Kayla Bell reviews Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera

cover of Mangoes and Mistletoe

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Another holiday season, another sapphic Christmas romance. Cozy up with your favorite holiday baked goods and a cup of hot chocolate, because Mangoes and Mistletoe by Adriana Herrera is an awesome addition to the genre.

Our story begins in Scotland, where our protagonist, Kiskeya Burgos, is getting ready to compete in the Holiday Baking Championship. She wants to prove to the world that she is a amazing baker that deserves professional acclaim, and is laser-focused on winning the contest. To Kiskeya’s chagrin, she gets paired with Sully Morales, another Dominican baker who is the bubbly, optimistic extrovert to Kiskeya’s serious, driven introvert. As the contest begins, the two bakers have to learn how to work together if either of them want the chance to win. And, as you can imagine, romantic misadventures ensue.

While this novella definitely served up the holiday fun and whimsy, it also touched on some genuinely powerful themes. Kiskeya and Sully are both Dominican, but they both have very different experiences of the culture and desires for how to showcase that in public. The discussion of how queer people can love their culture but also feel pain at homophobia within it really hit home for me. And the plotline with the Holiday Baking Championship TV show also managed to explore ideas of tokenization and how culture can become commodified. For a novella that was jam-packed with plot as it was, I found it impressive that the book managed to touch on such an important topic in a nuanced way.

At the same time, Mangoes and Mistletoe was also an adorable romance novella. Personally, grumpy sunshine (where one partner is bubbly and happy while the other one is, well, grumpy) might be my favorite romance relationship dynamic, and this story executed it so well. Instead of having flat characters, this book really went into the backgrounds of why Kiskeya and Sully became the way that they are. I really enjoyed seeing them go from being at each other’s throats to truly understanding and relating to one another. Plus, the book is chock full of your favorite romance tropes. There was only one bed! If you aren’t into these tropes, your mileage may vary, but I love seeing couples who historically have not had the chance to star in romances get their turn.

Because I enjoyed the book so much, my only gripe was that I wished it could be longer. Don’t get me wrong, the pacing was great and I love reading a lot of shorter books during the holiday season, but I just wish I had more time with the characters. The author did such a great job of exploring backstory at this length that I wish she had more room to do so further. Hopefully, if books like this are successful, publishers and authors will realize that there is a market for longer f/f romance novels, especially holiday ones.

Based on Mangoes and Mistletoe, I can’t wait to dive into Adriana Herrera’s other books and see what she does next. Happy holidays, readers!

Cath reviews Perfect Rhythm by Jae

the cover of perfect rhythm

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Leontyne “Leo” Blake, stage name Jenna, has it all. She’s a world-famous pop star just wrapping up a world tour. Everybody knows her songs, her name (well, sort of). She’s even out as a lesbian and still enjoying her popularity.

Then, just as she walks off stage at a concert, her mom calls and asks her to come home. Her dad has had a stroke. Leo immediately finds herself flying back to the small Missouri town of Fair Oaks that she tried so desperately to leave behind.

Holly Drummond has lived in Fair Oaks for basically her entire life, barring when she was in college. She loves the small-town feel, and she’s glad she was able to return to Fair Oaks as a nurse to support the people she’d grown up around. In fact, she’s now a home health nurse for Gil Blake–Leo’s father. She’s also out as a lesbian in some circles around town, but that isn’t the whole story. Holly is asexual, and while she is definitely romantically attracted to women, there’s no sexual component for her.

When Leo comes home, she and Holly get off on the wrong foot–Leo’s been gone for a long time and never wanted to return, and Holly finds her irritating and self-centered. But they end up spending a lot of time in each other’s back pockets, because Fair Oaks is small to begin with and now Holly is staying at Leo’s family’s house a few nights a week to help Gil and Sharon (Leo’s mom). Leo finds Holly physically attractive, despite their friction, but assumes Holly must be straight when Holly doesn’t seem to return the interest.

The story unfolds at a decent pace at first, not feeling too rushed but also not lagging. Leo and Holly spend a lot of time irritated at one another until they start to realize that they’ve based their views about each other on assumptions that aren’t true. Once they’re able to clear the air a little, they realize they enjoy spending time together, and eventually start to realize they’re developing romantic feelings for one another. But it’s complicated, because Leo is supposed to return to New York, and Holly doesn’t know how to tell her that she’s asexual.

