also at times feel overly apologetic of the transphobia and racism of these spaces in different decades—but then later calls it out explicitly. In some ways, I think it’s an impossible task to try to cover all of these different histories in one book. I think I prefer reading about just one of these categories in greater depth. Still, if this looks interesting to you, it’s worth picking up. Just be prepared to fall down a few rabbit holes along the way.

A Rivals to Lovers Soccer Romance: You Don’t Have a Shot by Racquel Marie

the cover of You Don't Have a Shot

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Racquel Marie’s You Don’t Have a Shot is a YA romance that centers around Valentina Castillo-Green, a high school soccer star whose life revolves around the sport. After an abrupt end to her junior year soccer season, Vale ends up at soccer camp, co-captaining a team with her longtime rival, Leticia. As they take their team from a bunch of rookies with little more than enthusiasm and a whole lot of untapped potential to a tight group of friends with the skills to win, Vale and Leticia learn to not only trust each other but also to care about each other, more than either of them could ever have expected.

I read Marie’s 2024 release This is Me Trying a couple months ago and loved it, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to love this one as well, especially considering I’ve been in such a sports romance mood lately, but man is it fun when a book still manages to exceed those expectations. It gave me exactly what I want from sports romance: a romance I can root for, a deep feeling of camaraderie among the team, and a love for the sport so deep it makes me forget I actually hate sports in real life. More than once while reading this, I caught myself thinking, wow, this sounds fun—this despite the fact that my own very brief soccer career was limited to me, age six, wandering around the field picking flowers and ignoring whatever gameplay was happening elsewhere.

The thing about this book is there is so much compassion here. Vale had a lot of growth she needed to do at the beginning. She was selfish, judgmental, even a little mean. She took everything so seriously, to the point where Leticia notes that Vale doesn’t even look like she’s having fun when she plays. For all her flaws, though, I loved her. I always find it refreshing, especially in YA, when an author isn’t afraid to let their characters be in the wrong, and Vale certainly was that, but watching her learn to listen to Leticia and the rest of her team brought me just as much joy as the romance did. And by the end, I was so proud of her.

As for the romance, as I said, it brought me quite a lot of joy. The banter was funny, and the transition from rivals to friends to something else felt natural in a way that can be difficult to manage. Without saying too much, though, the background was believable, and it was so much fun to watch them learn to rely on each other and see Vale kind of fight against the realization that she is starting to—gasp!—like Leticia as a person. Vale’s other relationships had a similar realism. Every conversation she had with her father made my heart clench—Leticia and I had a similarly unfavorable assessment of the man. But by far, my favorite secondary relationship was the tentative alliance between Vale and her writer brother, Jorge, as they each grapple with their father’s unfair expectations of them.

I truly loved this book. With its strong romance, its complicated friendships and familial relationships, and a compelling protagonist with room to grow, this book had a lot going for it, and in my opinion, it nailed every aspect.  Racquel Marie has yet to let me down, and I very much look forward to reading more from her.

How Much Would You Sacrifice for Fame?: Every Time You Hear That Song by Jenna Voris

Every Time You Hear That Song by Jenna Voris cover

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I won’t be able to get through this review without mentioning The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, so let me get the comparison out of the way now. Like Evelyn Hugo, this cover likely doesn’t scream “queer story,” but it is—twice over, actually. Like Evelyn Hugo, we’re alternating between two stories, one of which is an ambitious queer woman trying to make it in an industry and time period that required being closeted. I’m definitely tempted to recommend this one to fans of Evelyn Hugo, but it has some big differences, not least of which is that this is a young adult novel.

