Maggie reviews Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

Things Hoped For by Chencia C. Higgins

I picked up Things Hoped For at the beginning of the year, out of a list of f/f romance coming out this year, I believe. Or maybe Black romance authors? Perhaps Black LGBT authors. There were a lot of lists floating around Twitter in March/April, and I bought a lot of books, both to support authors and because I suddenly had a lot more reading time on my hands. I was excited to see a butch woman on the cover, and as a novella, so the trope of the day is instant connection, which means instant gratification on cuteness, which was exactly what I want a lot of right now. I haven’t read the rest of the series, since they are M/F and I wanted to skip right to the F/F, but it was easy to get into, and Xeno and Trisha, the main characters, are adorable together. If you’re looking for a romance novella, I highly recommend picking it up.

First of all, this is a relocation romance. Trisha wants to move away from her rural hometown in order to be around a bigger circle of queer community than her area offers. As a massage therapist, her skills are easy to transfer to Houston, and she knows people in the area, presumably the people from the afore-mentioned M/F books. She’s excited to be in a bigger city and be able to meet new people and find a wider LGBT community. I really love the possibilities here, and the journey for more community is a familiar for a lot of us. When her friends in town invite her to see a concert by queer, butch rapper Xeno, she leaps at the chance to go. Xeno is a rapper who has firmly established herself on the Houston circuit and is ready to expand her audience. A savvy businesswoman with a firm grasp on all aspects of her music career, Xeno is nonetheless somewhat shy around people she doesn’t know. A chance encounter with Trisha backstage is instantly enchanting for both women.

This is also a romance about someone dealing with rising fame. A major rapper samples Xeno’s work in an interview and suddenly her popularity skyrockets outside of her Houston circuit, and she’s booking gigs out of state. She finds the increasing fervor of her fans outside of concerts disconcerting, even as she revels in the energy onstage. But Trisha is outside of that, and their growing relationship is lowkey, hot, and super cute. They go on super adorable dates and are very soft with each other. And Trisha’s career means she can schedule patients and be able to travel to Xeno’s concerts. They’re very cute and when they get together the sex is very hot. There’s not a whole lot of conflict here, but that’s pretty standard in romance novellas, when entertainment is the name of the game.

In conclusion if you’re looking for a quick, hot f/f read, you could do worse than to pick up Things Hoped For. It’s steamy, it’s familiar and comforting to everyone that’s had to relocate to find queer community, and it’s entertaining. I had a thoroughly good time reading it, and I recommend that you do too.

SPONSORED REVIEW: The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery by Janet Mason

The Unicorn, The Mystery is a novel based on a series of seven tapestries titled “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” We follow a (genderless) unicorn through this story, while also getting the point of view of a monk who also makes an appearance in the tapestries. I want to start by saying that this doesn’t have a sapphic point of view character, though the most significant side characters are two nuns who are a couple.

I didn’t know going into this story how religious/spiritual it would be, and I’m not sure I have the background to really understand it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the author is a Unitarian Universalist lay minister who also wrote a book titled THEY, a Biblical Tale of Secret Genders. We spend most of the book inside the heads of the monk and unicorn–not just in the sense that it is from their point of view. This is a very internal novel: we spend a lot of time just following their musings on various subjects, including the unicorn speculating about the motivations of the hunters:

Maybe they wanted to please her. Maybe they wanted to refute her. Why did they really want to hunt me? What were they looking for? Did they really want to kill me — or were they looking for something in themselves and trying to kill it? Or were they just following orders and trying to impress each other? …

Perhaps the hunters are worried that they might not get their reward. Kings often promise riches that they never intend to give. Everyone knows that they are stingy and that is how they become kings. This would mean that the hounds wouldn’t get their treats. Maybe the hounds picked up their owner’s apprehensions. Hounds are so servile! …

Maybe they are glum because they have realized that kings will always be kings and hunters will always be hunters. . . Maybe the hunters look grim because they are thinking about the fact that everybody dies…

Although they have very different life circumstances, both characters’ POVs feel similar in that they both think highly of themselves and believe they have wisdom to bestow. Especially when it came to religious opining, I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to agree with them or not–although both characters believe themselves to be wise, they are flawed and inconsistent, so it was difficult for me to tell.