As an ace person myself, I was really excited to read a romance novel with an ace protagonist. I liked Holly’s character a lot, and Leo started to grow on me pretty quickly as she struggled with how to integrate herself back into her hometown and try to repair her relationship with her parents. The romance was very cute and sweet, and I really appreciated that there was a depiction of strained familial relationships that showed you can love somebody dearly and still do things that hurt them, and that it’s possible to try and mend those relationships but it can be difficult.

However, the pacing really started to feel off to me about halfway through the novel. The romance seems to progress both rather quickly and rather slowly, and there are time jumps that had me confused about how much time had passed. Overall, it seems like most of the book takes place over a span of less than two months, which is really very fast for how slow-burn the romance felt at first. I think this is what brought me down to a three-star rating for this book, because when I would start new chapters I would frequently feel like I had missed a portion of the story and go back and check that something hadn’t gone wrong with my kindle.

Still, I really loved the scenes with Holly’s online friends, and the inclusion of a queerplatonic relationship that was every bit as important as romantic relationships around it. The fact that both Leo and Holly were comfortable in their identities was also really refreshing, and it was highlighted by their interactions with a mutual friend of theirs who is not comfortable with her queerness.

A part of the book I’m really uncertain about is that it does include a sex scene. This is entirely consensual, and both Leo and Holly are very communicative about what they want and are in control of what happens to their bodies. The entire scene is presented as a sensual rather than sexual experience for Holly, and I am definitely glad to see the distinction presented, and that some of what Holly experiences as sensual reads as sexual to others and she is adamant that it isn’t for her. But as an ace person, sex scenes with ace characters can be really fraught. This scene might be really validating to some ace people, but it felt somewhat alienating to me.

Overall, I did like the story, and would recommend it for people wanting to read a romance with an asexual wlw character. But the pacing especially, plus the alienation I felt from the sex scene, leave me with a 3-star rating.

Content warnings: stroke, death

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.

Sam reviews The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

The Unspoken Name cover

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I went into A. K. Larkwood’s The Unspoken Name with no idea what to expect. I’d even say that I came to the novel feeling a little ungenerous, though I’m not sure I could tell you why.  But despite this, The Unspoken Name caught me in the grip of its energetic story and engrossing characters until I surprised myself by finishing it in just a few days.
The book opens on a scene many fantasy readers will recognize: our main character, Csorwe, is a teenage girl raised to be sacrificed to a god of darkness by a religious order obsessed with death. Even without knowing that The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin is the author’s favorite book, the inspiration is easy to spot. But by the time a well-spoken wizard from another world arrives to offer Csorwe a different life, I found I didn’t mind the familiarity. I already liked the characters, and I wanted to find out what happens next.

What happens next, as it turns out, is a pretty good fantasy adventure. The book primarily follows Csorwe as she grows into her own in said wizard’s service, though it occasionally jumps into the perspective of Csorwe’s easily hateable rival Tal. I feel like Tal’s chapters could be a dealbreaker for some readers, as he is an insufferable jerk, but the two play off each other well enough that I didn’t mind (it helps that Tal, like Csorwe, is very gay). In fact, all of the characters in The Unspoken Name are deeply believable, as interesting as they are consistent. I felt like I got to know them as I read, which made any cliché or familiar story beats seem only natural in context. The entire book tends to play out this way, with every semi-predictable development arriving with a satisfying inevitability all the way to the end of the novel.

The book’s setting is as believable and fun as its characters. Larkwood’s collision of fantasy worlds connected by a shattered un-world in the middle is vibrant and imaginative, and all the better for its lack of defined borders and nitty-gritty details. I actually wish that the magic of the setting (which is rather plot-critical) had the same space to breathe; it’s a bit of a personal nitpick, but I’d prefer there remained a bit more mystery to the magic system. It’s saved by just how much the characters themselves believe in it—faith is a critical aspect of magic in The Unspoken Name, and Larkwood does a tremendous job selling the emotional weight of that faith to the reader.

Of course, being the romantic sap that I am, I spent a lot of time looking forward to a lesbian love interest to show up. The wizard-in-training Qanwa Shuthmili does not disappoint when she finally makes her debut. She’s just as fascinating and enchanting to the reader as she is to Csorwe; it’s obvious what’s coming for the two of them, but just like the rest of the book, watching their relationship develop feels natural and exciting rather than trite or played-out. The fact that you can easily read Csorwe and Shuthmili as butch and fem also meant I had basically no choice but to love them.