Our main character is Darren, a seventeen-year-old aspiring journalist who can’t wait to get out of her hometown of Mayberry, Arkansas. The only thing Mayberry ever produced to put it on the map is country music legend Decklee Castle—and Decklee left as soon as she could. Darren and her mother are big fans; her music helped the two of them get through her mother’s cancer treatment. When they watch Decklee’s televised funeral, they learn that she put together a treasure hunt to begin after her death. The prize at the end is three million dollars and a new album of Decklee’s music—enough money to pay off Darren’s mother’s medical debt and get her into a good university. So she convinces her coworker with a car, Kendall, to come with her to decipher the clues hidden in Decklee’s lyrics. Meanwhile, we flash back to Decklee’s life, beginning with her running away from her childhood home in Mayberry in the middle of the night.

Last time, I promise: like Evelyn Hugo, Decklee Castle is a fascinating character. She’s ruthlessly ambitious and loves nothing more than to be on stage. She’s willing to sacrifice a lot—almost everything—for fame. When she and songwriter Mickenlee Hooper fall for each other, she goes to great lengths to conceal their relationship from the press. Decklee isn’t a likable character. She’s believable, but she’s not exactly sympathetic. To be honest, I find that refreshing in a queer character. Decklee is talented and hardworking, but she is also callous and selfish. Darren considers her a role model because she got out of Mayberry and also because Dareen suspects Decklee was queer and Darren is trying to come to grips with her own bisexuality. The more she learns about her, though, the more she begins to realize that her image of Decklee isn’t true to life.

While we alternate between Decklee and Darren’s perspectives, this is Darren’s story. As Kendall and Darren spend more time together, Darren begins to see him in a different light—and she’s surprised that he sees the good in Mayberry. In fact, he’s offended that she seems to hate it so much. He points out that she’s buying into racist and classist narratives about the South and argues that she loves Mayberry, that you can see her passion for their hometown in her writing about it. As they fall for each other, this tension between his commitment to stay and her determination to leave simmers underneath the surface.

I could easily pitch this as a road trip story, a scavenger hunt, a tell-all about a fictional celebrity, but that doesn’t really match the vibes. Above all, this is about relationships, ambition, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you want. While both Decklee and Dareen have love stories, this isn’t a romance. It’s bittersweet, and Decklee’s story is a warning for Darren.

I think the way these stories play out together is really well done, and I liked Dareen’s subplot of coming out as bisexual. Both couples in the alternating timelines have interesting dynamics, and Decklee’s friend Marquel1 was a breakout character, especially as he shows an alternate approach to being queer in an industry that does not accept that. I listened the audiobook, and I think it works well that way: there are two different narrators, so it’s easy to keep the stories separate. I highly recommend this one.

  1. I listened to the audiobook, so I’m not sure if that’s how you spell it. ↩︎

Fake Honeymoon to Real Love: The Honeymoon Mix-up by Frankie Fyre

The Honeymoon Mix-up by Frankie Fyre cover

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Before my summer break ended, I decided to read a romance that gives off tropical vacation vibes. For this, I chose The Honeymoon Mix-up by Frankie Fyre, a fake romance set on the fictional Sapphire Isle, a resort dedicated solely to sapphic women. The Honeymoon Mix-up tells the story of Basil Jones, a woman recently left at the altar by an ex-fiancée exasperated by Basil’s workaholic ways, and Caroline King, a private investigator hired to tail Basil. After sharing a one-night stand with Caroline that Basil hopes to put behind her forever, she decides to go on her honeymoon alone so that she can still close the wine deal her mom sent her there to complete. Upon finding out that the resort has a strict couples-only policy, she enlists Caroline as her fake wife. Eventually, though, lines become blurred and the women begin to wonder if there is something more between them. 

I will be honest, it took me a while to get into the book. I think my main hindrance was that I found Basil to be annoying. She’s bitter and unhealthily devoted to her work. In fact, there were parts where I totally understood why her ex-fiancée left her. Over time, though, Basil grew on me. I began to see how her overbearing and unrelenting mom drilled into her that all that matters is the family business. By about halfway through the novel, I found myself empathizing with Basil and rooting for her to find love and happiness with Caroline and escape her mother’s grasps.

