Til reviews Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari

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Content warning: ableism

Super Adjacent is set in an alternate United States, one in which an official organization of superheroes protects citizens from villainous attacks. Enter Claire: the ultimate Warrior Nation fangirl, she has dreamed of joining the organization since she was ten years old. She’s a regular, non-powered person, but a massive fan. When she becomes an intern, she quickly begins falling for the new hero, Joy, or Girl Power. It’s a massive contrast to the second main character, Bridgette, long-time girlfriend of hero Vaporizer (Matt). The relationship has taken too much from her, and now Bridgette wants out.

This takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to a super story reminiscent of the Silver Age. This was the 1960s and 1970s in mainstream comics, a reintroduction of superheroes who had fallen out of fashion after World War II, and some titles embraced all the potential silliness in those stories. Others, however, gave their characters flaws and inner demons.

That’s where Super Adjacent falls. To Claire, superheroes are larger-than-life figures. Major wow. The book does a great job world-building with things like forum updates, fan theories, and transcripts from news reports. Claire uses fandom jargon that sets her apart from the more corporate aspects of the superhero world. To Bridgette, though? This is old news. She never signed up to be a superhero’s girlfriend, just stayed with her boyfriend as he became a hero. She sees the darker side of it all: both the constant kidnappings of a superhero’s girlfriend and the harassment from his fans. Cestari definitely knows about fandom toxicity.

This is also, unapologetically, a romance. In that way, Claire and Bridgette are perfect foils. Claire is coming into a romance with a superhero; even so, a brief enemies-to-lovers spares her being purely overwhelmed by that super-ness. Bridgette has been worn down by the world of heroic bureaucracy.

I’m not usually one for romances, but there’s quite a bit surrounding it: from kidnappings to art exhibits to GPAs. More than that, it’s painfully realistic. This is the sort of book that came into my life just when I needed it. Having recently ended a relationship, I found it cathartic and validating to read about Bridgette and Matt’s downward trajectory because neither is vilified. They’re just two people who care about one another but aren’t romantically compatible anymore. And that’s portrayed as okay, as it should be.

Thus far, I’ve talked about the first two-thirds of the book, and if that were all, I’d rate it at four stars—a fun, quick read with its own quirky take on superheroes. The characters are distinct and if intense situations are over with a little too quickly, that only contributes to the normalization of a heroes-and-villains setting. Unfortunately, there are some significant drawbacks to this book.

The actual plot follows flat. This isn’t a massive issue because this isn’t a book one reads for the plot. The major challenge listed in the summary doesn’t happen until two-thirds of the way through. Theories, reveals, and disasters all occur at breakneck speed. It’s very well foreshadowed, with hints dropped throughout, the problem is that for two-thirds of the time, this is a romance within a superhero context. Non-powered people didn’t seem like they were second-class citizens, there was nothing to prove; having an action aspect to this storyline felt unnecessary. My attention slipped frequently, which is weird to say about a life-or-death scenario!

The more egregious issue is a consistent undertone of insensitivity. Sometimes it just feels lightly misogynistic, the sort of thing an author might include as an internalized social attitude without really thinking it through—one of the superheroes is clearly more interested in fame and attention, and gets judged harshly for it. Personally I found this distasteful as, at the end of the day, if someone is a superhero who protects the innocent and saves lives, I’m not going to fault them for vanity or ambition. What bothered me considerably more was a character who was portrayed as useless, incompetent… and likely autistic. He’s a has-been superhero whose power involved esoteric knowledge (almost like a hyperfixation), whose contributions were often off-tone and unhelpful (inability to read social cues). This was just a bit uncomfortable until a crisis hit and this character was found hiding under his desk with stim tools. For those not aware, stim tools help some neurodivergent people to focus. I used to fold origami or knit during class, for example; now I bring an infinity cube or tangle to meetings. These activities help divert some excess energy and allow me, and other people like me, to better contribute and participate. Yes, they can help with emotional overwhelms as well, but that wasn’t the portrayal in the book, especially as that scene included the character outright lying and not knowing about technology in his own office. Something associated with neurodivergent people was coupled with the absolute height of this character’s uselessness. It’s just one scene but it felt unnecessary and cruel.

