Danika reviews Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Follow Your Arrow by Jessica VerdiAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

CeCe and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media stars. They have about a million followers each, and they are #RelationshipGoals. Their ship name is Cevie, and their lives online and off are intertwined. CeCe’s picture-perfect crafted persona begins to fall apart, though, when bickering with her girlfriend turns into fighting–none of which is reflected on the app, of course–which turns into a break up. CeCe isn’t sure what her brand is now that she’s single. To complicate things further, CeCe is bisexual–she’s been out for years–and she’s starting to get a crush on a very offline guy. How will he react to her online life, and how will her Cevie fans react to him?

This is the second of two bi YA books I read that come out today! (Also check out my review of I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre.) I have to take this space to do a little celebration of that fact! I remember when hardly any queer YA got published in a year, never mind two traditionally published bisexual YA books in the same day. Because this is the Lesbrary, I want to make clear that this features a M/F romance with a bi woman main character.

Follow Your Arrow is a coming-of-age-on-the-internet story. CeCe is immersed with “the App,” and her sense of self is wrapped up in it. She was once an outspoken activist–her walls are covered in protest signs she carried in marches–but she has sanitized this aspect of herself online. She used to get into screaming arguments with her Conservative father, until he left them. Now, she tries to make sure that nothing she does online could result in a pile-on. When her online fanbase begins to turn on her anyways, she has to re-evaluate. I appreciate that there’s some nuance here: it’s not a scare tactic about social media or “cancel culture:” the story acknowledges positives and negatives of both.

Like I Think I Love You, I really liked how this examined bisexuality as a distinct identity: not just gay light or… spicy straight. CeCe feels like she’s not considered queer enough to have pride or have it be an important part of her identity: she has talked herself out of getting a rainbow tattoo, because she doesn’t feel that she can “claim” this, or that people would object because she’s not “queer enough.” I also appreciated that she’s primarily attracted to women. Bisexuality with a preference isn’t something I’ve seen represented in YA before, but it’s very common in real life.

This turned out to be a bit of a personal read, but to explain that, I have to wander into potential spoiler territory–but not more than what’s on the back of the book. CeCe is worried that, despite being out as bi, she will receive backlash online if she dates a guy. To be clear: I have in no way at any time been famous on the internet. But I have been famous on one tiny part of the internet, which is the lesbian books part of it–at least 5 years ago. And when I started dating a guy after IDing as a lesbian for years online, I went through a miniature version of this on tumblr. Seeing people talk about your dating life and identity online, especially in a vindictive way, is very weird and definitely gets in your head (especially if you’re already going through an identity crisis). I cannot imagine being a truly public figure, because I sure couldn’t help myself from looking at that train wreck constantly until people lost interest.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father. I was worried that the trajectory was towards CeCe making amends even though her father was hateful, both politically and personally. (Mild spoiler:) Luckily, I was wrong about that. The narrative showed that she was right to separate herself, and that it is the healthiest thing for her.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Danika reviews I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

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I Think I Love You is a bisexual YA F/F romcom told in alternating perspectives between Emma and Sophia. Emma is a romantic. She loves love, and she’s happy to play matchmaker with her friends. Sophia is the anti-romantic: after her parents split up, she now doesn’t believe in (romantic) love. When Emma tries to make a bisexual romcom to enter in a film contest, Sophia refuses, hoping to direct something artsy and tragic. Their bickering splits the friend group in half–but this is a romcom, so it doesn’t end there, especially when her friends come up with a scheme to try to reunite the groups.

This is a classic enemies-to-lovers/hate-to-love romance story, chockful of tropes. Emma and Sophia get in heated arguments, hurling out insults that cut to the quick–but even when they’re fuming, they’re still absentmindedly noting how the other’s face lights up when she laughs. At first, I was worried that Sophia was too cruel in their arguments, but as the book goes on, they both give as good as they get.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of this story are in its relationship to romcoms: if that’s a format you love, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you’re allergic to romance tropes, though, I’d advise giving it a pass. As much as the relationship between Sophia and Emma is the focus of the story, it’s not what I appreciated the most.

I read this for Book Riot’s All the Books podcast, where Liberty and a rotating crew of cohosts discuss the books out that day. I happened to pick two bisexual contemporary YA novels, both out March 2nd, that both discussed bisexuality as an identity category in a way that resonated with me. (The other is Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi, which I will review soon!) In this one, Emma worries about feeling like she shouldn’t make a big deal of her bisexuality–but it is a big deal to her, and it’s a significant part of her identity. She worries about coming out to her parents. Partly because they have made some offhand ignorant comments in the past, but also because she doesn’t know how to communicate how important it is to her. I think that bisexuality is often downplayed as not significant: when bi women are in relationships with another woman, they’re still seen as basically a lesbian, and when they’re with a man, they’re seen as essentially straight. It’s not often respected as a distinct identity, and one that can be just as meaningful to that person as being gay is. (Which is to say that everyone has their own relationship to labels.)