The Honeymoon Mix-up is filled to the brim with plots and subplots. You have the main story of Basil and Caroline becoming more than fake newlyweds. Then, you have Basil’s issues with her mom, Basil’s attempt to seal a wine deal with the resort, a sapphic Olympics competition against one of Basil’s hated high school rivals, Caroline’s conflict between love and her job, and Caroline’s past relationship trauma. It was a lot to keep track of, and within the relatively short length of the book, it felt at times that none of the subplots got their adequate space. None of them were left unresolved and all had some impact on the finale, but at the same time, none of them hit their emotionally devastating potential, which is a shame. Also, because most of these subplots were Basil’s, it often felt like her story rather than both hers and Caroline’s. 

Despite these drawbacks, I still enjoyed The Honeymoon Mix-up. Basil and Caroline, once they get over their issues, have fantastic chemistry in and out of the bedroom. Watching them get over their issues and fall in love was delightful. As I said earlier, I liked seeing Basil’s development from workaholic controlled by her mother to someone willing and able to forge her own path. The book is also very funny, with a lot of the humor coming from Frankie Fyre’s writing and dialogue. 

For me, the biggest strength of The Honeymoon Mix-up is how it celebrates the diversity of the queer experience. Caroline is Black and comes from a polyamorous family. Sapphire Isle is a safe and welcoming place for sapphic couples to spend time together and find community. It is located in Thailand and is predominantly staffed by Asian women. The owners, Mae and Lynn, are an older mixed race lesbian couple who help Caroline and Basil by sharing their experiences earned with age. Between all of this and the little funny sapphic in-jokes, it felt like a true celebration of what makes queer life in general and sapphic life specifically so great. In addition, I loved Lynn and found her to be the true MVP of the story and possibly one of the best side characters I have read in sapphic literature. I would absolutely take a relationship course with her. 

So, despite some issues I had with it, I found The Honeymoon Mix-up an enjoyable fake relationship romance that would make an excellent beach read. Now, I just need to find the beach! 

Lesbians in Space: Cosmoknights, Vol. 1 by Hannah Templer

the cover of Cosmoknights by Hannah Templer

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In this queer space adventure, our main character Pan has grown up alongside her best friend Tara, a princess who is soon to be married off to the winner of the interplanetary jousting game that’s about to take place in their town. Tara can’t stand the thought of accepting her fate and allowing herself to become “claimed”. So, with Pan’s help, she escapes. A few years later, two strangers appear at the door of Pan’s family home, injured and needing medical attention. When Pan discovers that these two women are undercover Cosmoknights who win tournaments and help the princesses escape the patriarchal system they’re being forced into, our main character realizes that this is her chance to get off her planet, discover what the world has to offer outside of her father’s mechanic shop, and maybe… find her best friend again.

This graphic novel is, first and foremost, absolutely stunning. The art style is really wonderful and Templer does an incredible job with colour. I took pictures of multiple panels because I was so in awe of the cosmic landscapes, the character designs, the colour schemes. Before even getting into the story itself, the book is worth opening simply for the sake of appreciating the beauty that is within its pages. It without a doubt reignited a love for graphic novels within me and reminded me just how powerful of an effect amazing art can have on a person’s state of mind and emotions.

Regarding the story itself, I really did enjoy the premise. I think it’s unique, it fits well within the sci-fi setting while still feeling contemporary and relatable. Even though it’s a quick read, each of the characters felt well-developed, including the ones that were in the story only for a short amount of time. I think the friendship (*cough* unspoken romance *cough*) between Pan and Tara was incredibly sweet. We only got a short snippet of them together at the beginning of the story and a few moments of sapphic yearning later on, and it was still enough to get me to root for them so intensely.