This is a tough book to sum up. It has strengths which are on display for most of the read, making it overall enjoyable. Yet it also has these flaws that can significantly impact the reading experience. I appreciated the sense of immersion in a world in which being super-powered and being queer were normalized, but found myself robbed of a positive experience from the ableism; I enjoyed the romance far more than usual, yet found the plot dull and unengaging. It’s not a bad book. It gives a great vicarious experience of dating Supergirl. But it’s a tough one to recommend all the same.

Kelleen reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

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I am in the middle of THE most epic reading slump this summer. I haven’t been reading a tenth of what I usually do, and the genres and storylines that usually capture my attention just aren’t doing it for me right now. But I’ve read these books 3.5 times so far in 2022 and I can’t imagine it won’t be more. There’s something about alien invasion and ultra-mega-creepy levels of instant fame that my soul finds very comforting right now.

This duology follows one 23-year-old woman, April May, as she accidentally makes first contact with an alien life force and then even more (or less, depending on who you believe) accidentally becomes wildly internet famous. With her band of friends and enemies and frenemies (including her ex-roommate/girlfriend), April must navigate these hitherto unreckoned dimensions, trying to save the world without losing herself.

The most remarkable thing about these books, in my opinion, is not the aliens or the internet but April herself (at least in the first book). Hank Green writes with such a strong, precise, compelling narrative voice with a narrow, central first person narrator who is so charming and funny as to make you forget how utterly unreliable she is. Especially when read in audio, the whole experience feels like April is telling you a story, directly into your ears, and the intimacy of that narration is electrifying. Hank writes complex, sympathetic, human characters whose humanity is the crux and core of every terrible decision and beautiful triumph. The story is fresh and exciting and dynamic, and then he breaks open all the doors in the sequel lending nuance and dimension with each distinctive POV.

I found myself so invested in the (beautifully executed) intricacies of plot, but even more invested in the humanness and complex hope of each of these characters. In this story, good conquers evil, but not easily. We see the full complexity of humanity, which makes each choice and each word less wholly good or wholly evil, but rather leads us to the only logical conclusion: that on the whole, human beings are good, and with intention and empathy, we can and must save the world.

April is a bi woman, and her identity feels present and honest without being didactic. And the journey we take with her relationship with Maya, the (very low) lows and the (very high) highs is so central to the complex and well-wound project of this story as a whole. It’s hopeful and messy and honest and absolutely essential.

Every time I think about these books, this story, I long to immerse myself inside it once more and then I remember that I am inside it. I live in a world eerily approaching an alien-invasion-meets-socio-political-internet nightmare. And I know there’s reason to be afraid, but I also know there’s more.

On second thought, perhaps it is the overwhelming hope that my soul finds very comforting right now.

DFTBA.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Maggie reviews This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron

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This Wicked Fate by Kalynn Bayron is the sequel to This Poison Heart, her gothic YA fantasy filled with Black girl magic, Greek mythology, and impressive action. This book picks up directly after This Poison Heart and deals with Briseis trying to grapple with the events and betrayals of the last book. Faced with an impossible task, she must embark with her newly-found birth family, her adoptive family, and her new friends on a heroic quest that would do a Greek legend proud. Bayron continues to pull in mythology and plant lore to give Briseis’s world a rich depth and backstory, but the presence of so many adults means that Briseis is less of a star and more caught in the whirlwind of plot.

In This Poison Heart, Briseis is the star as she tries to figure out her magic and her family history by herself. Her moms are aware of her magic, and they are the ones that move them into their newly-inherited house, but the connection to Greek history, the secret of the poison garden, and the source of Briseis’s power are all things that Briseis investigated on her own or with Marie and Karter. In true YA fashion, Briseis often decides that the adults in her life don’t need to know things, because she doesn’t want to worry them—a coming of age literary tradition. In This Wicked Fate, the presence of Circe and Persephone, and the sudden awareness of Moe of just what Briseis has been grappling with, means that Briseis is no longer in charge of the action. Quite reasonably for adults, Circe and Moe and Persephone are the ones making the plans for the Absyrtus Heart, leaving Briseis to insert herself in them and keep up with events as best she can. It’s a logical progression, but I found it less fun to read.