Because the story is based around the tapestries, time moves strangely throughout the story. The unicorn is looking at the tapestries, recalling their life, and we sometimes bounce between time periods in a small space. It’s almost as if all the action of the novel is happening at once: the unicorn is always being hunted, and it’s always free, so I didn’t get a sense of tension. I won’t mention any specifics, but the ending didn’t provide much more information than we already knew.

I also sometimes had difficulty with the asides of this story. A Gnostic poem, “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” is quoted at length through the story, sometimes for pages at a time, and I wasn’t sure the purpose of these passages (they are spoken by the unicorn, who finds them spilling from their mouth). The tapestries are also described at length. There is a lot of space devoted to Greek and Latin, including multiple passages describing the shape of each letter in a word in Greek. (I was particularly confused by the inclusion of a poem the monk wrote, which was written in Latin, but is included in English with the same formatting as if it was in Latin? “see/ a yel/low ha/ lo all a/round you/ – among humans/ you are/ a de/light!” I don’t understand.)

We do see several scenes of the nun couple, though we unfortunately do not get their point of view. As intrigued as I am by them, I felt like each scene was essentially the same: they would discuss how the church would disapprove of their relationship, and then conclude that their love is not a sin. They go through different iterations of this, but it felt like they served a purpose–to argue against the idea that being gay is sinful–more than they were characters in their own right.

I wanted to include some content warnings as well: the unicorn can smell virginity, and there is quite a bit in here about virginity as well as anti sex work ideas. There are also mentions of bestiality.

Overall, this wasn’t a perfect fit for me: it is concerned with grappling with Christian ideas about truth and morality. If that is something you are interested in, The Unicorn, The Mystery will give you a lot to consider.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Shana reviews Comet’s First Christmas by Delilah Night

Comet’s First Christmas by Delilah Night

I love sappy holiday movies, and Comet’s First Christmas nailed the sweet and silly tone of some of my favorites, glossing over any plot holes with Christmas magic.  It’s a sweet, earnest, PG-rated novella about a reindeer shifter who falls for an elf. The worldbuilding is excellent, but the storyline is unlikely to appeal to readers who aren’t die-hard fans of North American Christmas culture.

Claudia has never left the North Pole. She spends her days training to join the elite squad of flying reindeers who help Santa deliver gifts around the world. Did you know Santa’s reindeer are all queer women who can magically shift their form?  When a spot on the team unexpectedly opens up at the last minute, Claudia takes the title of Comet, and is assigned to the New York City office, where she’ll work with East Coast elves in the final few weeks before Christmas. Claudia has anxiety and is worried she won’t perform well. Luckily her Personal Assistant elf, Jillian, is smoking hot and supremely competent.

Jillian grew up in New York and prefers it to the formality of life in the North Pole, where the roles of reindeers, elves, and snowmen are tightly prescribed. Jillian’s willingness to think creatively comes in handy when secret Christmas haters hack the reindeers’ communication tech. Will solving this Christmas mystery together give Jillian and Claudia a chance to fall in love?

I found this to be a comforting read, the book equivalent to a mug of peppermint hot cocoa. Comet’s First Christmas is a smorgasbord of classic Christmas cultural references—gingerbread, ice skating, the Nutcracker ballet, decorated store windows, and Santa at Macy’s. Claudia’s anxiety and imposter syndrome made her very sympathetic, and I was cheering for her to see herself the way others clearly did.

I appreciated that unlike most Christmas romances, the worldbuilding wasn’t US-centric. Comet’s route stretches from Brazil to Canada, and Claudia spends a few memorable scenes eating her way through the Singapore office. There’s even a brief mention of the ethics of Western museums with stolen artifacts.

I didn’t enjoy the romance as much as the other story elements. Claudia falls for Jillian instantly, and basks in her beauty and nurturing spirit. But the book didn’t describe why Jillian would quickly fall for Claudia. The two are tongue-tied and awkward around one another, and their professional dynamic sometimes made it feel like Jillian was mothering Claudia. The two of them felt young, and the simplistic style of the book made the romance seem immature.

Part of the plot focuses on humans who have “lost their belief” in Christmas, with Claudia and Jillian trying to convince “nonbelievers.” I prefer secular Christmas romances, and while Comet’s First Christmas is never overtly religious, I could have done without this proselytizing. Most of the book focused on the collective action of many people working together to spread Christmas magic, so emphasizing the exclusivity of Christianity felt out of step. The mystery behind the plot to ruin Christmas is only partially resolved, so the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped.

