A Thrilling Elemental Fantasy Debut: The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbair

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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Nehal has practically everything that a woman could ask for: wealth, a prestigious name, an engagement to one of the most eligible men in Alamaxa. What she doesn’t have, though, is the right to join the Weaving Academy on her own and learn how to control her waterweaving—not without the permission of a male guardian or a husband.

Giorgina doesn’t have any privileges of the wealthy. Her impoverished family relies on her income to stay afloat, so she can’t afford to rock the boat by joining the Daughters of Izdihar too publicly in their fight for the right to vote, nor can she afford the tuition to learn how to control her earthweaving. Her heart is further broken when she learns that her love is being forced into an arranged marriage with a wealthy aristocrat named Nehal.

These two women live worlds apart, but soon they find that their fight for the right to determine their own futures will throw them together.

I’d been meaning to read this book ever since it came out about a year ago, but after a slew of sapphic fantasies I found myself putting it off. Now, at least, I get to read it with the second book already out (no spoilers, but you’re definitely going to want to have access to the second one shortly after finishing this book). I do regret taking my sweet time because this book was such a fun, fast-paced adventure.

I heard The Daughters of Izdihar described as a sapphic, Egyptian-inspired version of Avatar the Last Airbender. The similarities with Avatar the Last Airbender are obvious with magic powers tied to the elements, but I think that is where the comparisons end. Elsbair expands upon the ways in which weaving is a metaphor for how entrenched institutions impose on marginalized groups, how it’s a way to weaponize the group against itself by creating a sense of “other” framed as dangerous. In one scene, the women working to get the right to vote consider casting out the weavers in their cause in a way that echoes how women’s rights groups have continually excluded other marginalized identities for the sake of being more “acceptable” or “tolerable”. Weaving is a skill that only the privileged classes are able to afford training, an example of how money can justify outliers and reclassify people who deviate from the norm as merely eccentric rather than dangerous.

If you’re mostly looking for an adventure story, there’s plenty of that too. I was surprised at how fast-paced the book was. At times I felt like we were speeding along in scenes that I’d prefer to linger, especially as Nehal learns more about her abilities and what the Daughters of Izdihar do. It also means, though, that there’s never a dull moment. It’s also a duology, so I remain hopeful that the characters I wanted to see more from will feature prominently in the next one. It’s a wonderful debut and I’m looking forward to whatever Elsbair puts out next.

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

A New Take On the 20-Something F*ckup Novel: All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different cover

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I have heard only great things about this book since it came out in 2022, but I somehow didn’t actually pick it up until my queer book club chose it for this month’s pick. I vaguely remembered downloading an ARC on my ereader, so I opened that up and jumped in. I was immediately struck by two surprises: 1) I wasn’t really enjoying the book, though I had been expecting to love it, and 2) I had started this book already. I was eight percent of the way through—which is not a lot, but it means at some point I started and abandoned it. Aside from the unease of reading through highlights I couldn’t remember making, I was also beginning to have a sinking feeling that this was not going to live up to the glowing reviews I’d heard.

Sneha is not an easy main character to like in the beginning of the story. She’s freshly graduated from her program and starting a new job in a new city: Milwaukee. She doesn’t have any real connections here, and she struggles to find her footing. Her property manager lives downstairs and erupts in anger if she makes the slightest noise. Her job is demanding and unpredictable. She hooks up with women without looking for anything lasting. And throughout it, she simmers with self-loathing that periodically boils over into cruelty and judgement.

Sneha is a queer woman of colour who has a lot of internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. She thinks hateful things about other women, people of colour, and queer people. She’s angry and judgmental, but she’s also passive. She feels constrained by being an immigrant, especially because her father was deported. She worries that any misstep will result in failure—not just her own, but also failure to live up to her parents’ dreams.

“What nobody told me when I was a very young person was that obedience, fearful toeing of every line, chasing every kind of safety, would not save you.”

At this point in the story, I was having trouble with it. It was interesting enough to keep going, but I began to think that maybe I’ve grown beyond identifying with 20-something fuckup literary fiction—a genre I loved when I was younger. I might have even DNFed it, if it weren’t for my book club. But then…it got me. Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d gotten invested in Sneha and the network of relationships she formed.