However, This Wicked Fate offers plenty of the amazing relationships that This Poison Heart boasted of. Briseis has a great relationship with her adoptive parents, and now she has to navigate what sort of relationship she wants with her biological family. Bayron handles the issue with depth and grace, leading Briseis and Circe to gradually get to know each other and figure themselves out while dealing with the horrible situation they’re in. Her relationship with Marie also blossoms, as Marie throws herself into their quest and being Briseis’s Muscle. It’s a very sweet relationship considering they met while they were in danger. Briseis even spends time grappling with her feelings about Karter because, even though he did betray her, he was her first friend in a new town, she valued the relationship, and she is starting to see how badly his family treats him. The themes of found family, generational trauma, and love and forgiveness run deep throughout the story and make this duology a worthwhile and entertaining read.

In conclusion, this is a solid ending to the duology started in This Poison Heart. If I found the first book more fun, I found that this book was full of deep meaningful relationships, character growth, queer love, and a satisfying ending. I would encourage any fan of YA fantasy to add it to their list today.

Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

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Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to 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 Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey

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Melissa Grey’s Valiant Ladies, inspired by two real seventeenth-century vigilantes, centers around two teenage girls’ quest for justice and love for each other. While Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza spend their days in the fine home of Kiki’s wealthy father, they spend their nights on the streets of Potosí, engaging in gambling and fighting and other “unladylike” activities. After the murder of her brother on the night Kiki’s engagement to the viceroy’s son is announced, Kiki and Ana set off to discover what really happened while also confronting their feelings for each other.

Perhaps because it is based on real people, this book delights in being separate from actual history, which served the book very well. The characters speak and think in more modern language (though not distractingly so), and the girls are free to be brazenly in love with each other with little more than a scandalized gasp or a “hey, that’s wild” from the people around them, which allowed me, as a queer reader, to also indulge myself in the fantasy of kicking ass, taking down the patriarchy, and getting the girl in the end. (It also means I don’t feel like I’m snooping on real people, because obviously it didn’t happen like this, but it’s still really cool either way.)

That being said, it is not a rosy, completely-divorced-from-history fairy tale either. The world felt well-drawn from the rigid and wasteful aristocracy to the bars and brothels where Ana grew up, and while I always trusted this book would have a happy ending, it also did not pretend life is great for teenage girls at this time. Ana’s background in particular gave the novel plenty of room for acknowledging and criticizing the ways the nobility and specifically Spanish colonizers suck, which, for the most part, it took.

As for the characters, both Ana and Kiki were delights. Their voices were distinct (and so funny), and while they were certainly badass, they were badasses who felt like people, with feelings and vulnerabilities as well as snark. Their romance was likewise really sweet. This is friends-to-lovers at its best. They had the established camaraderie of lifelong friends, as well as some of my favorite pining that I’ve seen in a while, and while romance and crime-solving can be difficult to balance, the one never distracted from the other.

I would not have known about this book if it hadn’t been recommended to me, but I’m so glad it was because it was so good. I didn’t realize before I started reading, but this is the book I have been wanting to read for I don’t know how long. It was fun, it was funny, it was sweet, it was badass. I just had an all-around great time while reading it. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves badass historical sword lesbians with a little bit of mystery (and really, how could anyone not love that?)

Larkie reviews The Girls are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

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I love a good horror movie, and can never resist a classic haunted house, so when I heard that The Girls are Never Gone is about a podcast host investigating a 30 year old murder and possible haunting of a dilapidated old mansion, and it’s sapphic, I jumped on it. This book was a lot of fun, first of all. It had a fairly lighthearted tone overall, as the story followed three friends caught up in solving a 30 year old mystery and unveiling some of the even older history in the house.

