Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Grumpy/Sunshine Behind the Bar: In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins

In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins cover

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In Walked Trouble, Dana Hawkins’s newest novel, takes us away from the coffee shop of Not in the Plan and into Nueve’s, a Puerto Rican bar and restaurant that should totally exist. (Has anyone else noticed just how many great concepts for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, films, TV series, etc. that exist in romance novels?) Remi James is briefly introduced in Not in the Plan, but all anyone really needs to know about this character becomes clear in the first chapter of In Walked Trouble—Remi is definitely on the surly side of the personality spectrum. 

A grump, if you will.

Despite her grumpy nature, everything seems to be coming up Remi: her boss has called her in to discuss what must be the promotion that she so rightly deserves. Having grown up in the foster system, Remi is obsessed with the idea that a house will make a home for her, but she needs more money for a downpayment. Money she will earn when she finally gets that promotion to head bartender. Which is why she’s so angry when she discovers that her boss has brought in Maya to co-bartend with Remi. No promotion, no raise. Remi’s attraction to Maya is immediately replaced with anger. (“Replaced” is a strong word—let’s say “supplemented by” instead.) To make matters worse, the money that would have gone into that raise is now being offered as a bonus. May the best bartender win.

Remi thinks that this will be no problem because of how fast and efficient she is. What she doesn’t know is that Maya tosses bottles, which tends to make a bartender very popular very quickly. Maya, according to Remi, is “ready for a runway.” And she smiles too much.

Is there a better trope than grumpy/sunshine? Don’t bother answering that question—there isn’t.

Maya also needs that bonus to afford her master’s in nursing, a degree she’s pursuing in part because of her sister, who has type 1 diabetes. She is also grieving her father’s sudden death nine years earlier. As I’ve written many times before, I appreciate when a romance novel focuses on the trauma of the main character (or, in this case, both main characters). While two characters can’t fix the trauma that the other faces, they can listen, be supportive, and offer help when appropriate. Sure, the other stuff is pretty good as well, but I really enjoy this element of Remi and Maya’s relationship.  

What other stuff? Well, if asked, I would point to a scene that involves mop water, ice cubes, a lemon slice, and dueling soda guns.

I could probably end this review here, right?

Back to trauma for a moment. If you’re the kind of romance reader who prefers the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” approach, In Walked Trouble is probably not for you. Yes, there is instant chemistry between Remi and Maya, but the movement on that attraction only occurs after they actually get to know each other. Fine… there is also a lot of alcohol. But even that isn’t what you think it is. Hawkins puts together a narrative where it is not entirely clear whether the physical intimacy came before the emotional intimacy or vice versa. That sentence felt cringey as I wrote, but I’m sticking with it because of how strongly I value the whole “talking about feelings” thing. We know that it isn’t exactly easy to open up to other people in a genuine way, and I can’t help but think stories like this one model a better approach.

Hawkins does reinforce a few other concepts in In Walked Trouble, including one of my favorites: coming up with really bad excuses to be somewhere or to do something for someone. Because sometimes you’re not ready to talk about your feelings with someone, but you still want that someone to know that eventually you might want to. The really bad excuse approach to getting to know someone never gets old.

Neither does grumpy/sunshine.

(One more thing: I had no intention of comparing In Walked Trouble to a film like I did last month in my review of Cover Story… but then I read someone comparing In Walked Trouble to the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. You know, the movie they show clips of during the “Kokomo” music video? And, okay, yes, Maya does toss bottles like Tom Cruise’s character. That is, and I cannot stress this enough, the only connection between this book and that movie. Seriously, don’t watch Cocktail thinking it’s a romcom. Watch it because a) it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Movie and b) it goes way darker than any movie whose soundtrack features “Kokomo” has a right to do.)

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

Grief in Utopia: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep cover

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This review contains spoilers.

The Seep might be one of the most refreshing takes on alien invasion I’ve ever read. This novel follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, as she and her wife Deeba, along with almost everyone else in the world, are forced to live with something called the Seep. The Seep is an alien unattached to concepts like linear time and physicality that invades humanity and simply… makes life perfect. People can alter their appearances at will, ingesting the Seep feels like getting high, and there are restaurants that only give you good-tasting food that will help your body out, along with a bunch of other seemingly-awesome changes. After a few years of living under its power, Trina doesn’t love the Seep as much as her friends do anymore—and then her wife Deeba decides she wants to be turned back into a baby and give up the life they’ve built together.