There’s such a payoff in Sneha’s character growth—not that she becomes a perfect person, but that she becomes more accepting of herself and others. And that payoff feels so powerful because she was such a mess in the beginning. So I can’t fault the book for that, and I will say it’s worth sticking with through those beginning chapters, when she is being insensitive and even cruel.

If you’re a fan of messy found family dynamics, I definitely recommend this one. All the characters are complex and flawed, but they come together to support each other. Tig is definitely the standout character of the novel: a charismatic Black nonbinary philosopher who imagines a better world and both accepts Sneha and holds her accountable.

“This is my tragedy and my great good fortune, to be the recipient of this bond, to be kept alive under its crushing warmth and weight, to be given it so freely, so much more than I have ever deserved.”

The small section of the book that takes place in India adds a lot of depth to the story, I think. Even Sneha’s mother is a complex character—maybe more so than Sneha originally gives her credit for.

I was also surprised to see how the story is structured: while most of the book takes place over a small time span, there are a few chapters that go over several years. I think some readers will find that jarring, but I appreciated seeing the bittersweet aftermath of this formative time in these characters’ lives.

I definitely recommend this as a book club book, because there is so much to pull out and discuss, from issues of classism and appropriation to it being set during the recession to Sneha’s character arc to Sneha’s relationship with Marina and a lot more. It’s definitely one I think I would appreciate even more on rereading.

A Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

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When I picked this up, I was expecting a horror novel. And that makes sense, because it does have a lot of ghosts in it. But the ghosts are more a part of the setting than the plot; while they’re literally present in the town, their significance in the story is on the metaphorical side. I think “Gothic” is more fitting as a genre categorization.

We’re following Jericka, who has been bouncing from place to place her whole life as her mom kept uprooting the two of them. Now, she’s spending the summer helping to take care of her grandmother as she dies of cancer. What makes this a lot more complicated is that Gram walked out on Jericka’s mother and uncle when they were children — leaving them alone with their abusive father.

One thing I appreciated about Jericka is that she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. When she meets her Gram, she asks her directly why she left her kids and why she reached out when she got sick. This is not one of those books where you wish the characters would just talk to each other — if anything, there are times when it would benefit Jericka to stop and think about what she’s going to say for a minute before lashing out.

This is a quick read, and the writing can feel a little… sparse at times. Like Jericka, the author gets directly to the point in a way that can feel abrupt. But the strength of this story is in its characterization and relationships. The three generations of women in that house all have complicated relationships to each other—Jericka soon finds out some secrets about her own childhood that are hard to grapple with. There are no easy answers here. Jericka begins to build a relationship with her grandmother even knowing that there is no way for Gram to make up for the damage she’s done to her children. She also starts to see her father and his wife, who she’s only communicated with through the occasional phone call and birthday card.

Then there’s Jericka’s complicated romantic life. She has a boyfriend back home, James, and their relationship is… comfortable. She loves him, but she doesn’t know if she wants to try to continue their relationship long distance when they go to university. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a girl in Clearwater: Kat. Kat is the only one who talks about the ghosts in town. She’s not popular, but she has a fiercely loyal best friend who will defend her at all costs. She talks a mile a minute and makes a terrible iced hot chocolate. I appreciated that Kat was multifaceted and flawed, not just a perfect love interest. Jericka has been out as bisexual for years, so her struggle choosing between James and Kat has more to do with her fears about the future than any worry about what it means for her identity.

I suppose I should actually talk about the ghosts, but it doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to get to them. The characters and their complex relationships — especially family relationships — are the stars here. The ghosts, usually called echoes, are the manifestation of a central tension in Jericka’s story: the choice between putting down roots and always being on the run. The people in Coldwater seem unable to leave this town, but Jericka is tired of constantly moving. The echoes are the ghosts of the women who died when the old schoolhouse burned down, and they implore residents to never leave.

Of course, this is also a story about grief and loss. Jericka is building a relationship with her grandmother knowing that soon Gram will be dead. Jericka decides that although this is extremely painful, and although she can’t forgive Gram for what she did, she doesn’t want to continue the family tradition of silence and disconnection. She’d rather reach out even with all of that history between them.