The friendship in this book was one of my favorite parts. Of course I was expecting a bit of romance and tension, since I did pick up a sapphic horror book, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun as the three girls (Dare, Quinn, and Holly) worked to restore the Arrington estate. It made me want to grab a couple of friends and go explore somewhere spooky and then have a sleepover because we’re too nervous to be alone afterwards.

I will say that I do kind of wish the book was a bit scarier. There were some excellent spooky scenes, but they were mostly sandwiched between more lighthearted aspects of three teenagers having fun and exploring together (and shenanigans with Waffle, the blood sugar signaling dog who does a better job at detecting ghost activity). With all the creepy elements, you’d think that this book would be scarier overall, but it wasn’t really. This might be a good thing if people enjoy horror aesthetics without wanting to be terrified, but it missed the mark slightly for me. However, lots of the scary lake aspects were excellent. I love it when people vomit up lake water, what can I say?

Danika reviews Florida Woman by Deb Rogers

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Jamie has always lived a bit of a bumpy life. Her dad left when she was young, and her mom took off with a new boyfriend not long afterwards. She and her brother weathered the foster care system together until he was arrested for dealing drugs. Since then, she’s been working minimum wages jobs with very few connections, just scraping by.

But one strange night changed her life forever, and not for the better. A combination of bad decisions and unlikely circumstances turned her into Twitter’s main character of the day: A “Florida Woman” headline. All she wants to do is put her head down, serve her time in community service, and wait for it to blow over.

In this worst time in her life, though, she’s stumbled on some luck: a lawyer who’s taking her on pro bono, and a sweet community service opportunity that seems more like voluntourism than something comparable to jail time. Her lawyer has arranged for her to volunteer for a macaque monkey sanctuary. She’ll have her room and board paid for, and she’ll serve out her time in the Florida jungle helping prepare the monkey’s food, clean up after them, and generally be helpful.

Jamie was fully expecting to spend time behind bars, so this is an incredible opportunity, even if she does have to wear an ankle monitor. When she arrives at the sanctuary, Atlas, she finds the three full-time staff members are a very close-knit group of women. They’re definitely hippie types, and they believe the monkeys have spiritual wisdom to share with them. Jamie can’t help but be envious of the way they move through life, and she yearns to belong in this community.

Meanwhile, interspersed with Jamie’s chapters are excerpts from the sanctuary’s website, which include ominous lines like “We are a supportive circle, but remember: circles are closed for safety and wholeness. You are either with us or against us. There is no other way.” Jamie sleeps in her own hut deep in the jungle, away from the other women. She swears she can hear the monkeys screaming at night, but she’s told she’s dreaming it or confusing it with other noises.

This is a story that has a creeping sense of unease, which pairs well with the oppressive, dizzying heat and humidity of Jamie’s surroundings. Atlas feels a little cult-like, but Jamie is completely bought in. She’s vulnerable on multiple levels, and she desperately wants to be part of this community who seem to accept her and value her, even knowing her embarrassing headlines. She devotes herself to them and Atlas, ignoring the red flag that pop up, and as readers, we’re just waiting for this house of cards to come down.

I feel like with slow burn suspense like this in a story, it can turn out a couple of ways. One is that you get exactly what you were anticipating the entire time, and it feels like they were just dragging out the few plot points they had. Or, as is the cast for this book, it can slowly keep gathering steam towards an explosion at the end. While this book start off fairly slow-moving, it is effective in building tension, and that is definitely paid off.

I will also say this has a sapphic main character, but it’s far from a romance.

I wasn’t sure exactly what genre this was going into it: horror? Litfic? Thriller? And to be honest, I’m still not sure by the end. I’d say thriller meets litfic would probably be the closest to accurate.