Shifter romances have a reputation for wild sex scenes, but I didn’t mind that this low-heat romance is sweet, rather than sexy. The camaraderie of Claudia’s fellow reindeers working to make the world a happier place, puts friendship and chosen family at the center of this fluffy queer novella.  Comet’s First Christmas is unapologetically and intensely Christmassy, which will either make readers devour it as quickly as I did, or want to run away.

Maggie reviews Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain

Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain

Maybe Charlotte by Louise McBain came out December 10 from Bella Books. For full disclosure, a review copy of this book was sent to The Lesbrary for a possible review, but honestly this book was a great time, and I’m glad it came to my attention. This book is also apparently a sequel, but that made no nevermind to my reading experience, so feel free to jump right in.

What caught my interest from the get-go was the summary and general set-up: Charlie Kincaid has moved to DC from Maine with her twin brother, in part, to escape the range of her ex-girlfriend Madison, with whom breaking up never seems to stick. She’s also trying to escape the range of Madison’s trendy bakery and their hit marketing win, the Charlie Pie. What no one else except Madison knows is that the Charlie Pie is named after Charlie’s vagina, and hearing radio commercials about it is the straw that drives Charlie, now going by Charlotte, to move. Charlotte and her twin move into the guest house of their Great Aunt Wellesley, who is an extremely famous but also extremely reclusive artist. At a piano bar to with her brother, Charlotte meets Lily, and she feels an instant connection, but will it have a chance to grow when there are constant hijinks happening with her twin and the charity gala he’s organizing, Great Aunt Wellesley, her job, and of course, Madison, who contrives to insert herself in Charlotte’s life even from states away. From a manipulative ex to the casual decadence of Great Aunt Wellesley, this book was packed with action and drama.

There was a lot I really liked about this book, but perhaps what I liked most was just what a general good time it was. There’s no possible way to describe all the twists and turns crammed into the plot, but at several points I gasped in delight. I guess when your starting baseline is a baked good named after a vagina, you have to go big to elevate the tensions, and there’s multiple characters determined to do their part in keeping things interesting. For one thing Madison, the creator of the Charlie Pie, isn’t deterred by her ex crossing state lines, and her shenanigans just don’t stop. For another, Charlotte’s twin brother Daniel is determined to live his most dapper gay life now that’s he in DC and not in Maine, and for another he is arranging a huge charity benefit, which is always good for drama. And finally there is Great Aunt Wellesley, who is perhaps my favorite character. More books should feature eccentric older lady artists and their harem of older gentlemen, I feel, because she added a delightful layer of commentary and experience to the whole mix. It’s a great mix of characters and wildly entertaining circumstances, and I was pretty much enthralled the whole time.

Charlotte and Lily are also a cute couple, once they get together. They go through a few bumps before they do, but they can’t really compete with the constant low boil of drama that is the rest of Charlotte’s life. Luckily for Charlotte, Lily seems willing to overlook all of that and take a pragmatic view of things. I really enjoyed how solid they became once they got together, and how even the height of Madison’s manipulations never seemed to faze Lily. Between her twin and her great aunt, I felt like it was really good for Charlotte to fall for someone like Lily, and for Lily to have the opportunity to draw her hidden artistic side out from where it had been hidden in the more normal professional life she’d built up for herself.

In conclusion, this came to my attention via a review copy, but I would not have been sad or disappointed to have bought it for myself. Maybe Charlotte is out now, and I recommend it if you want a fun, distracting read for your holidays. Come for the romance and a plot summary featuring a pie named after a vagina, stay for Great Aunt Wellesley living her best life.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.

Sinclair reviews Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

Content Warning: This review contains spoilers, but only specifics about the world, nothing plot-specific past the first chapter. I knew almost nothing about this book when I started reading it, and it was such a pleasure to be surprised, so if you like vampire stories, or Octavia Butler, I highly recommend it and you can stop reading this review now and just go pick up the book.

The opening of Fledgling by Octavia Butler is an intense sensory overload, where the nameless narrator is, too, on sensory overload, starving and being burned alive by the sun’s rays. She finds some meat to eat, and it proceeds to be one of the most sensual scenes I have ever read (and I have read a lot of erotic literature).