I wouldn’t recommend this for readers looking for a terrifying horror read, but if you are a fan of family sagas and coming of age stories set against a gothic backdrop—with a few creepy scenes—I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Gothic Horror Infused with Queer Rage: Grey Dog by Elliott Gish 

Grey Dog cover

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Elliott Gish’s debut queer Gothic novel, Grey Dog (ECW Press, 2024), is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Intense, foreboding, and atmospheric, Grey Dog is the latest in queer horror, and it’s a must-read!

Set in 1901, the novel is structured as the diary of Ada Byrd, a spinster and schoolteacher, who arrives in the isolated small town of Lowry Bridge under a cloud of misery after things went awry at her last post. Starting afresh with new students, Ada explores the surrounding woods and makes new friends who know nothing of her past. Slowly, Ada begins to hope for a future at Lowry Bridge and a place in the community. Maybe, in this new place, Ada can leave her past behind. 

Slowly, however, strange events begin to take place: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. Ada believes that something disturbing and inhuman lurks in the woods, pursuing her from afar and presenting her with these offerings—offerings that both repel and intrigue her. As the creature she calls ‘Grey Dog’ encroaches, Ada’s sense of reality blurs and her past returns to haunt her as she confronts the rage simmering inside her. 

I hesitate to say more without giving the plot away! One of the charms of this novel is its suspense and mystery, which quickly gives way to horror in the second half of the novel. Gish has the incredible ability to generate a sense of fear and danger in even the most seemingly innocuous moments. By structuring Grey Dog as Ada’s diary, the novel is confined to her perspective, which unravels more and more as the text goes on, although there are clues that Ada may not be as honest as the diary form suggests she will be. The reader feels as though they are living in Ada’s head and experiencing the confusing, haunting events of the novel along with her. 

As historical fiction, Gish pays close attention to the social and gendered contexts which confine and police Ada throughout the novel. Ultimately, Grey Dog is a book about rage—queer rage and women’s rage—and the pain of emotional and physical abuse. Ada can only repress her anger at the injustices of her life and the lives of those she loves at the hands of those who seek to control her. When the dam finally breaks, the result is both extraordinary and dreadful in equal measure. 

I loved Grey Dog. I could hardly bear to put it down. I’m reading it for the second time this week and it’s just as fantastic as it was the first time. This novel has become a new favourite for me and I look forward to reading Gish’s future work!

Please add Grey Dog to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Elliott Gish on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Land of Gods, Monsters, and Talking Cats: Monstress Vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Monstress Vol. 1 cover

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Oftentimes bleak but consistently awe-inspiring, Liu’s world of steampunk, art deco fantasy is a marvel to behold. This is definitely one to check the trigger warnings for.

Set in a world where humans and Arcanics (a cross between humans and a mystical race called Ancients) are at war, Monstress is the story of one Arcanic, Maika Halfwolf, who is searching for answers about her life whilst others threaten to end it. It is a story of oppression, war, and survival, weaved together with astounding detail and riveting lore.

What struck me during my time with this is its unabashed brutality. It is astonishingly dark, with violence akin to something like Berserk and worldbuilding which verges on lovecraftian: giant, cosmically horrifying gods; slavery, torture, and experimentation; and more than a few mentions of cannibalism. Coupled with the breathtaking art, we’re thrust into a world that is so visceral it becomes addictive. I could easily draw comparisons to a Miyazaki game such as Bloodborne with its grand aesthetics and remorseless atmosphere, but Monstress is wholly unique in its blend of mythology, magic, and feminine power. It is a story that not only features a female main character, but creates a world of deliberate female rage, with all of the important characters being female in the war-torn matriarchal society.

The story itself is unapologetically cruel with very few moments of respite. There are countless moments of violence, death, and suffering, points where you may think “surely not…”, but yes, it happens anyway. The intensity of the characters radiates off the page, each one fully realized and very believably capable of the atrocities which they commit. This is inclusive of our main character, Maika, who performs her own share of bloody vengeance as she attempts to uncover her past whilst dealing with an unknown force that threatens her life. Liu’s cast is filled with flawed, relentless characters who are almost all women—a rare treat in the world of comics. 