This was a compelling read, especially with the fascinating setting. And I was invested in Jamie, who is so hungry for connection that she’s willing to overlook a lot to find it. This is a thriller, so I recommend looking up content warnings, because some of them would be spoilers for specific reveals.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

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Every year the witch queen of Caldella must choose a lover from the town to sacrifice to the dark tide, saving the island and its people from annihilation. Every year another boy is taken and everyone accepts it. But when Lina’s brother is in danger of becoming the sacrifice, she can no longer sit idly by. Tomas—her crush and the only boy who ever escaped the witch queen’s sacrifice—helps her keep her brother safe, but ends up being taken again. Feeling guilty and not wanting to lose him, Lina sets out to his rescue and takes his place. Lina and the witch queen, Eva, butt heads at first, but they soon come to know each other better until they’re willing to fight for changes.

Perhaps it was the audiobook narration, but the overall story was underwhelming. The world-building and magic were the strongest aspects of the story. Magic is established straightaway as a luxury to be bought as spells and potions. It’s also shown that the dark tide is only kept at bay when the witch queen’s sacrifice is truly a sacrifice, meaning she has to love them.

The characters’ relationships never feel organic. On paper, they’re written as falling in love, with all the familiar markers of enemies to lovers. But the connection between Eva and Lina never feels authentic. Similarly, Lina’s love for Tomas is more of a crush. But this speaks to Lina’s tendency to romanticize everything. She lives in fantasy, thinking the world works as good and evil, with good prevailing and true love winning the day.

Lina’s relationship with her brother, Finley, is one of the more interesting dynamics that only touched the surface. Coming from her point of view, it seems like she and Finley fight like normal siblings. However, it’s established from the beginning that his anger was so violent that he ended up hurting her, leading to her broken ankle. Every time she thinks about the incident, she makes excuses saying she shouldn’t have made him angry and that he really loves her, but his temper gets the best of him. It’s the narrative her family has been telling her whole life, so of course, she believes that his actions are mistakes and not abuse. It’s not until Eva tells her that Finley abuses her and that she doesn’t have to accept that abuse that Lina begins to see their relationship differently.

Lina, with her head in fantasy and giving people the benefit of the doubt, plays the role of the “good girl,” while Eva, the literal witch who doesn’t allow others to disrespect her boundaries, is “evil.” These dynamics are the more intriguing storyline, but the book gets bogged down in trying to make their eventual romance the focus.

Content warning: abuse

Til reviews My Whole Truth by Mischa Trace

the cover of My Whole Truth

Trigger warnings: sexual assault, gore, pregnancy, abortion

My Whole Truth tells the story of Seelie, who readers meet in the aftermath of a vicious attack. She’s bleeding, scared, and teeth-gritted determined to survive. As the novel progresses, Seelie recovers physically with therapy and emotionally through support from her friends, but faces both a legal trial and harassment at school.

Because Seelie survived. And she did so by ensuring her attacker was dead.

Just as a book, this is a quick but just-okay read. It’s fast-paced with a twist or revelation around every corner. Relationships between Seelie and her friends were another positive; they felt genuine. As I read, I felt like I could see the author’s plotting, and it’s not inherently bad. Threads are introduced and resolved in a reasonable timeframe. Multiple storylines overlap—they just didn’t feel cohesive. One in particular related to drug-dealing. It took up a fair few pages, yet seemed mostly to provide context, not to impact the story itself. This proves most problematic at the conclusion: marked by dramatic yet unimpactful revelations, it felt silly.

The representation is balanced far better than the story itself. Seelie’s queerness, disability, and size all felt very organic to me. Anyone who’s ever been an awkward teenager will recognize themselves in her under-articulated crush on her best friend. Seelie’s recovery from a stab wound to the leg is slow and requires her to use mobility aids for much of the story. Reading it, the pain and frustration seem palpable. Finally, her feelings about her size are well-incorporated and feel realistic from little details like self-consciousness regarding specific body parts. People who have never been fat rarely understand just how personal it can be to hate one’s knees.

Most impressive of all, this is never a story about a queer girl or a disabled girl or a fat girl, it’s a story about Seelie. The narrative doesn’t feel the need to handhold readers. Instead, it’s very normalizing.

This was a just-okay book, but its representation is excellent. So despite the just-okay-ness, I had a good time reading it.

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion 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.