Of course, the queer found family aspect of this is also great. Cass and Bee as mentors or parental figures for Pan is so effective. Pan does seem to have a decent relationship with her actual parents, but you can tell that the way that she feels and acts around them is a quieter version of who she actually is. Although they aren’t bad parents per se, they do inherently force her to exist and live within a society that punishes her for trying to save her friend, that belittles her, that disrespects her, and it all clearly takes a toll on her—which is exactly why creating that parallel relationship between her and Cass and Bee was so powerful. Your parents not actively harming you isn’t necessarily enough. Having a support system that really allows you to grow and stand up for yourself is so important, especially for young people who are already struggling to understand who they are and to assert themselves within the world. Cass and Bee taking Pan under their wing and allowing her to participate in the dismantling of the Cosmiknights system while simultaneously exploring the world and maybe finding her purpose is such a beautiful representation of what found family actually means, especially to queer people.

But by far, my absolute favourite part of this book was the butch representation. Cass as a butch lesbian was phenomenal, both in character design and for her role within the story. If you know me then you know I adore a beefy butch lesbian. The fact that she is genuinely muscular and not simply toned is so wonderful. She’s tall and broad-shouldered, she dresses in a very masculine way, she’s strong and puts up a real fight for the other Cosmoknights—which is incredibly satisfying to witness. She has that smirk and that charm and that slight cockiness that makes me weak in the knees, and there is not a single thing about her that exists to placate her masculinity. Of course, people can exist within whatever bounds of femininity and masculinity they want to, and gender expression is something so personal to every single individual. But there is a habit, in media and art as a whole, to “feminize” butch lesbians so as to not make them “too masculine”. It is so refreshing to come across a character that embraces her masculinity, that loves the way that she is, that proudly rejects the femininity that was forced upon her—not because she looks down upon feminine traits, but simply because it is not who she is, and she will not let anyone take her masculinity away from her.

The other great thing about Cass is that Templer uses her character to perfectly exemplify butchness as being a protector. It is more than just dressing a certain way or keeping your hair short: butches hold an actual role in butch/femme communities and history, and I think it is so beautifully showcased in this story. I loved her not just as a character but as a representation of all the butches I’ve known and loved.

Her relationship with Bee is also fantastic. Bee is sort of the brains behind their operation; she’s incredibly cunning and does a lot of the planning and strategizing. She’s very tech savvy and she supports Cass in the battlefield a ton. Their relationship is so heartwarming and works so well as a whole. They balance each other out perfectly and every panel where you see them simply holding hands made my heart instantly melt.

I am so excited to pick up the second volume for this and I cannot wait to see how their story continues. If you’re a fan of graphic novels or sci-fi stories, or taking down the patriarchy, or pretty colours, or lesbians, then I wholeheartedly recommend this to you.

Representation: sapphic MC, lesbian couple, butch lesbian, Black lesbian

Content warnings: blood, violence, injury, misogyny, sexism

Check Out This Intricate and Fast-Paced Sapphic Fantasy: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside cover

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After I finished devouring this year’s stunning fantasy murder mystery The Tainted Cup over the course of about three days, I knew that I had to dive into Robert Jackson Bennett’s back catalog immediately. Foundryside happened to be the one my library had the shortest hold list on, and I was delighted to find out that not only was it as well crafted, but it was also queer. In Foundryside, Bennett combines intricate world-building, nonstop action, and surprise sapphic feelings into a thrilling first book of a fantasy trilogy that I can’t wait to finish.

We open in the slums of Tevanne, where Sancia works as a highly skilled thief with a hidden power to read objects she touches to earn a living. Despite being so highly skilled, Sancia lives in a ramshackle, poorly-furnished room by herself. I was immediately interested in Sancia because she was so highly skilled but also, unusually for a thief character, she wasn’t too cocky. She didn’t take unnecessary risks because she simply wanted to save enough money to escape her Tragic Backstory that gave her the unique sensing ability. Not even the accepted magic users in universe can do what she does, and what she would really like is to turn it off. Bennett has created an entire intricately-crafted society around his unique magic system, called scriving. Scriving uses symbols and their relationships with each other to cast a new state of reality on objects. For, example one could scriv a wall to believe it’s a strong as the day it was built or a door to only open if it meets the correct key. It’s a system that can be dangerous: scriv with gravity in the wrong way and suddenly a body turns into paste. With such a system, Tevanne has come to be ruled by a series of Merchant Houses, each with its own proprietary scrivings. No government can be allowed to exist that could puncture the Merchant Houses’ sovereignty, and so if you are not attached to the Houses and live in their campos, there is only slums and scraps for you, which is where Sancia operates. I found the implications of scriving—limited only by ones imagination and logic—to be fascinating and compelling, and it made for a series of Mad Max-esque heist and action scenes, as various characters had tools, weapons, and abilities that were essentially welding together from unpredictable elements, which I found very fun.