Despite the horror of it all, however, there’s also a grand sense of wonder within the pages. Liu draws from a slew of Asian mythologies to create the world of Monstress, populating the world with a number of magical creatures (including talking cats!). The dichotomy between these fantastical elements and the otherwise horror-esque ones only lends to expand what fantasy can be, and is all I could hope for as a fan of both genres. I also greatly appreciate it as an outlier in the genre of dark fantasy; too often in said genre are women used as props, only written to serve as a victim and experience assault at the hands of male characters to prove the “darkness” of the world, or to further the male character’s story. 

Overall, if you’re looking for a brutal, enchanting, sapphic fantasy comic with enough horror and violence to leave you feeling uneasy, then you will love Monstress as much as I did. 

Content Warnings: Graphic depictions of death, violence, gore, body horror, starvation, dismemberment, mutilation of corpses, child abuse/murder, animal abuse/murder, war

Lizzie is a femme non-binary (they/she) reader who loves anything weird, fantastical, and queer. You can find them predominantly on their instagram @creaturereader where they share pretty books and diverse recs.

Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

Stories About Brave Women Who Don’t Take Shit from Anyone: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

the cover of One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

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We all have our preferred coping methods. Mine is returning to comforting favorites: books that changed me, those old familiar stories that still move me, no matter the intervening years. 

These last seven years, Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero has been waiting quietly for me to pick it up again. The book itself is oversized, a choice I like to think foreshadows its impact, but let me tell you more about its insides first.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a collection of stories set within a love story about two women defying a patriarchal empire. The art is sketchy but striking, with a limited color palette of red, gold, and teal, enhancing black, white, and gray. The prose conveys the same style—simple and striking—with the added zing of snark, allowing the story itself to shine. 

The prologue opens with a world creation myth. Early Earth was perfect, but this soon changes due to a God’s meddling. This God, Birdman, fanatically desires worship and adoration. “See these humans Kiddo has created… Happily breeding. Left, right and centre. NO MORE! I shall give them ME. They will learn to fear me, they will learn to do my bidding… They will worship me.” 

Properly furnished with this context, we arrive at the city of Migdal Bavel in the midst of a fireside conversation between Manfred and Jerome. Here, devotees of Birdman hold sway and women are seen as little more than amusing possessions, forbidden from learning to read and write.

We learn of Manfred’s difficulties with women. Alas, after he killed his first wife for being assaulted, he’s unable to find a woman who meets his highly specific criteria: “Beautiful. Clever enough to have a conversation, not clever enough to disagree with [him]. Obedient. Chaste. Good at mending socks. NOT ambitious. Marriage to [him] must be the height of her ambition. Interested in [his] passions. Falconry, battlements, maps, etcetera. But not as good as [him] at those things.” Hearing this, his friend Jerome points out that his wife, Cherry, is all of those things. And so he sets a ludicrous wager. He will give Manfred one hundred nights to attempt to seduce his wife Cherry, who is so incredibly chaste that even he has not “taken her virtue.” 

Years before this shameful fireside chat between Manfred and Jerome, Cherry fell in love with her maid, Hero. They shared a single wonderful summer together before Cherry was forced into marrying Jerome. Now, faced with a similar seemingly inescapable situation, they come up with a bold plan. They will distract Manfred with an enchanting story every evening for the next one hundred nights, in the grand tradition of One Thousand and One Nights

The graphic novel unspools from there, Hero telling story after story to a rapt Manfred and an anxious Cherry. We learn mysterious and tantalizing tidbits about Migdal Bavel and Hero. Some stories are familiar but end in a new way, such as the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Others are wholly new, like the story of the Secret League of Storytellers, a group of women who resolve to tell “…all the stories that are never told…And above all, stories about brave women who don’t take shit from anyone.” The guards are enthralled too, and soon the entire city of Migdal Bavel whispers about Hero’s stories. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) When Jerome returns home on the one hundredth night and Cherry’s virtue remains intact, Manfred screams witchcraft, and the women are taken to the tallest tower… You can imagine the end that awaits them there. I refuse to spoil it for you, but know that I cried in queer despair and joy.

There is so much to love in Greenberg’s graphic novel. There are beautiful repetitions and throughlines, like women not being sorry, not even one bit, like brave women who don’t take shit from anyone, and recurring devices like a magic pebble. These stories unfurl, less in a linear progression and more in a self-referential spiral, all adding up to inform the gorgeous ending. 

I’ve carried the bold and unrepentant spirit of The One Hundred Nights of Hero’s love story with me since the first time I read it in 2017, and I hope you choose to do the same.

