Shannon reviews She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

She's Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard

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As the weather begins to warm up here in the midwest, I find myself in serious need of books set during the warm summer months. There’s something so magical about long days spent in the sunshine, even if the characters’ daily activities aren’t ones I’d recommend. Books set in the summer just have a certain kind of hypnotic feel, and it’s exactly that feeling I was searching for when I picked up She’s Too Pretty To Burn, the latest novel by Wendy Heard. It’s a young adult thriller with charismatic characters and a swoony romance, and I devoured it in a single sitting.

Veronica is a photographer living in San Diego with her mother. When we first meet her, she’s pretty bored with life, hanging out at a party she’s not enjoying and just wishing for something exciting to happen. She loves photography, but even it isn’t providing her enough mental stimulation to fight off her feelings of boredom.

Then, she meets Mick, a complicated and beautiful young woman who seems to speak right to Veronica’s soul. The reader knows pretty early on that Mick is a troubled character, but Veronica doesn’t pick up on this for quite some time. She just knows that she’s captivated by Mick, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with photographing her, even though Mick herself hates having her picture taken.

Mick’s home life isn’t the greatest, so spending time with Veronica serves as a sort of escape for her. The two begin spending all their free time together, and it’s not long before Veronica introduces her to her good friend Nico, an activist with a passion for performance art. He’s a couple of years older than Mick and Veronica, definitely more worldly than them, and he has a plan he thinks will shake up the city in some necessary ways.

At first, Nico’s plan seems harmless enough, but as time passes and Mick falls deeper under his spell, things take a dangerous turn. Veronica, desperate to make it big as a photographer, doesn’t notice the danger Mick and Nico are putting themselves in right away. Will she figure things out in time to stop something catastrophic from happening, something with the power to affect the trajectories of all their lives?

She’s Too Pretty To Burn is pretty dark, definitely not a good fit for those looking for a story on the sweeter side of the young adult spectrum. Their are some blurred lines when it comes to consent here, and readers who are triggered by discussion of abuse might want to do additional research before picking this up.

The characters aren’t all good or all bad. Instead, they exist in that big gray area that makes them super relatable but also difficult to categorize. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite, since each is incredibly well-drawn. They all make bad decisions at times, but then, that’s a regular part of being a human being, and something I definitely want in my fiction. Perfect, cookie-cutter people aren’t all that interesting to read about.

I enjoyed watching the relationship between Mick and Veronica blossom. The author does a phenomenal job showing how complex love is, especially for teenagers who are working hard to figure their lives out. Certain scenes between the two are poignant and beautiful, while others serve to amp up the tension of the overall story.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced novel that’s dark and twisty and filled with characters who remind you of people you’d meet in the real world, you could do far worse than She’s Too Pretty To Burn. It’s probably not a book that will appeal to every reader, but it landed firmly in my wheelhouse and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

Danika reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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“August believes in nothing except caution and a pocketknife.”

I first have to establish that I never read Red, White, and Royal Blue. I know that everyone and their sister was raving about that book, but as you probably can guess, I tend to centre women in my reading. Also, at a certain point the hype became overwhelming. So when I picked up One Last Stop, despite the author’s reputation, I was fully ready not to like it in some sort of defiant stubbornness. Instead, I am here to tell you that this author has earned the hype.

Although I read a lot of books, this is the first read in a long time that’s completely immersed me in it. It was the kind of book where you have to shake your head when you surface, because you’ve completely forgotten that the real world exists or that time has been passing.

This is about August, a twenty-something who has recently moved to New York with no plan other than switching into a new school. She has been doing this for years–switching schools, majors, and cities without ever fully unpacking or settling down. Growing up, it was just her and her mother against a hostile world. Her mother’s brother went missing in the 70s, and her mother made it her life’s mission to find out what happened to him. August’s first word was “case.” She was raised on a diet of true crime and survival strategies. She always carries a pocketknife and never goes to a second location.