I actually wish we got to spend more time with Shuthmili, or better yet, had a few chapters reading from her perspective. She’s well written enough that it’s not strictly necessary—her decisions and actions all make sense without hearing an internal monologue—but she’s such an obviously complex character that I can’t help but feel like we’re missing out by only seeing this love story from one side.

The novel ends with the promise of more adventures to come, and I would certainly love to see more of these characters and this world. But if it turns out this was a stand-alone work, I’d be okay with that. There’s no denying that The Unspoken Name is a fun, creative, and deeply satisfying gay fantasy book, and it’s absolutely worth reading for that alone.

Content warnings: mouth/tooth injuries

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Nat reviews Thorn by Anna Burke

Thorn cover

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My recent infatuation with the Compass Rose series should have been all the warning I needed not to start an Anna Burke book just before bedtime. This dark, Grimm style and very gay retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” kept me reading well past midnight to get just “one more page!” Thorn, with its complex characters and their histories, goes so much further than just subbing in perpetually hungry wolves and a large ice bear for talking candles and singing teapots.

Burke does a great job with world building, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where you and our young protagonist, Rowan, have just been dropped. A very cold, very isolated place that one wouldn’t necessarily choose to live. Rowan’s father, a failed merchant turned aspiring fur trader, has had no choice but to flee the city with his three daughters and start a new life to escape his debts. While he’s not a villain by any means, he treats his children as commodities, and is preoccupied with returning to some status in society.

When we first meet Rowan, we see how different she is from her sisters. As the eldest, there’s a lot of pressure on her to take care of the family. It’s here we also find out that she’s betrothed to the neighbor’s son (let’s call him baby Gaston) and would very much prefer not to be. On top of it all, she absolutely hates living in this godforsaken, frozen little village. It doesn’t take long for us to get an idea that Rowan doesn’t love her homelife. 

The Huntress, our cruel and mysterious “beast”, is something of a legend and a myth for those living in the nearby village. But she and the curse that keeps her confined to the mountain are very real. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s there all the time within the boundaries of her land. Our beast has been condemned to a life of solitude, and the cold and loneliness in the story are very much intertwined. 

When a hunting party crosses the threshold of her lands and kills two of the Huntress’ wolf companions, Rowan’s father, one of the unfortunate trespassers, is spared by the Huntress only to commit the more serious crime of stealing a white rose. The Huntress doesn’t delay in retrieving her stolen property. Rose for a rose, thorn for a thorn. 

I enjoyed the vivid descriptions Burke offers, and I haven’t been that creeped out by a flower since watching The Ruins. We see a lot of interesting imagery with the rose throughout the book, and some particularly unnerving scenes where the flower winds its way from one person and into another. Burke also does a great job getting to the heart of the characters’ relationships in a relatively short period of time. We see Rowan fighting to resist a growing attraction to her captor, and a reluctance to admit that this new life is as free as she’s ever been. We also catch glimpses of the Huntress’s past, and how this literal ice queen came to be cursed and live in an enchanted castle with her pack of four legged Hounds. 

One of my favorite parts of this book, which made me laugh out loud, is an indulgent scene requiring the need for skin to skin contact for warmth — despite a perfectly serviceable hot spring in the basement of the castle. Thanks to Anna Burke for that fan service. 

As usual, Burke’s prose is strong, and it particularly shines in this book. You will feel the cold in your bones. You will smell the musty old castle and its musky animal inhabitants, and taste the venison stew. The main characters are well developed, and we get to see both of their perspectives throughout the book. The big romance tropes here are age gap, ice queen and enemies to lovers. There is of course an iconic library scene, and an “it doesn’t matter now, just let them come” scene right before the curse is broken. While the general promise of happily ever after is fulfilled by our star crossed lovers staying together, we also feel the angst and pain of other consequences. And with that, Burke leaves us with a bit of her book’s winter chill.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

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Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Kelleen reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

In my opinion, the best historical romance novels are about today. Let me explain: though they’re set in a time in the past (usually Regency-Victorian England or Western North America in the late 1800s), the contents, themes, issues, and politics of the romance and the world are negotiating and commenting on the sociopolitical issues of today. This book takes that directive and blows it out of the water. Written in 2019 and set in 1867 England, this book is so intrinsically about the sociopolitical frustrations with patriarchal power and the both personal and systemic violences of that power. It is not nuanced, it is not subtle. It’s about two old women falling in love and going up against terrible men. It is the ultimate fantasy of taking down a truly bad man with your own sapphic joy, overdue spite, and arsonry spirit.