When Sancia is hired to steal an artifact from a safe, she is dropped into the midst of a vast conspiracy that will change Tevanne forever, if it survives. What I enjoyed about this story was the dramatic flip: after her semi-successful theft, Sancia runs up against Gregor, a Merchant House man with a burning desire to actually bring justice to Tevanne, and it’s a typical cop/thief dynamic. However, circumstances force them to flee back to Gregor’s campo together, and Sancia comes to meet Orso, the campo’s head scriver, and Berenice, his ultra-competent and practical assistant. Suddenly, we’re in a split in the Merchant Houses, trying to expose who wants to steal power and illegal scrivings for themselves. Sancia, being an outsider, at first doesn’t want to work with any of them—any more than they trust her as someone from the slums instead of the campos—but they have to if they want to both stay alive and prevent magical catastrophe. It was such an interesting dynamic for a band of protagonists, and Berenice’s immediate interest in Sancia was even more welcome.

Berenice, unlike the men with more obvious status, never dithered and quickly established herself as out to get things done. When she meets Sancia and is attracted to her both looks and talent, she expresses her interest with a kiss and then makes it clear that the next move is Sancia’s. Sancia, traumatized and operating on the edges of society, has not had a lot of opportunities to think of love or sexuality in relation to herself, but is pleased with this development. Being the first book of a trilogy, there isn’t a ton of time devoted to their budding relationship, but it does provide absolutely critical and adorable motivation to Sancia at a pivotal action point.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a well-crafted and intricate fantasy book with a rules-based magic system and girlfriends instead of a straight romance, you can do worse than Foundryside. I found it to be an engaging and speedy read, and I put the second book on hold right away.

A Curveball Romance: Playing for Keeps by Jennifer Dugan

Playing for Keeps cover

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A baseball pitcher and umpire definitely aren’t supposed to fall for each other, right? Especially not when star pitcher June and officiate-to-be Ivy are trying to go pro. Sometimes, life throws you a curveball, though. When Ivy is assigned as an umpire for June’s elite club baseball team, they instantly clash on the field, only to find they have something in common: grief. Soon, they become enemies to friends to far more, despite the rules that prohibit them from dating each other. Will romance get in the way of them following their dreams?

On the surface, Playing for Keeps seems like a fun, sweet young adult sapphic romance. The initial set-up gives us sharp, bittersweet enemies to lovers potential between a pitch and an umpire. Seems cute and fluffy, right? No one is that one-dimensional, though. Both Ivy and June are struggling with the loss of a loved one, balancing that on top of unrealistic expectations from their parents and the pressures they put on themselves to succeed. Add in the pressure you get from sports alone and it’s enough to make anyone crumble. Ivy and June find happiness in each other, through stolen moments as they date in secret, wary that the conflict of interest between them will tear them apart. There’s a potential for them to heal through one another, alongside one another, while learning how to navigate the external forces of loss while growing up.

I loved that both Ivy and June were pursuing career paths that don’t often make space for women. I would have liked to see more focus on that, though. It was sweet to see how the male players on the baseball team were quick to support June, but I expected to see more pushback (either from her team or other teams) to show (not tell us) how she struggled and still persevered.

Unfortunately, the story is so rushed, so many scenes time-jumped, emotions mentioned but not illustrated, that I didn’t FEEL anything while reading this story. With the topic of grief, whether a character is processing it or trying to avoid it, readers should have an easy time sympathizing with the characters. Instead, the grief feels like a plot point, a reason for potential enemies to connect and eventually become more.