At the beginning of One Last Stop, August is looking for a cheap apartment in Brooklyn. Obviously, she doesn’t have a lot of options. She decides to move in with three weirdos despite her misgivings–one is a psychic and another is building a sculpture with frog bones. I was hooked from the first page, where their roommate notice is a) taped to a garbage can and b) reads, in part: “Must be queer & trans friendly. Must not be afraid of fire or dogs. No Libras, we already have one.” (Of course, she ends up becoming fast friends with them.) I love the quirkiness of these characters that never becomes over the top or too cutesy. As for representation, August is white and bisexual (yes, this uses the word bisexual!) and there are significant POC, queer, and trans side characters. The love interest is Chinese-American and butch!

Speaking of the love interest, this is a romance, so let’s get to the heart of it. August is on her way to her first day of class when she spills coffee on her shirt on the Q train. The aforementioned cute butch, Jane, smiles at her and gives her a scarf, and August is immediately smitten–who wouldn’t be? One of my favourite parts of the book is August daydreaming about Jane assembling a bed frame. If fantasizing about cute butches putting together furniture isn’t sapphic culture, I don’t know what is.

There’s just one problem. Jane is stuck on the subway. And has been since the 70s. Now, August has to work a new case to try to figure out how to save her crush stuck in time–even if it means she’ll never see her again.

All of the reviews I’ve seen for this book talk about how cute and delightful it is, which is fair, but it’s also got some depth and darkness to it. August feels lost and isolated. It’s the story of her beginning to make connections and put down roots, and maybe lay the knife to the side sometimes. There are family secrets, betrayals, and tragedies. While this is a love letter to New York, it’s also a celebration of queerness, found family, and community. We get to see what Jane’s experience was like, growing up in the 70s as a butch punk Asian lesbian. The Stonewall Riots were not history for her. It explores queer history in New York and uplifts what queerness looks like there now–including some very memorable drag nights.

It’s also sexy and romantic. August and Jane have an almost supernatural connection. Jane has forgotten most of her life, and together they try to regain her memories, usually through recreating elements of her past. August brings her endless coffee order and snacks to try to find one that sparks a memory. They have great banter–in fact, the quippy dialogue is a strength in this novel overall. Even as they get closer, Jane’s situation pulls them apart. Even if they can find a way to reverse this situation, will Jane stay here or go back to her time? Which does she want? They have undeniable chemistry and there are some seriously steamy scenes. (Content warning for semi-public sex.)

I am fully on board the Casey McQuiston train (puns!), and I highly recommend you come along. This was a 5 star read, and one I look forward to rereading. It’s a sexy, romantic celebration of queerness and New York. Believe the hype.

One Last Stop comes out June 1st.

Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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.

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Maggie reviews The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry cover

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I have been so excited by all the f/f fantasy coming out lately, and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an excellent addition to the genre. It’s a fast-paced adventure story laced with a sweet romance, set in a sort of Victorian-inspired society with the addition of magic, trolls, and other fantastical elements.

Dellaria Wells is a fire witch and con artist from the bad part of town. With her mother being addicted to drugs, Delly has had to take care of herself from an early age, with greater or lesser success. Stuck between paying her rent and being cursed, Delly takes a wild chance and talks her way onto a gig with a team of female bodyguards to guard a high-class bride from assassination until her wedding day. Delly is anticipating an easy couple of weeks and a rich payday, but she didn’t count on multiple wizardous attacks, murder, or undead animal familiars. Soon after, Delly and her companions are embroiled in the underground drug market in a wild bid for justice (and a huge reward). Along the way, Delly is astounded to find herself having feelings for one of her fellow bodyguards, and, even more surprisingly, those feelings are reciprocated.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that it was a good, solid adventure story, but at the same time, the romance was so soft. Delly tries to talk a good game that she’s only out to set herself up in a good situation, but as a reader you know both characters fall head over heels almost right away. Delly is a funny, competent main character–able in her magic and confident on the streets–but she’s not prepared to dabble in the affairs of the rich. Winn, on the other hand, moves through life with well brought up confidence, but isn’t used to less than straightforward endeavors. She’s also utterly enamored with Delly. Watching them circle each other sweetly while embroiled in high stakes adventure is a treat, and I love how nice they are to each other. It doesn’t feel like as much as an afterthought or a grim plot device as fantasy romances often are.