Trina does what I think any of us would be tempted to do in that situation: she drinks herself half to death. Living under the Seep, though, means that her actions don’t go unnoticed, and what really kicks the story off is someone coming to Trina’s place and telling her that she’s hurting the entire community by not taking care of herself or her house. This sends her on a mission to hunt down an old friend of hers and to save a boy she meets along the way who comes from the Compound, one of the only places untouched by the Seep.

What I really liked about this story is how deep Trina is in her grief. It’s been about five years since Deeba left, but the way Porter writes Trina is like it happened yesterday. Deeba isn’t dead, not really; she is a small child being raised by a lovely couple far away from Trina. However, to Trina, it’s like she is, and that comes through spectacularly through Porter’s writing. Trina hasn’t moved on at all in those years after Deeba’s departure. She could move on: she could let the Seep erase her memory of Deeba, or she could let it change her feelings into something more manageable. But Trina is all about the old days and the old ways. She misses what art was back when humans still routinely felt things like pain and sadness, and she doesn’t get the appeal of having an all-knowing alien rooting around in her skull and changing her brain chemistry every second of every day of every week.

So when she meets this kid from the Compound who wants to know about the world outside and wants to join with the Seep, it’s like her brain finally has something to focus on that isn’t Deeba. It’s never really about the kid; in the end, Trina doesn’t really care about him, not like she tries to convince herself that she does. It’s a distraction from the pain she has carried with her since Deeba’s departure. All of it leads her to a friend (ex-friend) who goes around wearing his dead boyfriend’s face and pretending that he is a different race than he actually is. It takes Trina finding him again and confronting him for any real change to happen within her, and Porter goes exactly where you want her to go when Trina is shoved back into the past for a little while. She watches her wife from the same place she watches her in a scene from the beginning, caught in a memory, and the pain of losing that part of her wife hits Trina all over again. She’s been lost in her grief, and she has been for a while now. This is simply when she finally realizes it.

Trina’s conversations with the Seep are also a high point of the book. The Seep talks to Trina by changing the writing on a pamphlet she is given, then by changing the writing on a pamphlet that the boy drops, and then it actually speaks to her from the pamphlet cover and heats up in her hands when it wants to tell her something. Trina tries to get the Seep to understand that sometimes humans need to be able to choose bad things or things that hurt, but it takes the Seep a long time to grasp that point. If the Seep isn’t there to make life perfect and wonderful, then what is it for? The relationship between Trina and the entity known as the Seep is the thing that drives the story onward when Trina’s previous excuses and distractions run a little thin. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, Trina and the Seep talk to each other in a sort of talk show style set-up where every person in the audience is a different iteration of Deeba. Deeba left her because of the Seep; we know that, the story literally begins with that. Seeing it laid out so viscerally, though, with the Seep wearing somebody’s face and talking to Trina while every version of Deeba she ever knew laughs out at her from the background really made it hit home. That’s what this sort of grief is like, and Porter captures it so perfectly. I’ve been thinking about that scene for days since I put the book down. It takes having this conversation with the Seep for Trina to decide to try to move past everything with Deeba, and the story ends optimistically with Trina beginning to take care of herself and the house she used to share.

I know I’m a little late at finding this story (it was published in 2020), but I’m just glad I found it when I did. It’s moving, thought-provoking, and exactly the sort of thing I’m into. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because there are a couple plot issues it took me a minute to get past (she’s on a Do Not Admit list to her ex-friend’s shows, but she’s able to go in anyway?), but other than that, I really liked it. The way that the novel is bookended by “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” is really cool too and ties the story together. I would absolutely recommend this.

Triggers warnings for: death, slight suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy, and drug use (kind of).

Murder by Crowdfunding: Crowded Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela et al.

Crowded Vol 1 cover

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The Crowded comic book series tells the satirical story of a dystopian world not too far in the future where the gig economy has become unhinged. In this world, everything has a price, including putting out hits on someone’s life through an app called Reapr. Anyone can be a target and anyone can crowdfund a kill, and loopholes in technology laws make it easy to get away with it while law enforcement and government officials look the other way.

Following the antics of Charlie, the hit in question, and her hired protector, Vita, the story unfolds into outrageous mayhem. It all seems so farfetched, yet in light of our reality, perhaps it’s not too far off target. Live streamers become famous for their Reapr kills and their followers can become patrons of their feeds for exclusive content and other rewards.