Even with little jumps, the story lagged. Dugan has a tendency to pair selfless characters with less reasonable counterparts, which we certainly see between Ivy and June. Given that, it’s difficult to root for both girls. Yes, they’re both grieving, and yes, they both deserve happiness, but their actions are exhausting and (yes, I know it’s YA) juvenile at times. Though the two girls had so much in common, the miscommunication trope constantly tugged them in opposite directions.

Recommended for fans of Some Girls Do, Home Field Advantage, and Cool for the Summer.

The Vibes
⚾ Enemies to Lovers
⚾ Young Adult Romance
⚾ Sapphic Romance
⚾ Forbidden Love
⚾ Lesbian & Bi FMCs
⚾ Sports Romance
⚾ Grief
⚾ Pressure From Parents
⚾ Miscommunication

Quotes

“Expecting it means I can prepare for it, plan for it, and figure out a way to keep my cool in its face. What I didn’t expect, though, was for there to be an extremely attractive girl throwing balls at about seventy-five billion miles per hour, striking out dumb boys left and right, like some kind of varsity, all-star Black Widow.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on girls to conform, to become nice women, to do what’s expected. Smile more, whiten your teeth, lose the weight, don’t be too loud or too funny or too much. Make yourself less so the boys can feel like more. Don’t wear spaghetti straps or you might tempt them. Hold yourself accountable for the both of you, so they don’t have to.”

Cell Block Tango, the Thriller Novel: Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding

Speak of the Devil by Rose Wilding cover

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Rose Wilding’s Speak of the Devil is a thriller with a simple premise: seven women (three of them queer) had very good reasons to murder Jamie Spellman, but only one of them left his decapitated head in an abandoned hotel room. Which was it?

Before we start: heed the content warnings listed at the end of this post! There is a lot going on in this book, and despite all my jokes about “Cell Block Tango” being its anthem, it is all presented seriously. Handle with care if you need to.

As for me: my feelings are so, so mixed on this book. On the one hand, I ripped through Speak of the Devil in an evening because I couldn’t put it down. It’s written in a very literary fiction style; the emphasis is on the almost modern gothic tone and rhythm of the prose, sometimes at the expense of individual character voices. (Josie’s voice stood out to me as the most realistic, in that she’s a very good depiction of the mortifying ordeal of being a teenager with emotions, and I adored her.) Speak of the Devil is compelling! The various ways these women are connected to Jamie and to each other all build on each other until it all clicks into place.

On the other hand, there was a run of about thirty consecutive chapters of trauma. This is absolutely a me problem; I keep forgetting that thrillers aren’t structured like mysteries. The trauma all needs to be explained up front so that I understand where the characters are coming from, rather than being revealed in the end game to recontextualise the story up to that point. But it means that most of the book is exploring the reasons each woman might have murdered Jamie, so a huge chunk of it is about their trauma and their complexity. It’s fascinating, because several characters have committed their own wrongs, sometimes even against other members of the group, but that’s not how they’re defined. Ana, for example, has heavily impacted Kaysha’s life, but is an incredible friend and support for Sadia. Maureen was monstrous as a maternal figure, but adores her husband. All of this build-up does work, because the narrative manages to show why each character is the way that they are without excusing them (even Jamie!), it’s just A Lot when it’s back-to-back.

Did I enjoy it though? I honestly don’t think so. Some of the plot beats Speak of the Devil feels very contrived, especially the ending. Rationally, I understand that the emotions and the atmosphere are the point, rather than the plot, but it doesn’t land for me emotionally. Someone who enjoys literary fiction and/or thrillers more than I do would probably have a great time with it! It is very much not a bad book! It’s just a bad match-up with me.

The author’s note, though, is a beautiful thesis statement:

“I wrote this novel because I am always, under the skin, under the polite smile, absolutely furious.”

