Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

the cover of The Roommate Risk

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Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Susan reviews Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

the cover of Truth and Measure by Roslyn Sinclair

If you’ve been in the Devil Wears Prada fandom at any point since 2013, you might be familiar with Truth and Measure as Telanu’s 200k epic post-canon Andy/Miranda fic – featuring Miranda’s nasty divorce, her surprise pregnancy, and Andy weaving herself into the heart of Miranda’s life. Or, you might know Truth and Measure as the first part of Roslyn Sinclair’s latest office romance, featuring an all-capable assistant who’s devoted to her terrifying magazine editor boss, and only finds herself growing more so as she supports her through her nasty divorce and a surprise pregnancy.

What I’m saying is that I’ve been desperate for this to come out ever since I found out Roslyn Sinclair has been rewriting her fic as original stories, and the wait paid off!

I went into this with high expectations, and they have been exceeded. For those who aren’t coming to this from a fandom background: Truth and Measure is an incredibly satisfying romance with brilliantly drawn characters. Vivian particularly is great; Sinclair does a beautiful job of showing all of her different facets, from the terrifying and spiteful goddess, to the competent and ruthless editor, to the magnetic mentor, to the very vulnerable woman who only has one (1) person she trusts. Jules, Vivian’s assistant, is relentlessly charming – she’s believable in her reactions and attitudes, and she is absolutely earnest and competent, which I adore. And the chemistry between them is excellent. Even before the romance really kicks in, the slow reveal of respect and empathy they have for each other delights me. The grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one – if you look closely enough.

It helps that Truth and Measure does explore how healthy it is to a) date your boss, and b) be so mutually obsessed with each other that spending a day apart is anxiety inducing. Jules’ life revolves around Vivian in so many ways, so her impatience with people questioning whether it’s a good idea versus her own assessment of how deeply she’s involved feels like a delicate balancing act. This isn’t completely resolved in Truth and Measure, only partially, but there’s enough set-up that I’m assuming the balance of their relationship is going to be the linchpin of the sequel. (For bonus points: Jules’ mother is somewhat homophobic, which is a Chekhov’s gun that hasn’t gone off by the end of this book, so brace yourselves for that going off in Above All Things.)

Possibly my favourite part though is how much the characters value their work. The scenes where Jules explores queerness and fashion and how she wants to write about that warmed my heart, because that is what I want. People who care deeply about what they’re doing getting to the root of what it is they care about! And Vivian is consistently terrifying and demanding, but also really good at her job. Characters who fall in love while doing things that are important to them, and understanding how important that is to their partner? Yes.

For those who read the fanfic original: the storyline cuts are seamless. The twins have been excised completely, which has trimmed down the book immensely from the behemoth we know and love, but Ellie is still there! The duology is split after Jules’ birthday, so brace yourselves for that emotional whirlwind and maybe make sure that you have Above All Things ready to go immediately. Most of the changes are updating the story to reflect 2022 instead of 2013 – Jules is openly bisexual, the tech level has been updated, the real life publications and websites have been modernised. Honestly, I’d say that Truth and Measure is anchored by the most important scenes you’d recognise from the fic, but the journey to and from those scenes is different enough that it feels new.

My biggest reservation about Truth and Measure is that I don’t know how it would read for someone completely new to the story. I’ve read the fic version too many times to be unbiased on that front! But having read it that many times means that I can say Roslyn Sinclair has done the impossible, which is packaged up one of my favourite stories and given me a way to read it again for the first time. I can’t recommend it enough.

This review is based on an ARC from the publisher.

Caution warnings: mentions of homophobia, infidelity, boss/subordinate relationship, age gap romance, pregnancy

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

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Rachel Reviews Our Wives Under the Sea

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea on your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

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

Vic reviews This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart cover

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Every time I think I might be done with YA, I read a book like this one. On a very basic level, Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors with Greek mythology on top is just such a fun concept that I couldn’t not love it. Kalynn Bayron’s This Poison Heart centers around Briseis, a teenage girl with the ability to control plants and an apparent immunity to poison, who inherits an estate surrounded by poisonous plants. Once Briseis arrives, she begins to uncover a deep family history and the dangerous responsibility that comes with it.

Beyond premise, though, every part of this book was incredibly well-executed. I loved Briseis as a character and as a person. She was funny, and she was smart, and she was loving. I always understood where she was coming from, and over and over again, I was struck by how reasonable she was being in such wild circumstances (which is not to say that characters have to be reasonable to be compelling, of course, but it was such a breath of fresh air to see Briseis holding people accountable for keeping important information from her, among other things). In a genre that gets a bad rap (often though not always unfairly, but I digress) for oblivious and immature protagonists, I found this particularly refreshing.