The vibrant and oversaturated artwork lends itself well to the story and characters. It creates a sense of inauthenticity and fabrication that makes everyone so fake. It feels fitting that the story takes place in Los Angeles, infamous for being filled with disingenuous people. It also adds to the fast-paced action as Charlie and Vita fight their way out of sticky situations (caused by Charlie’s reckless choices).

Neither Charlie nor Vita are likable characters, but Charlie especially makes it hard to root for her as a heroine. Despite her constant careless behavior and terrible treatment of others, including her bodyguard Vita, she has moments of humanity and vulnerability that make you not want to give up on her. But much like Vita, you also can’t trust her. Their bickering dynamic points the story toward these two possibly getting together. However, the shared moments in this first volume feel forced, so it doesn’t seem like that relationship has been earned yet.

Charlie is openly and unapologetically bisexual. She has no problem talking about her many conquests, man and woman alike. There’s even a sequence at a club called Bifurious where the artwork is entirely done in “bisexual lighting” in case it hasn’t been made clear until then. She flirts shamelessly with Vita, which Vita doesn’t directly engage in at first, but she doesn’t discourage it either.

Vita is revealed to have had an ex-girlfriend in the police force, making her solidly sapphic. However, it hasn’t been made clear or stated outright that she is a lesbian. As the story progresses, she gets close to Charlie, and it’s hard to tell if she flirts with her client to gain her trust or if she genuinely likes her.

Overall, this first volume is a fun and zany read. And the plot twist at the end (which I won’t spoil here) left me wanting to find out what happens next.

Content warning: extreme violence

A Wacky Adventure Through Working Retail and the Multiverse: Finna by Nino Cipri

the cover of Finna

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Ava just broke up with her partner, Jules. They both work at an Ikea-like furniture store, but they’ve been managing to work different shifts after the breakup… until today. That’s already awkward enough before they discover a portal and are tasked with going through it together to retrieve a customer’s grandmother who wandered into it and is now lost in the multiverse. Don’t worry: in exchange for risking their lives, they will receive a gift card from corporate.

This was exactly what I was hoping it would be. Finna is a novella, and it feels almost like a montage as they run through different multiverses, including ones with carnivorous armchairs and hivemind employees. It’s a zany adventure that reminded me a bit of Doctor Who, especially the episodes that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Grounding the wackiness of the setting is the dynamic between Ava and Jules. You can see how much they care about each other and why they were together for so long—and why they broke up. Ava has anxiety and depression, and Jules is neurodivergent. Often their different ways of thinking end up with them clashing: Jules rushes into things and can be a bit erratic, which is hard for Ava to plan for and stresses her out. This isn’t really a second-chance romance story: there’s good reason they broke up, and because it’s so fresh, they have a lot of anger and hurt around it still. It’s more like a second-chance friendship, trying to recover any sort of friendship from the rubble of their breakup.

I thought the balance between the over-the-top adventure story and the very human main characters worked well. Jules is nonbinary and Black, and we also see how they have difficulty being accepted and fitting in, especially in combination with their neurodivergence. It creates layers of conflict: the life-or-death, sci-fi, world-jumping stakes of the plot with the complicated, painful complexities of their relationship as they’re forced to work together to survive. As you’d expect from the premise, it’s also an anti-capitalist story that explores the horrors of working retail.

If you’re a fan of books that use an out-there premise to explore characterization and relationship dynamics, I highly recommend this one. It was the perfect book to read in one sitting during a readathon.

A Sapphic and Metis Secret Garden: Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline 

Into the Bright Open cover

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Into the Bright Open by Cherie Dimaline is part of MacMillan’s Remixed Classics series, which has diverse authors reimagine beloved classics through their own perspective. In this offering, Dimaline remixes The Secret Garden, setting it in Canada and filling it with Metis characters and budding sapphic romance but keeping many of the elements from the original. I appreciated that this was not just a copy/paste job on the original, but its own story that is willing to use the original as a base to stand on its own terms as well, and I found this a very fun read that I think today’s readers will appreciate. 

This is still the curmudgeonly Mary Lennox we know and love. Sent to her Uncle’s house, she is appalled by the wilderness, the servants, and her new circumstances. But Sophie, a young Metis girl, is a Dickon-like character but not Dickon. She is as enthralled by Mary’s mind as Mary is by the things Sophie introduces her to in the outdoors. And Olive, Mary’s cousin who is confined to the attic, is in much more dire straits than Colin in the novel. With the addition of a wicked stepmother, Into the Bright Open has less of the quiet interiority of The Secret Garden, but the girls are still driven to make their own paths as they fight for their own space and to rescue Olive from her attic. I was a little bit taken aback by the changes at first, but once I accepted them as part of a remix, I had a good time. 