Warnings: misogyny, nudity; mentioned but not depicted: sexual assault, violence

A Lesbian Road Trip Romcom About Death: Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun

Here We Go Again cover

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I read Alison Cochrun’s previous book, Kiss Her Once for Me, and liked it, but I was not expecting to love this one quite as much as I did. Some of that is for reasons that will translate to many other readers, and some of my enjoyment comes from it combining my own random interests. Either way, I highly recommend this one, even if you have no experience teaching high school English and aren’t also contemplating getting assessed for ADHD.

Just as high school is such a pivotal time of life despite being only four years, my three years teaching and learning to teach had a permanent impact on me. I may not have been a high school English teacher for long, but I think some part of me always will be—and it’s still my back-up career. During those years, it completely consumed me. I would lay awake at night trying to figure out how to be a better teacher. My practicums were the most stressful times of my life. So it won’t come as a shock that I deeply related to this story about three high school English teachers. Unsurprisingly, Cochrun used to be a high school English teacher herself. (It’s also dedicated to teachers: “For all the queer educators out there. You save lives simply by showing up. Thank you. And for every queer teenager who became a little too attached to their English teacher. I see you. I love you.”)

Logan and Rosemary are rival English teachers at the same high school, but once, they were best friends. Then one kiss ruined their relationship, and now they can’t stand each other. It doesn’t help that they are classic Type A (Rosemary) and Type B (Logan) teachers, each judging the other for their opposing styles. How did they end up in the same profession? When they were teens, the only person who saw and accepted these two struggling queer and neurodivergent teachers was Joe, their Mexican American, openly gay English teacher. In their conservative small town, Joe was a life-saving presence for them, and they both followed in his footsteps.

Joe isn’t teaching anymore, though. He’s only 64, but years battling pancreatic cancer has ended with him being recommended hospice care. Both Rosemary and Logan have been helping take care of him, but he has a deathbed request that will be a lot more challenging to fulfill. He wants to die in his cabin in Maine, and he wants Logan and Rosemary to drive him there. Together.

Because the two of them can hardly be in the same room together, the idea of being in the same car for almost a week seems impossible, but they can’t ignore Joe’s pleas for them to make up and help go out the way he wants to. Besides, Rosemary has—unbelievably—just been laid off and doesn’t have a guaranteed job to go back to after the summer, so she needs something to keep her anxious brain occupied. So, she makes a giant binder of travel plans and convinces Logan to get on board, and off they set: a dying man, two mortal enemies, and a dog, all crammed in a van together.

I love a road trip story, and just as you’d expect, being in a confined space together forces Logan and Rosemary to communicate. There has been a lot of miscommunication between the two of them over the years, including Logan believing that Rosemary is a tight-laced, high-achieving, heterosexual neurotypical person with everything under control. In reality, they’re both neurodivergent lesbians, and Rosemary manages her anxiety with a desperate need to try to be in control, with a plan for everything.

The two of them haven’t been friend since they were 14, but neither of them moved on in the nearly two decades since. Rosemary keeps so busy with teaching that it allows no time in her life for dating, while Logan keeps her relationships to casual hookups only.

Logan planned to graduate and travel the world, having big adventures. But when her mother left her dad, she was determined not to do the same thing, so she’s been living with him ever since. This road trip is the first time she’s really left their small town.

As they travel, the two of them continue to butt heads, but they also reluctantly reconnect as adults—and finally address what actually happened the day they kissed. Logan’s instincts to run away from conflict mean that it’s not so easy to repair their relationship, though, especially when Logan refuses to grapple with Joe’s imminent death.

In the acknowledgements, Cochrun calls this a romcom about death, and that is accurate. I appreciated that it doesn’t have a particularly romantic view of death. Rosemary and Logan have to change Joe’s diapers as he howls at the indignity. Death is not a quiet, noble affair. It’s prolonged and painful—both for the person dying and their loved ones. There is a little bit of “Tuesdays with Morrie shit,” as Joe refers to it, but it’s not cloying.