Where this book really shines, however, is in its relationships, from the familial to the romantic to the more broad understanding between the few other Black people Briseis meets in the mostly-white rural town. The easy banter paired with a strong, protective love characterized Briseis’s relationship with her two moms, as well as the women’s relationship with each other. Their dynamic drives the book in a way that was beautiful to read from the first chapter. As for Briseis’s own love life, romance took a backseat to the much more immediate dangers Bri was facing, but there was a clear chemistry between her and the mysterious Marie, towards whom she feels an immediate attraction, and if the cover of the next book is any indication, that chemistry will certainly progress further in the sequel.

I will say that some parts of the plot felt a bit predictable, but seeing as I am not the target audience anymore, I’m not sure that’s a fair complaint. If I had read this book in high school, would I have seen the plot twists coming? Maybe not. The metric that I try to use in cases like these, however, is did I feel like the protagonist should have figured things out sooner? Did I roll my eyes at her obliviousness? And the answer to that is a resounding no. With the information she had at her disposal, Briseis approached her situation and the people around her with completely understandable levels of both suspicion and trust, so even when I felt like I was ahead of her, I was never frustrated waiting for her to come to the same realization.

Overall, this book was just such a delight to read. I had a lot of fun, and I’m sure I will have just as much fun reading the sequel when it comes out in a few months.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Anna N. reviews Heathen by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

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Aydis is a Viking and warrior, raised on stories of wartime valor and battlefield sacrifice by a father who taught her things “unbecoming” of a woman. But she is also sincerely kind, more likely to reach out a hand than draw her sword against a stranger. She is driven by fairness, by a sense of justice that bends towards liberation rather than punishment.

The story begins with her running away from her clan on the pain of death (or marriage to a man) after getting caught kissing her best friend. Stubborn, sincere Aydis’s first plan of action is freeing Brynhild, the former leader of the Valkyrie now cursed by the god Odin to spend an eternity in exile on earth, bound to whichever mortal passes her test. A test that has only been attempted by men.

So, with a chip on her shoulder and the strong conviction that someone shouldn’t be stuck in some lonely cave just because she stood up for what she believed in, Aydis attempts to undo the curse for good and give Brynhild the chance to find her lost love.

But by daring to defy the gods, she puts a target on her back, one that will bring her into the crosshairs of Odin himself. Unexpectedly, though, she finds herself joined by a cast of sympathetic allies.

Some have questionable motives, like shifter-trickster Ruadan and the band of omnivorous apple-loving mermaids who offer her navigational aid. Others are, like Aydis, are doing their best to bring balance to an unjust world. Take the gold-hearted pirate crew and the goddess Freyja, who is fed up with her husband’s fragile sense of power and strident belief that his brute might supersedes everything she stands for.

That’s the central conflict of the story. What happens when the valorization of violence warps our ability to feel love and empathy for others? When fear leads us to turn on those we care about, to hurt those we love?

The team behind the comic series has created a story that questions reductive gender norms without making equally reductive generalizations and deftly shows how true strength and power requires kindness and love. Beneath the magic, mythology, and standard fantasy-quest narrative lies a very compelling, touching story about the responsibilities we have to each other, and the idea that freedom doesn’t mean going it completely alone. There is so much fleshed-out humanity in these paper pages, and I burned through all three volumes in a few hours.

It took that long because I lingered over the excellent, evocative illustrations. One of the things I love most about comics is the specific kind of humor that can be captured through clever use of facial expression. They feel like an artistic form of punctuation – one that lends itself especially well to serving as a punchline.

The art also reflects the arc, with harsh, aggressive strokes denoting the sort of bloody, violently inspirational battle-lore of Aydis’ childhood home and rounder, softer work indicating where her story moves from the stuff of legend into something more grounded, loving, and achingly alive.

The colorist works wonders with an artfully limited palette, and you can practically feel the climatic and climactic shifts in each panel. The nudity never feels exploitative, and the diversity is both period-accurate and contributes to the narrative texture.

It’s not an easy story, though it is chock full of comedy, heartwarming moments, and the ending has a delightful bit of bookending. The romances are sweet and complicated and nuanced.

The authors don’t shy away from recognizing how those who have been raised to value force and control may respond cruelly to the liberatory possibilities of kindness. They also explore the pain that can come from standing up for the right thing, the kind thing, in the face of overwhelming anger and fear. In another subtle interrogation of grand questing legends, there are no stock villains here: only scared people, angry people, and people whose fear or rage has stoked reactionary beliefs in their own self-righteousness.