Content warnings: rape and rape apologia, abuse (physical, emotional, neglect), manipulation and gaslighting, transphobia and queerphobia, suicide, murder, substance abuse, grooming, infertility, teen pregnancy, mental health crises, self-harm, police misconduct, adultery, off-screen animal death

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistant. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

A Sapphic Nova Scotia Gothic: A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland

A Sweet Sting of Salt by Rose Sutherland cover

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I couldn’t tell you why, but I am obsessed with sapphic selkie stories. There are very few of them out there, but I leap on the chance to read any that I stumble upon. Don’t get me wrong: I like sapphic mermaids, too, but there’s something about a sapphic selkie story that hooks me like no other. So it’s not surprise that A Sweet Sting of Salt was one of my most anticipated releases of the year.

This is such an immersive story. It’s a Nova Scotia gothic, and I could feel the spray of waves crashing against rocks as I read it. Sutherland describes this seaside town in loving detail, even as the main character has a less rosy view of it. Jean has been an outsider since she was caught with another woman when she was younger. Her girlfriend was sent away to marry a French man—despite not being able to speak French—to Jean’s heartbreak. Luckily, Jean was taken in by the local midwife, and now she has earned the town’s begrudging respect as an extremely skilled midwife herself.

Helping someone give birth is an everyday occurrence for Jean, but not the way it happens this night. She wakes up to the sound of a woman screaming outside and finds a stranger in labour outdoors in the middle of a storm. She brings Muirin inside and helps her, though Muirin doesn’t speak any English. Jean finds out that Muirin is the wife of her neighbour Tobias, but it’s very strange that Tobias didn’t let her know about the pregnancy, and Muirin is reluctant to go home.

As you’d expect from a gothic, the tension and danger slowly ratchets up over the course of the story. First, we get to see Muirin and Jean become friends as Jean teaches her English and assists with the baby. Jean’s mother committed suicide shortly after she was born, so she’s attentive to new mothers’ mental states, determined to prevent that from happening to any of her charges. Soon, though, she finds herself falling for Muirin in spite of her best efforts not to.

Maybe it’s inevitable in this sort of story, but I was surprised that the main character doesn’t find out that Muirin is a selkie until well into the book. It’s in the marketing, so the reader knows right away. I don’t love having information the main character doesn’t for that long, but that’s a personal preference.

By the end of A Sweet Sting of Salt, I was reminded of Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.” “The Girl With the Green Ribbon” and “The Selkie Wife” share a similar premise, a women’s horror story: the idea of sacrificing everything for your husband/children and it not being enough. Women are so often expected to be completely subsumed by the role of wife and mother until there’s nothing left that’s just theirs. These feminist retellings make that message shine through, and they show that a truly loving and equitable relationship means being able to keep something for yourself.

I liked the dynamic between the practical to a fault Jean and mysterious, passionate Muirin. Muirin picks up language at an unnatural rate, so they are able to communicate even when they don’t completely share a language. I also appreciated the side characters, including Jean’s mentor midwife and mother figure, who is Indigenous, and a character who is coded autistic. I always appreciate when historical fiction has a diverse cast. We also get to see how Jean’s former girlfriend’s life turned out, which was a pleasant subversion of my expectations.

While I didn’t like knowing the reveal hundreds of pages before the main character did, that was a pretty minor complaint. A Sweet Sting of Salt was an immersive read perfect for fans of queer retellings, folklore, gothics, and seaside settings.

The Lesbrary Recommendations List Has Been Updated!

We’ve reviewed thousands(!) of sapphic books here at the Lesbrary, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed by choice. That’s why I keep a list of my personal recommendations sorted by genre and linked to my full reviews. These are just the books I really enjoyed and would recommend. I’ve been updated this regularly for years, so I now have hundreds of books on that list—which may also be overwhelming, but it’s less than thousands, at least!

Sapphic Book Recommendations

Check out the Lesbrary Recommendations page for my updated list of favourite sapphic books.