I also enjoyed the relationship between Emma and her cousin, Kate. Kate is a fatshionista who is unfailingly kind, and Emma absolutely idolizes her. That is likely tied to Emma’s low self-esteem, but I liked seeing this fiercely protective relationship between the two of them: I don’t read a lot of stories with friendships or family relationships that are that intense unless they’re siblings.

I’ll admit, sometimes I Think I Love You verged on the melodramatic for me, but it delivers exactly what it promises. It’s a hate-to-love story with bickering, banter, and heartfelt moments. I was worried that one aspect of the plot was going in a wildly unrealistic direction, but I was happy to proven wrong. If you want a romcom read with a bit of cheesiness, but also a great discussion of coming out as bi, give this one a try!

Carolina reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston [Out June 1, 2021]

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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Casey McQuiston’s first novel, Red, White and Royal Blue, changed the new adult literary romance genre with its compelling love story of the prince of England and First Son, cementing queer stories’ places on bestseller lists, bookstore shelves and the general public’s hearts. Their follow up, One Last Stop, lives up to all the hype surrounding the release and surpasses it, crafting a beautiful romance in the heart of New York City, all tied up in that beautiful pastel cover.

August rides the Q Train to and from her minimum wage job at a local pancake restaurant as she wades through her senior year of college and comes to terms with what lies ahead in her future. One day, she locks eyes with a kind, handsome butch named Jane Su on the train and falls in love with this stranger’s gentle kindness and fierce devotion to her fellow commuters. After a series of casual conversations, August realizes Jane’s vintage protest pins and Walkman aren’t just a commitment to a retro aesthetic; she has become unstuck in time from the 1970’s and is doomed to ride the train in 2020 for the foreseeable future. August decides to help Jane go back to her own time, trying every Groundhog Day style idea they can think of, falling in love all the while. Can August let Jane go back to her own time, losing the girl of her dreams, or can they find a happy medium?

One Last Stop was a delightful page turner, chock-full of McQuiston’s signature laugh-out-loud dialogue and biting wit. They’re able to pinpoint the pulse of New York City’s magic, and the hidden gems and mom-and-pop shops that make the city so special, warning against the insidious gentrification plaguing the city and turning special oases into yet another Starbucks. Not only is this novel a love letter to a city, but it’s also an ode to the mixed-up magic of a twenty-something discovering themselves, and the different kinds of love we make and find that last a lifetime. One Last Stop is a microcosm into your early 20’s, complete with every late-night roommate conversation, every doubt and regret and hope for your future, and every heated glance with a hot subway stranger, filling the gap in the literary market for people in their early to mid-20’s.

It also stresses the importance of queer friendship, community and history. August’s roommates are a fun, ragamuffin bunch of queer individuals sharing a space and a life with each other, there to the bitter end. Jane devotes herself to preserving the memory of her gay friends in the past, and making sure the world she and her friends fought for does not forget their contributions. Jane offers a window into little-known facets of gay history, focusing on the role of Asian-American leaders in the gay liberation movement, and on the much-overlooked Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans.

One Last Stop is part campy time travel comedy, part sexy romance, part lesson in queer history, part murder mystery, and part coming of age story. This gem of a novel will stay with readers for a long time after the last page, leaving a lingering scent of sugary pancake syrup and a feeling of nostalgia and rightness.

Thank you for the publisher and Edelweiss for the advanced copy!

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

Marieke reviews It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura

I must say this was a bit of a frustrating read. I went in with the intention to try and break my reading slump (because, you know, I had a review to write, so something had to give), which is why I picked a contemporary YA story – it’s something I haven’t read in a while. Unfortunately, this book didn’t make me much more enthusiastic about picking up another within the genre soon…

Sana is a Japanese American second-generation high school student, and her parents are springing a big life change on her: they are moving from somewhere in rural America (I’m bad at geography for the States, or anywhere really) to California. She goes from being one of three other Asian students in her high school, to a high school where a third of all students is Asian, with another third being made up of Latin American students. It’s a whole new ball game!

Obviously, with this big a shift in demographics, racism is one of the major themes explored throughout the story, and unfortunately Sana does not come off well. On the one hand she is very much aware of microaggressions and overt racist statements when they’re directed at her (quite regularly by her own mother). On the other hand, she somehow doesn’t compute that people of other ethnicities might have similar experiences, even if the specific aggressions and racism directed at Black and Latin people looks completely different from what Asian people tend to receive. She dissects the ways racism touches her so much that it comes off as almost unbelievable for her to not bring up the motivation or energy to even listen to others when they try to explain what their situation looks like – let alone trying to figure out those patterns by herself.