I appreciated the focus on how simple, tangible acts of love beget goodwill and lead to a net better world. In contrast to the dramatic, grossly embellished acts that constitute myths and legends, it is the little moments that drive this story. It was a refreshingly honest narrative, in that sense. After all, real life doesn’t exactly adhere to the archetypal Narrative Arc. It is a bumpy series of ups and downs and difficult choices. The best we can hope for is to leave the world a little kinder than we found it.

If you enjoy quest stories, Norse mythology, compelling characters and/or questioning gender binaries, you will find much to enjoy in these comics. The completed series is collected in 3 trade paperback volumes, all of which are currently available for purchase and possibly at your local library!

Trigger Warnings: violence, blood, nudity, animal death, implied murder; Volume 2 has limb loss, period-typical homophobia and sexism.

Sam reviews The Warrior Moon by K Arsenault Rivera

the cover of Warrior Moon

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If there is one simple truth about writing that is not given nearly enough credit, it is this: endings are hard. It is far easier to begin a story than end one; it is even easier to continue a story than end one. Ending a story means answering any questions that deserve answers, completing any character or narrative arcs yet unfinished, and bringing the story to a definitive and satisfying conclusion. A good ending feels worthy of the time and effort the story took to reach it; a fantastic ending elevates what came before to new heights once the reader can view the complete work in its entirety.

But even putting quality aside, I believe that what makes endings so uniquely hard to write is that all endings (if true endings they really are) require the author to stop writing and finally let their work stand on its own. To end a story, the author must put down the pen and say, “It is finished. There’s no more—this is all there is. This is the story that I wanted to tell.”

K Arsenault Rivera’s The Warrior Moon is the last book in her Ascendent trilogy, finishing the story began in The Tiger’s Daughter and continued in The Phoenix Empress. And it is the definitive end to the trilogy. While there is certainly enough imagination and and emotion in both the world and the characters Rivera has created that she could string this out into yet another who-knows-how-long continuing fantasy series if she wanted (and I would happily buy each novel as it came out if she did), she instead chose to give Shefali and Shizuka, Hokkaro and the Qorin, and this whole tale of gods and lesbians a proper ending. No matter how the final book ended up, I would respect K Arsenault Rivera for that.

As it stands, there is plenty else to like about The Warrior Moon, but also a few places where I feel it falters. With Shefali and Shizuka’s tales imparted to each other over the last two books, it is finally time for them to fulfill their childhood promise to ride north and slay the Traitor. The entire novel is spent on the campaign against him and his two remaining demon generals, but therein lies the book’s first issue. It has a bit of a “trek through Mordor” problem as the offensive has to trudge through miserable conditions and tragic delays just to reach their objective, and the first half of the book can feel like a bit of a slog. The tone is kept fresh by a much wider range of viewpoint characters, but as much as I enjoyed them all, it wasn’t a break from Shefali and Shizuka that I wanted—it was smoother pacing. Once the action picks up it really picks up, though, and I couldn’t put the book down after about the halfway point.

But how is The Warrior Moon as an ending? By my earlier definition, a good one, without a doubt. In a trilogy defined by tragedy, it manages to land just the right moments of hope and resolution, and wraps up everything it needs to for the story to end (which means no, we don’t get to see any of Shefali’s adventures in Sur-Shar, Ikhtar, or beneath the earth; it was the right call, but I’m still a little disappointed!). I’m not sure it manages to make a sweeping statement on the rest of the trilogy in retrospect, but The Warrior Moon certainly earns the ending that it has. During the last few paragraphs I was tearing up so hard that I couldn’t even read the words on the page!

Overall, The Warrior Moon is a good read, and the entire Ascendent trilogy is a great one. That the kind of epic fantasy trilogy I would have loved when I was younger now exists starring a lesbian couple feels like nothing less than a gift, and it’s one I will long be grateful for.

Content Warnings: body horror, gore, mind control, spiders

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 the Pirates of Aletharia by Britney Jackson

the cover of Pirates of Aletharia

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Get ready to don your trusty tricorns for a high seas adventure full to the brim with pirates, betrayal, forbidden magic, and the plotting of sweet revenge. Pirates of Aletharia is so much fun I can’t wait to read it again. An equal parts cocktail of fluff and angst — a search for redemption while enjoying a few nights of too much overproof rum. 

Emilia Drakon is in the midst of escaping the gallows of her public execution in the land of Illopia when we meet her. This daring escape and our introduction to the Villain (yes with a capital V) of the story here is key, but note that this incident takes place in chapter one rather than as a prologue. The meat of the narrative starts several months later, making the transition feel abrupt, and even making the first chapter feel a bit rushed. But aside from a bit of rough seas at the start, the book hits its stride quickly. Just be prepared to stay up late reading it, is what I’m saying.