I didn’t know a lot about the story as I read it, and I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s experience of the meticulous, expertly woven unfolding that Butler does in the first few chapters, building a new world and explaining to us readers, slowly, what it is to inhabit this world. The nice thing is, the main character and narrator, Shuri, has completely lost her memory, and though she previously had a place in the world, has to re-learn everything she knows about how her tribes communicate, the social politics, and how things manifest. She slowly re-learns what her brain injury took from her, and in the process, builds her life from scratch.

Did I mention Shuri is a vampire?

Did I mention Shuri is Black, but the vast majority of vampires in this book are white, and Shuri is the result of a genetic experiment to encourage vampires to be able to withstand sunlight (which she can)?

True to form, Butler uses this particular trope of the vampire to discuss and investigate race relations, among other things, like sexism, classism, homophobia, and ageism.

As a person in kink and D/s relationships, I particularly loved how Butler depicted the symbiotic relationship between vampires and humans. It’s slightly different than in other vampire lore, but, as a fan of the genre in general, I found it believable and exciting. I loved how there was both a choice and a physiological component that bound them to each other, with a point of no return after a certain amount of contact.

Fledgling is the last novel Octavia Butler wrote and published, and I have read critiques and assessments that said it was clear Butler had created an entire world, and that Fledgling was just the tip of the iceberg in that world. I felt fairly satisfied with it as its own story, after I read it, knowing that there weren’t any others in the series, but the idea that Butler had a trajectory of the story already in her mind, but that is now lost and I will probably never read, does feel incredibly sad for me. I will only have to imagine into the future of Shuri’s world for myself.

Rachel reviews Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Jane Walsh’s lesbian romance novel, Her Lady to Love (2020), was released this fall from Bold Strokes Books, and it’s the perfect novel to read over the holidays if you love gorgeous writing, beautiful settings, and literal bodice ripping!

Set in the Regency period, Walsh’s novel follows Lady Honora Banfield who, after spending several of her eligible seasons ensconced in the country mourning the deaths of her parents, arrives in London with her aged aunt, looking for a husband. Looking to secure a future for herself and increase her financial security, Honora plans to go above and beyond to make a match. Her ambition leads her to ally with the most beautiful woman of the season—and the most controversial—Jacqueline Lockhart. Jaqueline’s a familiar face in London’s matchmaking circles and she has no plans to marry a man and settle down. She’s in her sixth season when she suddenly bumps into Honora on the dancefloor.

Nora and Jaquie’s alliance quickly turns into romance, but they both agree their affair cannot continue after Nora finds a husband. However, as the prospect of a proposal becomes more and more real for both of them, the two women struggle between convention, duty and love.

I had such a brilliant time with this book. Walsh’s novel has such an excellent sense of the time period she’s writing in and her specificity and interest in the historical aspects of her plot really allow the characters to shine. The inclusion of details, specifically related to women’s behaviour or dress, made for a vivid and exciting setting. This novel reminded me a lot of something like Vanity Fair (1847) (but with lesbians!) because of its gorgeous setting and intriguing plot.

For a shorter novel, I was surprised at the amount of characters it contained, but they were all so much fun to read. A kaleidoscope of Regency queer life, the characters maneuver around the heterosexual marriage market and showcase a range of London life. The romance between Nora an Jaquie is lovely; it felt sweet and realistic in the context of the setting. It can be difficult to write a happily ever after lesbian romance in a period where heterosexual convention and women’s lack of social mobility limited so much, but Walsh’s writing is thoroughly heartwarming and delightful.

Lesbian historical novels are totally my thing and I’d wanted to read this one for ages. It definitely didn’t disappoint. While characters were witty and the romance was generally lighthearted, I was thrilled to see that Walsh didn’t shy away from the sadder aspects of queerness in Britain in the nineteenth century. This legitimized her novel, but it also created a context in which the bravery of her lesbian/queer characters could have a significant impact. The writing was easy to read and flowed wonderfully, with a distinct blend of modern/historical dialogue that grounded the story without weighing it down.

If you’re looking for something fun to read over the holidays, I highly recommend Her Lady to Love.

Please visit Jane Walsh on Twitter or on her website, and put Her Lady to Love on your TBR on Goodreads, or purchase it from Bold Strokes Books.

Content Warnings: Homophobia, violence.