This is an important point, because Sana’s main love interest, Jamie, is of Mexican heritage. There is a scene where some pretty overt and frankly scary racism is directed at Jamie and her friends, while Sana receives relatively moderate racism (if there is such a thing). Afterwards they all discuss what just happened, but Sana doesn’t even attempt to suss out the differences in experience, even though they come with entirely different baggage and (potential) consequences. She ends up parroting some anti-Mexican phrases from her mother, and just generally really digs herself a rather deep hole.

The worst part is that she still holds on to these beliefs once she has some time to herself. She does make an effort to think critically, but somehow doesn’t compare the two different forms of treatment they received to see how similar patterns can lead to such differing outcomes. She’s so strongly entrenched in her own beliefs that she needs others to repeatedly point out where she’s wrong when shit properly hits the fan before even considering she might not be in the right.

Her friends aren’t always helpful in this regard, as they make for a bit of an echo chamber on some of the issues Sana is being called up on, and some of them find it hard to accept her exclusive romantic interest in women. The high school they attend seems relatively progressive, in light of the demographic split plus sporting a Gay Straight student alliance. Of course, everyone can be okay with anything until they’re directly faced with it themselves, and not all of Sana’s friends handle her coming out equally well.

This behaviour has a big impact on her relationship with Jamie: Sana’s friends believe Jamie is not good enough for Sana for a number of bad reasons, and one of them is that maybe Sana just hasn’t been with the right guy yet. It doesn’t help that Sana is insecure in herself and so finds it hard to trust Jamie to not cheat with someone else, something especially high on her mind because she suspects her own father is cheating on her mother. All of this combines for the perfect storm that forms the story’s climax, where Sana makes a lot of bad decisions, and not all of them are resolved in a satisfactory, sufficient, or believable manner.

The novel tackles a lot of really heavy subjects, and they’re all being interrogated from different angles, so intersectionality is clearly important for the author in these considerations. Sometimes that whole combination is just too much, and I feel the story could have benefited from streamlining some of these discussions, or possibly being told from an entirely different character perspectives: Sana’s mother and Jamie’s friend Christina were two of my favourites, both well written and complicated – sometimes more so than the actual main character – even while they are not perfect.

Content warnings: mild homophobia, racism, emotional manipulation, generally bad life choices (so lots of second hand embarrassment)

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for niche genres like fairy tale retellings and weird murder mysteries, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Shana reviews Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could Be is a fluffy, heartwarming romance about supposedly straight best friends who fall in love with each other. The story loosely reimagines two of my favorite characters, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables. I sometimes find coming out stories too predictable and trite. I loved this gooey, angst free story anyway, and recommend it for when you need an inclusive, low-conflict read.

Tessa is a quiet, nurturing, librarian who falls asleep most nights while giggling over the phone with her best friend Monty. She’s engaged to be married to a guy no one much likes, especially outspoken Monty. The two friends are fiercely and unapologetically each other’s most important person.

Monty works at a bookstore owned by her lesbian trans aunts, and is also engaged to her sweet friend Gilbert Gus, who she adores, but is more likely to play games with than kiss. When Tessa’s lackluster fiance cheats on her, Monty takes her on an alternate honeymoon. This leads to the two going on practice dates to help Tessa ease into dating again. Along the way these two figure out what everyone around them already knows: they’re perfect for one another.

Tessa and Monty have an intensely loving friendship, and watching them discover their romantic side left me squealing with joy. Their dynamic is a balm for every fan who sighed over two straight characters who clearly should be dating each other, whether that’s Rizzoli and Isles, or Diana and Anne.

Who We Could Be has an idyllic, fairy tale quality. It’s set in a progressive small New England town, and cocoons the characters within this supportive atmosphere. Instead of leaning into the drama of ended engagements and newfound sexuality, the story resolves potentially obstacles easily, letting Tessa and Monty’s playful relationship take center stage. I appreciated that the characters come to recognize their queer sexuality before falling in love with one another, and the role Monty’s aunts play in their drama-free coming out process.

Cameron specializes in stories about BFFs who fall in love, and after reading Who We Could Be, I devoured her backlist. This remains my favorite version of this trope. Highly recommended for fans of quiet romances.

Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha NganAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Shannon reviews The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

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I’ve been a thriller fan for years, but I’ve always felt a little let down by the lack of queer representation in the genre. In recent years, things do seem to have gotten a bit better in this regard, but fast-paced, hard-hitting thrillers with female protagonists who aren’t straight still feel more uncommon than I’d like. So, I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I was to stumble upon the gem that is The Girls I’ve Been, the latest young adult thriller by Tess Sharpe. Nora, our main character, is bisexual, in love with a girl while still nursing complex feelings for her ex boyfriend.

In many ways, Nora’s life is messy. Her ex boyfriend walked in on her making out with her girlfriend, and although she and Wes haven’t been together that way in quite some time, Nora can’t help but feel bad for the surprise seeing her with someone else must have been for him. Plus, the three of them have an important errand at a nearby bank, and it’s something none of them feels they can back out on. So, Nora, Wes, and Iris meet early in the morning to deposit the money they’ve raised for a fundraiser. Nora figures the errand might be a bit awkward, but she hopes those feelings can be worked through pretty quickly.

Things go from awkward to downright dangerous when two armed men enter the bank and announce they’re robbing the place. Nora is terrified, but she also knows staying calm is the very best thing she can do. You see, Nora’s early life was anything but ordinary. Up until she was twelve, Nora lived with her mother, a very successful con artist who thought nothing of making Nora a prop in her various scams. Through these unconventional and dangerous experiences, Nora has learned a ton about what makes people act in certain ways, and she’s confident in her ability to get herself and those she loves out of this in one piece, just as long as she can come up with a workable plan.

Over the next few hours, Nora fights desperately to escape the bank, using all the skills she learned from her mother, skills she hasn’t used in the five years since she and her older sister managed to have their mother put in prison. Fortunately for Nora, the skill of the con doesn’t wear off, and it doesn’t take long for her to once again comfortably inhabit the skins of all the girls her mother taught her to become.

The Girls I’ve Been is so much more than an action-packed thriller. Sure, it’s the kind of book you’ll hate to put down. The action is nonstop, and the author’s writing is incredibly engaging. However, if you look beneath the surface of the story, you’ll soon realize there’s so much more than just survival going on. Nora has been struggling to come to terms with her past for years now, and it’s only through her desperate fight to come out of the bank robbery alive that she realizes just how complex and multi-layered a person she is.

I loved Nora as a heroine. I found myself cheering her on, even when the tactics she used felt less than up front or honest. The traumas of her past have definitely left their mark on her, but Nora is determined to be a person in her own right, no longer subject to someone else’s whims. She doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay. So much of the joy I took from this novel came from watching her come into her own, even when she had to make serious mistakes along the way.

Parts of the book might be difficult for some readers. Nora experienced some terrible things as a child, and although the author doesn’t go into graphic detail about the abuse she suffered, neither does she completely shy away from it. It’s dealt with in a sensitive way, but it’s still something potential readers should be aware of before diving into this story.

The Girls I’ve Been really is one of the best thrillers I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. I literally read it in one sitting, and now that I’ve reached the end, I kind of want to go back and read it again, just so I can spend more time in Nora’s head.

Susan reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

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Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Rachel reviews The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January last summer, I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of The Once and Future Witches. I finally got to read it over the holidays at the end of last year, and it did not disappoint!

Set in an alternate history, Harrow’s novel begins in the 1890s, in a city called New Salem, where witches have been eradicated. The early burnings of witches—presented as a genocidal project that was inevitably gendered—served to almost snuff out women’s magic from the world. Stories, traditions, and spells passed from grandmother to mother to daughter have been nearly wiped from existence. Or, in the case of some characters, these spells have simply gone underground. The Once and Future Witches merges the very real suffrage movements from the end of the nineteenth century with the fantastic, and women’s political and magical powers are interestingly blended.

The novel focuses on the Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Torn apart by betrayals and complex traumas, the sisters reunite in New Salem and spark a women’s/witches’ movement. However, there are dark forces that would seek to rob women of their words and ways and keep these women in their subjected position. The three sisters, along with all those women who support them, must work to overcome these forces in order to bring witching back into the world.

I loved this book. It is a fascinating product of historical/fantastical fiction that really works. Harrow is able to braid these fictional/non-fictional elements together in such a way as to truly craft an alternate history that feels very empowering for a modern reader. I adore Harrow’s writing, and have since The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but I think this book truly packs more of a punch in terms of its plot and characters. Each main character in this book is a delight to read, and they have such distinct and magnetic personalities that work so well throughout the book. Harrow has clearly done her research here both in terms of historical accuracy and fairy tale tropes. The twists never stop with this novel, and I highly recommend it.

Not to mention—it’s queer! Harrow’s lesbian characters, a pairing which includes a BIPOC woman, have that particular brand of historical lesbianism that I am unashamedly drawn to (think lots of long looks and hand touching). Harrow’s novel is an intersectional one, and she includes queer people and people of colour in this discussion of rights, oppression, and female history. I couldn’t recommend this book more, and I can’t wait to read Harrow’s next novel!

Please visit Alix E. Harrow on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Once and Future Witches on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement, torture, kidnapping, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.