(Spoilers, highlight to read) I also thought the first sex scene—Rosemary’s first time having sex—was especially well done. They both go very slowly, with clear consent at all times. It’s sweet, and since I’ve had some sex scenes completely turn me off of the book recently, I was glad to see it treated with such care.(End of spoilers)

A lesbian road trip romance + ruminating on death + both characters having ADHD + all the main characters being high school English teachers made this a home run for me, but you don’t have to have my exact configuration of interests to enjoy this friends to almost lovers to enemies to lovers romance. And yes, I cried.

Official content warnings: This book contains references to an off-page death of a parent due to overdose, and it includes the on-page death of a parental figure.

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

Awards Season, a Fake Relationship, and Healing from Trauma in Cover Story by Rachel Lacey

Cover Story by Rachel Lacey cover

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What does Rachel Lacey’s new novel Cover Story have in common with the second-highest grossing film of 1992, The Bodyguard? A lot. Or nothing at all. If you’ve seen The BodyguardCover Story will definitely feel familiar. There really are only so many ways that a celebrity/bodyguard romance can go, after all.

Unlike Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, who were both nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Acting, Natalie Keane is going into awards season with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her performance in A Case for Love. She should be happy, but all she can think about is that the man who kidnapped her years earlier is about to be released from prison. Wanting to increase her security but not give the press a story in the process, Natalie and her team hatch the Romance Novel Plan of Plans: a fake relationship in which the fake girlfriend is a real bodyguard. 

Bodyguard Taylor Vaughn, newly cleared for duty after aggressively rehabbing Chekhov’s back injury, is more than happy to take on this unconventional job. Actually, hold on for just a second. In our world, the whole “celebrity falls in love with her bodyguard” would be seen as “unconventional.” In Lacey’s world(s), or in any world where romance novel plots are real, though, a love story where sparks fly that we know the ending of all too well wouldn’t be unconventional at all, would it?

Really, think about it. One of my favorite reads of 2023 was Stars Collide, which features Taylor in the role of bodyguard to Eden Sands (who also shows up in Cover Story). As romance readers, we’ve grown accustomed to this kind of serendipity. Or kismet. Call it what you want, but think about how many things in our world would have to go just right in order for our wildest dreams to come true. As I continue to become more familiar with the genre, I’m still trying to figure out if the escapism of the romance novel is helpful or not. What I’m noticing, I think, is that the escapism of the genre pairs very well with explorations of trauma. Fortunately, that is exactly what Lacey has to offer in Cover Story

I love author’s notes/acknowledgments that add to the novel in some meaningful way. In the Acknowledgements section for Cover Story, Lacey talks about the process of shifting the original direction of the novel to one that focuses more on safety and healing from trauma. If you’re not familiar, the 80s and most of the 90s were an interesting time for romance in films. Yes, there were plenty of romcoms, but there were also lots of romantic dramas/thrillers. The Bodyguard is, of course, one of those romantic drama/thrillers. (I had occasion to rewatch The Bodyguard not too long ago; considering that it was written in 1975 and filmed in the early 90s, the fact that it holds up at all is impressive.) It’s true that suspense can heighten a romance plot, but as a Sandra Bullock character once said, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.”

That is certainly not the case, however, in a romance world of kismet and HEAs. Who needs reality when you have serendipity? I love The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and I have warm feelings toward both of its remakes, In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Maybe I’ve always had a thing for the enemies-to-lovers trope. Who doesn’t love not being able to tell the difference between bickering and banter? (If done correctly, they’re the same thing.) What makes Read Between the Lines (2021), Lacey’s updated version of this story, so rewarding, though, is how—eventually—Rosie and Jane are able to help each other overcome deeply personal obstacles. You can also see Lacey trending in this direction in her earlier Midnight in Manhattan series.

Picking up Cover Story, I knew that I was going to find a story about two people who learned to treat each other with care. That’s what Lacey does so well, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with her newest story. (I do find myself questioning why I’m especially drawn to plots that involve celebrities like Natalie Keane and Eden Sands, but that particular exploration is best kept for another day.) One thing I do find disappointing—Lacey’s fictional movies are just that: fictional.

I’m guessing that most people know The Bodyguard for the song that Dolly Parton gave to Whitney Houston. You know…the song. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to listen to the A-side of the The Bodyguard soundtrack while reading Cover Story, but I certainly recommend it. You can also listen to Lacey’s own playlist for the novel. Either way, if this is your first Rachel Lacey novel, be prepared for the adorable pets.

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