This novella starts the way all good romances do: Violetta has a problem. She has been sacked from her job managing the boarding house where she’s worked for 47 years exactly 11 months before she would be entitled to her pension. And so she devises a scheme to pose as the owner of the boarding house, con one of the tenant’s rent out of his wealthy old aunt, and pocket the 68 pounds.

The wealthy aunt, Mrs. Bertrice Martin, needs an adventure. And a romp through town with her new lady love to take down her truly Terrible Nephew is just what the doctor ordered.

I love this book. Both the prose and the dialogue are snappy and compelling in their oddness. Courtney Milan is a master of new, interesting story concepts, lovable, prickly characters, and real, swoony romance. And this straight-shot sapphic, anti-patriarchal romance without even a whiff of homophobia is, almost always, just what the doctor ordered for me as a reader.

I love a romance about people who don’t get romance novels written about them and this is one of those–old women with the wisdom, fear, joy, and pain of having lived a life subjugated by the capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy. Old women (Violetta is 69 and Bertrice is 73) with needs and desires and the hard outer shells that they have built up in order to live in a world that is not only not built for them, but one that actively resents them as “surplus,” unnecessary and unworthy. They must do the work to break each other open and to make themselves receptive and vulnerable to the intimate knowing that true romance requires. The physical intimacy is raw and breathtaking and so real, with real bodies and heart-rending tenderness.

Yes, Terrible Nephew is cartoonishly (and then very cathartically) bad, but all of the other men in this book are bad in different, more subtle, more real ways, and watching these women band together in their romantic love and partnership, as well as finding other women to support and fight alongside, is powerful.

On top of all that, there is casual cane usage and some intensely beautiful conversations about grief and depression in between bouts of rowdy farm animals and off-key carolers.

In this book, love (and crispy cheese) conquers all, even bad men and creaky bones.

Content warnings: sexual violence (off page), misogyny, ageism, depression, grief

Kelleen is a new contributor to the Lesbrary. You can read more reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Shana reviews Didn’t Stay in Vegas by Chelsea M. Cameron

the cover of Didn't Stay In Vegas

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Didn’t Stay in Vegas is a lighthearted romantic comedy about two best friends who wake up after a wild night in Las Vegas, and discover that they’re married. To each other. 

Callyn’s life is a bit of a mess, but her best friend Emma is always there to bake her cookies and marathon TV shows.  So when Callyn has a terrible hangover and underwear full of glitter the morning after their mutual friend’s bachelorette party, she immediately looks for steady, reliable Emma—only to discover her in a similar state, holding a marriage certificate. Emma claims she doesn’t remember the wedding, but she also suggests they stay married for financial reasons that feel like a stretch. After a string of life setbacks, Calyyn ends up moving in with Emma, getting a puppy, and being extremely adorable while spending most of their time nesting together. Even clueless Callyn starts to wonder if Emma’s been in love with her all along. 

Didn’t Stay in Vegas is a low-conflict romance, perfect for when you want the book equivalent of a cup of sweet hot chocolate. As a reader, it was fairly obvious early on  that Emma is into Callyn, so most of the book is just watching Callyn slowly figure out her own feelings, while getting her life together along the way. I liked that Callyn and Emma are both comfortably queer before their marriage. This is a friends to lovers romance, not a coming out story. And accidentally falling in the love with your friend is certainly something queer women are good at! 

Of the two main characters, I found Emma’s kindness and competence more enjoyable than Callyn’s frenetic energy. But this story is told from Callyn’s point of view, so we can only guess at what Emma is feeling. This leads to many hilarious moments, because Callyn is incredibly slow about noticing that her BFF is definitely in love with her. Callyn’s denial persists even after they have sex! 

Still, I was left feeling like Emma’s character was a little flat, and we don’t really learn much about her outside of the relationship. Since Callyn feels younger and less comfortable in her skin, reading the story from her point of view sometimes made the relationship feel immature.

I did enjoy the theme of chosen family. Callyn and Emma’s big queer friend group felt like extras on L Word Generation Q—attractive, vaguely interesting people that I found myself more interested in than the main characters. 

Didn’t Stay in Vegas lacks the emotional substance of Cameron’s other romances, but it’s a frequently funny, comforting, easy read.