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

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

Kayla Bell reviews Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

After this dumpster fire of a year, I am very much looking forward to the holiday season. Christmas music, holiday movies, and baking are the distractions I need this year. So when I saw Mistletoe on sale on the iBooks store, I jumped at the chance to read what seemed like a sapphic Hallmark movie. The novella I read wasn’t entirely the wholesome love story I was expecting, but it was very festive and fun.

This romantic comedy starts with Santa Claus. Yes, you heard that right, Santa is a real person and so are all his elves in this novella about two grown women. Calamity strikes when one of Santa’s elves realizes that, many years ago, he missed one child’s Christmas wish. It was from a little girl named Diana who recently lost her parents and wants to find her soulmate. Diana’s an adult now, and Santa isn’t about to let anyone’s wish go unanswered. Together with an elf named Percy, the two set out to set Diana up with her soulmate Jamie. Hijinks ensue as the two women meet and fall in love.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Remember that this is basically a Christmas movie in novella form, so neither of them were super fleshed out, and that’s okay. Both of the two love interests were very distinct from one another. Diana was sweet and kind, while Jamie was bolder. Their dynamic was very interesting and they complemented each other well. It kept me reading to see how each of them would react to different situations. I also love that they actually ended up together long term. It’s always cool to see that in a queer romance. Jamie and Diana’s friends, the side characters, were also interesting in and of themselves. My personal favorite was Diana’s Aunt Brenda, who took her in after her parents passed away. For me, the characters were the strongest part of the novella, although it is worth mentioning that they were not a very diverse ensemble.

The weirdest part of the story were the jarring shifts in tone that happened throughout. It starts with a scene of Santa and his elves, so I settled in for a fantastical, wholesome romance. That’s what it was, for the most part, until the elf gets sauced and Jamie and Diana start picturing each other sexually after their kiss. Then, it’s back to Hallmark territory until a really out of nowhere scene that’s just a graphic description of Jamie masturbating. Back to PG-rated once again until two back to back erotica scenes in the epilogue. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with erotic fiction, I just thought it felt really out of place in what is otherwise a very tame Christmas fantasy romance. With this shortcoming, I also thought that the pacing was pretty off, especially for a story so short. The book goes from being day-by-day to skipping weeks and even decades at a time. I did enjoy where everyone ended up, but wish there was a little more buildup to everything that happened.

Overall, Mistletoe made me very happy because it showed that relationships between two women can be given the holiday movie treatment just like straight relationships can. Some parts did genuinely make me chuckle, and I enjoyed the dynamic between the two main love interests. I would have loved this book a lot more if the erotic scenes were cut out. Still, I would describe this book as escapist, festive, fun.

Mo Springer reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

200 years ago, Cinderella died. Now, all the girls of the kingdom are forced to reenact her fairytale, forced into marrying men who mistreat them and discard of them as they please. But is there any truth in the story the system of cruelty is based on?

Sophia is in love with Erin, who wants to follow the rules to ensure good fortune for her parents and her own future. Sophia is horrified by what she sees at the ball and runs–right into Constance, whose history changes everything Sophia thought she knew. Together the two of them must find a way to end these years of suffering–but will they be able to endure it for their happiness, with each other?

This was a really good book. I love fantasy and this was an interesting world to explore, the author clearly put a lot of thought into the building of it and it shows in the narrative. I liked how this wasn’t too complicated of a system to try and understand; there’s a lot of the world that is similar to our own, which lends itself well to being a story you can relate to you.

The characters felt like they fit this world and were created by its structures and cruelty. Sophia was a great protagonist, leaping off the page from the beginning. As a reader, I was able to engage with her very well, and I was invested in her story. Her romance with Constance was also fun, there was some really good tension there, as well as with Erin. The side characters felt real and helped build the story, especially the villain and their motivations.

The plot was fast paced, and there was never a part I felt bored. I liked how character-driven the story was and the satisfying arcs that followed. The stakes felt real, as the villain was well built and established.

There were some parts that felt a bit too quick, and I would have liked some more build up and complexity to those moments in the story. Sometimes it felt like the author had a lot of scenes in mind and then patched them together after writing them up. That’s not to say those scenes were badly written or took away from the story, but overall, it felt like connection between them could have been stronger.

Having said, this was still a fully enjoyable novel and I recommend it to anyone interested in fairy tales and fantasy.

Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.