While the book has dragons, magic, and swashbuckling aplenty, the banter between the broken but lovable main characters are where the author knocks it out of the park. They say if you write excellent characters the reader will follow them anywhere, and this is a great example. While there is a fair amount of action, much of the book is character development, heavy on the repartee. At some point I looked up and thought, it’s been like a hundred pages, where even is this boat going? And then I realized, I honestly didn’t care about where the compass was pointed or how it was even getting there. All the important stuff was unfolding between Captain Maria Welles and Emilia Drakon. 

Though sometimes silly and often indulgent, the author will treat you to chapter after chapter of verbal foreplay and I am totally here for that. One minute we’re snarling and sneering and hating each other, the next we’re leaning close and murmuring with our bodies pressed nearly together and our cheeks warm for no particular reason at all. There are sword fights and a bit of stabbing amongst friends, and of course the threat of mutiny (because pirates). You can also expect lots of enthusiastic consent, and perhaps even a lesson in knot tying. Ahem. You know, like one does on ships. There’s even a Villain monologuing scene near the book’s end, and who doesn’t love that

The side characters were fantastic as well and quite integral to the story. Judith, the ship’s Cook and  the captain’s best, if not only, friend is not only gay as the day is long (and a big fan of the rum no one else will touch) but she’s extremely important for the reader getting to know the real Captain Welles. She also features quite heavily in Emilia’s portrayal, making her a very well rounded and valuable secondary player.

Pirates of Aletharia is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I can’t wait for the sequel just so I have an excuse to read the first one again! 

Trigger Warnings: violence, offscreen torture

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Meagan Kimberly reviews Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner

the audiobook cover of Something to Talk About

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Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner follows Jo, a famous actress, writer and showrunner in Hollywood, and her assistant Emma. When they appear at an award show together and seem incredibly intimate, rumors of their romance begin to swirl. This ignites questions of the dynamic of their relationship and pushing from their family and loved ones. Miscommunication and shenanigans ensue.

I listened to this on audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie and Xe Sands. If it hadn’t been for listening to the audio, I probably would have DNFed this book, to be honest. I didn’t hate it, but I know if I’d been reading it in e-book or physical copy, I wouldn’t have plowed through it. But that’s just my personal taste.

From the way the book starts, I had high hopes for what it could accomplish, but it fell short in my opinion. It’s established early on that Emma is bisexual, out to her family and comfortable in her identity but not shouting from the rooftops, and that Jo is a lesbian only out to her best friend and parents (not even Emma knows until about halfway through the book).

In the beginning, Jo’s issues with Hollywood’s racism are addressed as she deals with comments from entertainment reporters who believe she’ll have “too soft a touch” to properly write a screenplay for the action franchise, Agent Silver, the James Bond of this world. Emma pegs it right away as racist, coded language because Jo is Asian, and Asian women are often stereotyped as soft and submissive.

Emma’s dedication to Jo and Jo knowing Emma so well is established right away. It’s clear they have a close relationship that goes beyond employer and employee; it’s a solid friendship. Truthfully, that’s what their relationship feels like throughout the entire book. The romance that eventually blooms doesn’t feel organic. It feels like it’s stemming from the pressure of the rumors and the insistence of their friends and family that they are, in fact, in love.

The relationship dynamic between Jo and Emma always feels like an intimate friendship. Even the most romantic moments feel platonic. Their friends’ and family’s teasing about their rumored dating relationship is cringe-worthy. It’s never mean-spirited, but good intentions don’t necessarily mean the behavior is appropriate.

Part of what makes the dating relationship feel forced and inorganic is the power dynamic difference. Wilsner actually addressed this pretty well throughout, showing the characters’ recognition of how Jo had influence over Emma’s career, as well as the age difference.

However, when the rumors first started spreading, Jo insisted on not making a comment because she’d never commented about her love life, and she wasn’t going to start now that the rumor was her dating a woman; it would seem homophobic. Jo’s points in not commenting about her dating life are valid and solid reasons. But the way she believes she’s right comes off as dismissive and invalidates Emma’s feelings about the situation.

It was hard to become invested in the characters’ inner lives because these characters are people who don’t let anyone see too deep into them, including the reader. Their development both as individuals and together as an eventual couple feels surface level. Even the supporting characters are often described as knowing them so well, but it’s always a statement made through exposition and rarely shown within behavior and relationship dynamics.

Overall, the story itself was entertaining, but the characters and their interactions felt like they needed something more.

Content warnings: Homophobia, biphobia, racism