I also thought the plot was really engaging. From the fish out of water element of Delly amongst the nobility to several ripping good fights to Buttons the undead mouse, I was never bored or waiting for something else to happen. The author has a clever turn of phrase that brings one into Delly’s point of view and sets up a lively mood. And Buttons is really a whole mood in itself. I also liked that Delly was frequently out of her element, but also very good at her job–she just needed an opportunity to prove herself.

In conclusion, this was a delightful read with a thrilling fantasy adventure plotline and a very soft romance. If you like Victorian-themed magic, excellent world-building, and girls having intense feelings for each other but wanting to go slow, this is a great add to your to-read list. I’m definitely going to be recc-ing it around to my friends.

Rachel reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue 2020), is perhaps one of her most compelling historical fictions to date. A fast-paced, stunning novel, I was unable to put down The Pull of the Stars until the early hours of the morning. It drew me into its world in a way that was so riveting and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel.

Shockingly serendipitous, The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic. Already torn apart by war and struggling to fight this new and deadly disease, the novel is told from the perspective of Nurse Julia Power. Julia works in an understaffed and over-full hospital in Dublin in a cramped Maternity-Fever ward full of ill expectant mothers who must be quarantined together. Over a period of three days, Julia must attempt to save the lives of these women and their babies, even as the flu threatens to take them from her. As she works, two other women walk into Julia’s ward (and into her life): Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a Rebel with a complicated past attempting to care for patients while dodging the police, and a young volunteer who has seemingly appeared out of thin air, Bridie Sweeney. In a novel that takes place over three harrowing days, the lives of these women and their patients will become irrevocably intertwined. Birth, death, love, and loss all conflict and persevere in this novel.

The Pull of the Stars could not have been more wonderful. I was captivated by the breakneck speed that Donoghue affects in her writing. Moment to moment, life for Julia Power on this ward is intense and deeply moving. While a pandemic rages on alongside war and political unrest, Donoghue focuses in on the microcosmic relationship between three women and three beds over three days. In a hospital full of othered bodies—queer bodies and disabled bodies—all ravaged by war in different and equally traumatic ways, the novel juxtaposes the weight of war abroad with the war on disease at home, fought by valiant people who have perhaps been forgotten in the wider scheme of the war effort.

Donoghue’s choice to focus on obstetrics is fascinating. She highlights through the figure of Julia, a queer woman working tirelessly to save the lives of her expectant patients—all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are equalized by their pregnancies and this disease—and not always succeeding. The tragedy of death and the miracle of life happen all around Julia in this novel and repeatedly astound her. The compelling and mysterious presence of Bridie Sweeney and the grounding force of Doctor Lynn widen Julia’s perspective of the world in different ways as she attempts to navigate an entirely changed global landscape.

The research and the writing in this novel were stunning and so carefully crafted. This book’s links with the pandemic aside, I think this novel has a lot to say about women’s health, knowledge, and incredible power during the 1918 pandemic and today. The book has the effect of reading like a play—much of the action takes place in one room and involves a small cast of characters. However, this ‘slice of life’ setting often moves beyond the narrow confines of the ward to delve into the three very different and very telling backstories of each of these three women. The structure of the book has an ominous bent to it, and I was compelled to read without pausing until the very end. This book runs the gambit of feelings and it will definitely leave you experiencing the full force of a measure of the emotional whiplash Julia repeatedly encounters in herself and her patients in this novel.

Donoghue integrates lesbian life in her novels so expertly that it seems to occur almost organically. There are some gorgeous scenes here that really did warm my heart, and there is something so powerful about placing lesbian characters in a maternity ward—especially a historical one.

I cannot recommend The Pull of the Stars enough to anyone who is a fan of lesbian fiction, historical fiction, or of Emma Donoghue. It is a triumph.

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Pull of the Stars on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, death, infant death, trauma.

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.