Beware the Fae (Even When Gay): The Pale Queen by Ethan M. Aldridge

The Pale Queen cover

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I just want to bask for a moment in the reality that we live in a time where an author can go to a major publisher and say, “Here’s my pitch for a book: a sapphic gothic romance graphic novel for middle schoolers” and get a yes. I’m so glad that we do, because I loved this book. The artwork is gorgeous, especially the landscapes that establish the setting. It also perfectly captures a dark fairy tale tone, both with the artwork and the references to folklore.

This is about Agatha, a girl in a small town who has always dreamed of becoming an astronomer. When she meets a mysterious woman called the Lady of the Hills, she’s given a hagstone that leads her into a secret, magical realm. She’s delighted by being able to visit this world and befriends one of the Folk of the Hills, but when she makes a new friend (and crush) in town, the Lady grows jealous and vengeful.

My only complaint with this is the romance happens very quickly, but this is a one-volume graphic novel, so it kind of has to. The Pale Queen really feels like a classic fairy tale/folk tale, including the favours that Agatha has to do for the Lady of the Hills, like telling a story to a troll to stop him from waking up and destroying the town, or guarding a flower that only blooms when the full moon is directly overhead.

This reminded me of Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales by Mel Gillman, both in terms of the art (which I love) and the feeling of a classic fairy tale. It makes me very happy to see both kids’ books and fairy tales become more inclusive of queer people. I highly recommend this one.

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.

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. ↩︎

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.

A Messy Homage to Lesbian Pulp: Perfume and Pain by Anna Dorn

Perfume and Pain cover

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If you like to read about messy lesbians making terrible decisions, this is the book for you. It’s also the perfect set piece for reading in public while sipping an iced lavender latte, though I must admit I was not then approached by a toxic lesbian who would briefly ruin my life. Maybe next time.

Personally, I love reading about deeply flawed sapphic characters—though Astrid would hate being called sapphic rather than lesbian. When I heard this was an homage to lesbian pulp fiction, I had to pick it up. I would say that characterization is fair: even without the mentions of lesbian pulp books and authors, this is melodramatic bordering on campy, so it does remind me of those 1960s stories.

I was conflicted while reading this, both reveling in Astrid’s terrible decisions and rolling my eyes at her opinions. She seems to believe no sexual identity is more subversive or underrepresented than two white femme lesbians having sex. She thinks bisexual, queer, and nonbinary identities are corporate and bland, on the other hand. Her insufferable opinions and personality are part of the appeal of this book, but I also found the constant biphobia so boring and outdated that it took me out of the story.

Astrid is a semi-successful novelist who is currently taking time off from writing to “get well” after her constant drug use—her preference is for a combination of amphetamines, alcohol, and cigarettes she calls the Patricia Highsmith—and inability to keep herself from voicing every thought that flits through her head result in her being sort of but not really cancelled. She can’t ignore her urge to self-medicate for very long, though, including by chasing toxic, obsessive relationships with women.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to google the author immediately afterwards. When Astrid has an adaptation made of her book, she insists the main character isn’t her, to the producer’s skepticism. Astrid may not be Anna, but it’s easy to see at least some overlap: they both wrote lesbian novels about astrologers, they both are fans of the Kardashians, and Dorn mentions in interviews that this book was inspired by her own concerns about turning 35—namely that her bad behavior had ceased to be considered “cute”. A quick scroll through the author’s social media also includes posts that Astrid would also share.

If the premise intrigues you, I do recommend Perfume and Pain, as long as you’re aware that the main character has bad opinions. Content warnings for biphobia, ableism, drinking and driving, homophobic slurs, heavy drug and alcohol use (to the point of blackouts), among others. I did really enjoy reading this, even though I was rolling my eyes at Astrid half the time. On the other hand, I can confidently say I won’t be picking up any other titles by this author: spiraling downwards alongside a character like this is fun once, but just like reading lesbian pulp cover-to-cover, it’s not something I feel the urge to do again any time soon.

A Painfully Oblivious Lesbian Love Story: Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream audiobook cover

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Your enjoyment of Cash Delgado Is Living the Dream will depend heavily on how you feel about reading hundreds of pages of a truly oblivious queer main character. The kind of character who googles, “Can you be straight and have a sex dream about your female best friend?” “Can you be straight and have sex dreams about a woman every night?” “Can you be straight and want to kiss a woman?” Personally, I had a lot of sympathy for Cash’s heteronormativity-poisoned brain, so I had a great time listening to the audiobook narrated by E. A. Castillo.

This is set in the same small town as Mejia’s 2023 bisexual F/M romance Sammy Espinoza’s Last Review and has some cameos of characters from that book, but I didn’t read the first book and didn’t feel like I was missing anything major, so you can definitely start with this one.

At 17, Cash Delgado shaved her head and joined a punk band, and then her controlling parents kicked her out. She thought she had a found family in the punk scene, but when she got pregnant, her support system (and the father) disappeared. She was on her own.

Since then, she’s built a life for herself by running Joyce’s Bar, a rundown bar that nevertheless is a community hub, especially on Karaoke Night. It isn’t glamorous, but the job comes with major perks, like free housing and health benefits. The hours are also flexible so that she can drop off and pick up her daughter Parker. (Parker also plays a fairly significant role in the book, and she’s an adorable six year old with a big personality.) Another big advantage of Joyce’s is working with her best friend, Inez.

Inez is the closest thing Cash has to family now, other than her daughter. She helps out with laundry and dishes when Cash falls behind. Parker adores her. Cash is so grateful for Inez’s support. Sometimes she worries that Inez is going to get a serious girlfriend one day and they won’t be as close, but she tries not to dwell on that.

We meet Cash as she faces two major shake-ups to her life. The last guy she slept with visits town, and when she goes on a date with him, he casually reveals he’s there to open a bar that will almost certainly drive Joyce’s out of business. After ditching him, she begins frantically trying to hatch a plan to save the bar, including trying to convince the out-of-town owners to pay to renovate. Of course, she and Inez work closely together to plan, which leads to the next shake-up: Cash has a… steamy dream about her best friend.

Cash reassures herself that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but she continues to have these dreams every night, and soon she can’t look at Inez without picturing them playing out. Even as her attraction to Inez becomes harder and harder to explain away, Cash worries about endangering their relationship. As you can imagine, this denial combines with miscommunication between Inez and Cash, causing the tension to just keep ratcheting up until the final chapters.

There were some aspects of this that didn’t land with me. For example, the ex turns out to be such a mustache-twirling homophobic villain that he felt cartoonish—though of course people like that do exist. On the other hand, Inez sometimes felt too good to be true, but she feels more realistic later in the novel. It was also hard for me personally to be too invested in fighting for a bar. Still, I found Cash’s obliviousness to her own queerness charming, and I felt for her, so I was invested in seeing how her and Inez’s story wrapped up.

If you’re a fan of friends-to-lovers romances, useless lesbians (affectionate), small town romances, single mom main characters, and coming out to yourself stories, I recommend this one, which comes out on July 2nd.

Memoir of a Queer Coast Salish Punk: Red Paint by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

The cover of Red Paint

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“I no longer wish to be called resilient. Call me reckless, impatient, and emotional. Even Indigenous. Call my anything other than survivor. I am so many more things than brave.”

One of my favourite books I’ve read this year is Thunder Song, LaPointe’s newest collection of essays, so I knew I wanted to go back read her memoir, Red Paint. While it took me a few chapters to get into, I ended up liking Red Paint just as much. This is a memoir that brings you right into the darkest, most painful moments of her life, including sexual assault, her marriage dissolving, and her miscarriage. It’s powerful and vulnerable, and I’m so glad I picked it up.

I’m always grateful to writers who takes readers into these vulnerable moments. LaPointe describes her mental health struggles and the coping strategies she used—from denial to self medicating to ceremonies and traditional medicine—to survive.

She also lets us into her relationships, particularly the one with her husband, Brandon, and her first love, Richard. These are complicated, realistic relationships—I was angry and frustrated with Brandon alongside LaPointe, but he was not painted as a two dimensional villain. I also felt for Richard as LaPointe reached out to him for comfort and nostalgia while knowing he wanted more from her than she could give. These relationships are so human: complex and layered.

(Because this is the Lesbrary, I’ll say that LaPointe’s bisexuality and the women she’s dated are mentioned in two chapters and aren’t the focus of the book—the romantic relationships explored here are mostly with these two men.)

While Thunder Song has a throughline of music, Red Paint incorporates the stories of LaPointe’s ancestors, especially three Coast Salish women she’s descended from. She tells the story of Comptia, her ancestor who married a Scottish man after almost her entire Chinook village died from smallpox spread by colonizers. LaPointe tries to fill in the gaps in her story: why did Comptia marry him? How did she feel being the sole survivor in her family? How does Comptia’s story connect to hers, generations later?

Red Paint definitely solidifies LaPointe as an author I want to follow. These two books are not easy reads, because they describe some of the darkest moments of her life, but they’re beautifully written and ultimately hopeful. LaPointe finds strength in her culture, family, and spiritual practices, fighting to reclaim what colonialism has sought to erase.

I do want to give clear content warnings for childhood sexual assault, detailed description of a miscarriage, description of a suicide attempt, anti-Indigenous racism, and colonialism.

If you are in a place to read that content, I highly recommend this and Thunder Song, especially if you live on the west coast of Turtle Island. I can’t wait to see what LaPointe writes next.

The Joy of Neurodivergent Romance: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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If reading Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun and Late Bloomer this year has taught me anything, it’s that I have a type in romance novels: two neurodivergent sapphics in love.

When Opal wins the lottery, she’s overwhelmed by everyone in her life who wants a cut. She impulsively buys a flower farm to get away, and as a place where she can pursue her art. When she arrives, though, she finds out that Pepper is already living there: her con artist mother sold Opal the place, and the property is now under questionable ownership. They decide to live together until they can sort the situation out, even if it means Pepper slowly buying Opal out.

What I loved about this story is that at one angle, Pepper and Opal are perfectly complementary—and at the other angle, they are contradictory opposites. Opal is a people pleaser, always eager to help others and get on their good side. Pepper is suspicious of others after being burned many times, including being manipulated by her mother. To her, Opal’s generosity looks like a trap. While they’re both neurodivergent (Pepper is autistic, Opal doesn’t have a definitive label), they have very different communication styles: Opal is bubbly and chatty, Pepper is more guarded and suspicious.

As you can imagine, they have difficulty living with each other, even as they can’t deny their chemistry. Their relationship often takes one step forward and two steps back. But what I liked about this dynamic was that their conflict all made total sense. They have a lot of miscommunication, but that’s because they have clashing communication styles. They are also both dealing with trauma that sometimes bumps up against each other’s in uncomfortable ways. And besides, they are trying to communicate. This isn’t a book where I was mentally yelling, “Just talk to them!”

While they have obstacles to overcome, I was rooting for this couple the whole time. They have good chemistry and obviously care about each other, so it’s worth getting over those hurdles. Also, this may be my favourite romance cover of all time. It’s gorgeous. It’s well worth the price just for that cover alone.

A Sweet and Steamy Polyamorous Romance: Triple Sec by T.J. Alexander

Triple Sec cover

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Before this book had even come out (happy release day, Triple Sec!), I’d already been recommending it nonstop on Our Queerest Shelves. Ever since I finished it, I haven’t been able to stop talking about. It’s definitely one of my favourite books of the year so far, and in my top five favourite romance novels I’ve ever read.

This is about Mel, who is a bartender who’s jaded about love ever since her divorce. But then Bebe walks into the bar, and they have undeniable chemistry. Bebe is interested in dating Mel — she’s also married and polyamorous. Mel has never tried an open relationship, but it seems like a good way to tiptoe back into dating. This will be totally light and casual, right? They mutually agree: no falling in love. And Bebe’s nonbinary wife Kade is so intimidating that Mel can’t imagine actually being a part of their lives. But obviously, feelings don’t obey even the most clearly written out agreements.

I’ve long thought that reality TV shows are missing out by not casting all bisexuals. (Other than that season of Are You the One?) Think of the drama potential! The opportunity for different pairings increases exponentially. Since reading Triple Sec, I feel the same way about romance novels and polyamorous main characters. You can have two falling-in-love scenes in the same romance! Twice the first kisses! Two — or more — completely different relationship (and sexual) dynamics! I feel like I’ve been spoiled and will have trouble going back to two-person romances.

I know romance novels are so specific to each reader, but I loved the relationship dynamics and especially the dialogue. When Mel shows Bebe her tattoo of Pompeii and Bebe replies, “I love a good disaster myself” — look, I also would have fallen in love right then and there. I also liked the friendship between Mel and her roommate, who both agree to follow the good word of Saint Channing Tatum.

It’s also very steamy. I’m not going to get into it, but wow.

I enjoyed the ongoing rewriting of Bebe and Mel’s relationship agreement as they renegotiate things like pet names, catching feelings, and the dynamics between Kade, Mel, and Bebe.

While the central plot is the relationships between Mel, Bebe, and Kade, there’s also a subplot about a cocktail competition. I don’t drink, but I still found it fascinating to read about Mel’s different creations and how she keeps reworking her creations leading up the competition. Winning would mean she could buy her own bar, a dream of hers.

I also liked reading about Mel’s job: Terror & Virtue is a high-end cocktail lounge, and Mel is very skilled and passionate about her work — but it’s also customer service. It means dealing with drunk, rude customers and worrying about your next paycheck. In fact, the only criticism I had with Triple Sec is that I feel like the class difference between Mel and Bebe/Kade wasn’t really explored, other than Mel admiring their apartment and feeling a little out of place. Bebe and Kade are wealthy — Kade is a successful artist and Bebe is a lawyer defending workers’ rights.

That’s a very small complaint, though, especially since the ending didn’t go where I thought it would. If you want a fun, queer, polyamorous romance with lots of kind people learning how to best support each other, I highly recommend Triple Sec.