Given that Sophie is perfectly willing to haul Mary all around the landscape outside, the walled garden they tend is more about giving scope to their burgeoning relationship than about bringing the garden back to life. This is a book that really captured that moment of looking at another girl and going “oh” as that moment of queer realization hits, and it also captured Mary’s growth into someone willing to take direct action and put in work rather than wait for things to be done for her. Mary’s lack of role models of any type in her life rather works in her favor here, as she has been left to her own devices so much that her gradual realizations of her feelings are marked mostly by normal adolescent confusion rather than societal expectations. The way her and Sophie grow into each other as they spend more and more time together was very cute.

In conclusion, Into the Bright Open is an excellent addition to this remixed classics series. Whether you are already a Secret Garden fan or only vaguely know the story, Into the Bright Open is an engaging and cute read to start your spring off with. It stands up on its own, but it also provides an interesting view of remixing a classic through a different lens, and frankly, more historical sapphic YA is never a bad thing. 

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

Daughters of Izdihar cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content warnings: police brutality, homophobia, racism, misogyny

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

All This Could Be Different cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story by Rachel Lacey cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teen Witches Cover Up a Murder: When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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Alexis and her five friends share a secret—they all have magic powers. On prom night, Alexis’s magic goes wrong and a boy ends up dead. Now, the six teens have to keep this a secret as they try to make things right. Bonds are tested in ways they never thought could happen.

The friend group dynamic helps keep Sarah Gailey’s When We Were Magic rooted in reality. Alexis as a main character can be frustrating, even considering this is a young adult novel, so teenagers are bound not to make the smartest decisions. However, it’s all balanced by the relationships between the friends within the group. Every girl has a unique relationship with one another, making for fascinating tension, push and pull.

It’s also nice to see such a diverse cast of characters representing identities such as adoptee, mixed race, Muslim, lesbian, nonbinary and more. Even with an ensemble cast of six characters, Gailey does a deft job of developing each enough to ensure no one falls by the wayside. Each girl has a distinctive personality, and they’re all strong personalities, which is part of what makes their friendship dynamic so fun.

Their magic powers also highlight the dynamic of the friends and each one’s personality. Each girl seems to have a specialty, like Alexis has a connection with animals—dogs and canines, mostly. Iris seems to have taken on the role of a pseudo-leader, as she appears to be the most powerful, or at least the one with the most control of her magic. She’s the one who studies it closely, trying to unravel the mysteries of their powers.

That’s an interesting point in the world-building for this book. It’s never clear the origins of their magic and why they have it. You just jump straight into the middle of the narrative where they all already know they have magic and they found each other.

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

For those who do not stomach the macabre well, this part of the book may make you feel squeamish. When Alexis accidentally kills Josh, it’s a pretty nasty sight. The subsequent magic that happens as each friend tends to his different body parts also causes the stomach to turn. It’s rather amazing how well these teenagers handle such a traumatic experience as they try to “put him back together,” so to speak.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

Although Alexis and her friends appear to treat Josh’s death with nonchalance as they attempt to fix things, it’s clear there are consequences to this magic. There’s added pressure when another student outside their coven discovers their secret and threatens to turn them in to the police for having something to do with the disappearance of Josh.

Of course, all the while, regular teen drama unfolds and causes more tension. In fact, it becomes clear that this mundane drama was the catalyst for the magical catastrophe. Alexis is clearly in love with her best friend Roya; everyone is sick of them dancing around each other. But it also brings about more nuance to Alexis and her sexuality.

Even though Alexis is adopted by two fathers who are clearly in a queer marriage, she still hasn’t come out to them or her friends. She hasn’t even come out to herself because she isn’t sure if bisexual is the right word for what she is. She knows she’s queer but is still questioning what that means to her. When she finally does come out, it’s more of an, “I thought everyone already knew,” situation.

I won’t spoil how it ends, but I will say it was not what I expected. I don’t think I was disappointed by the ending, but I don’t feel that it was satisfactory after all the stakes and investment the reader puts into it. I still really enjoyed it, though, especially the audiobook version narrated by Amanda Dolan. This perhaps added another layer of depth than reading it in a physical copy would have. I still think it was worth the read, even if the ending left me wanting.

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore