Vic reviews Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Light from Uncommon Stars cover

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Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars is one of the best books I read in 2021, and it is also one of the weirdest. It centers around three women: Shizuka Satomi (a violin teacher who made a deal with a devil and must deliver seven violin prodigies’ souls in order to save her own), Katrina Nguyen (a transgender teenage girl, wildly talented on the violin and deserving of so much more than she has been given), and Lan Tran (a retired interstellar space captain who runs a donut shop with her four children). When Shizuka discovers Katrina in a park, she immediately knows she has found her final soul, but Shizuka’s growing feelings for Lan may change her perspective on everything.

If you think that summary sounds like a roller coaster, wait until you read the book. At times lighthearted and at others absolutely gutting, it ultimately left me feeling better, which is always how I want to feel at the end of a book. It was just so much fun. Aoki has a very playful writing style that made this book delightful down to its very sentences.

The characters and their relationships were equally enjoyable. I loved Shizuka and Lan’s relationship, loved watching it grow, and Katrina had my heart from page one. I wanted so much better for her, and I was so proud of her as her story continued. The secondary characters, too, made me smile (I particularly liked Aunty Floresta and the twins). Some of them did feel a bit underutilized at times, admittedly, but when my biggest complaint is simply that I wanted to see more of the secondary characters too, I cannot call it a bad thing—not when I loved the primary characters as much as I did.

I will give a warning that this book was at times quite a bit heavier than I anticipated. Katrina’s story in particular takes a painfully real look at her experiences as a young transgender woman of color, including homelessness, abuse, sexual assault, dysphoria, misgendering, transphobia, and racism, even from her own family. None of this is gratuitous, but it is very present, so I definitely recommend taking a look at trigger warnings before picking this one up.

In spite of the darkness, though, the love in this book makes it a definite five stars from me—love of self, love of each other, love of music, love of donuts. Ryka Aoki clearly put a lot of care into this book, and it paid off. This book was an Experience with a capital E, and I mean that in the very best way. I cannot think of another book like it.

Trigger warnings: Abuse (domestic and parental), homophobia, transphobia, racism, rape, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, misgendering, gun violence, mentions of war

Danika reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

the cover of The Luminous Dead

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I read this in one sitting during the October 24 hour readathon, and it was exactly what I was looking for. This is about Gyre, who has taken a job to explore a planet’s cave system. She had to lie a bit on her resume, because she doesn’t actually have the experience required for this kind of job, but she needs the money. Soon after she descends, though, she learns a few new things about this solo expedition: her handler, whose voice she hears in her suit, is the only one guiding her. Usually, there would be a whole team, but instead, she has Em. Also, many cavers before her have died in these tunnels.

Em is obsessive about this mission, and she will stop at nothing to get it done, including overriding Gyre’s suit, locking her out or injecting her with chemicals to make her sleep or make her alert. This is, of course, on top of the already existing horror of this situation. It’s a claustrophobic space, and it includes underwater caving, which is deadly in the best of circumstances. Then there’s the tunnellers: giant tunneling monsters who will hunt down any humans they can. Gyre’s suit should protect her from being detected, but she has limited supplies to keep it functional, especially when things quickly begin to go wrong.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyre begins to suspect she’s not alone down here. She thinks she sees evidence of someone without a suit surviving down here, but that’s impossible. And there’s also a non-zero chance she’s hallucinating after stumbling on some mysterious spores…

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so it’s also queer. Gyre and Em have an… interesting relationship. She’s in the cave system for weeks, dependent on Em’s guidance to keep her safe, while also completely distrusting her. As they spend more and more time together, though, and get to know each other, Gyre finds herself reluctantly becoming attached. This is, to be clear, a toxic relationship, but wow was it compelling. Despite Em’s manipulation, I ended up rooting for the two of them, which just shows how well written their dynamic was. If you like the kind of Killing Eve dynamic in F/F relationships, you’d probably appreciate this one.

This is an engrossing blend of psychological horror and survival story. By the time Gyre realizes how deadly this mission is–all caving comes with risks, but this one has more than she was informed of–she’s unable to back out. She is always on the edge of running out of supplies, especially oxygen. As if being trapped underground wasn’t confining enough, the suit becomes claustrophobic after a while, with her desperately wanting to feel anything against her skin, to breathe air freely, or to eat naturally instead of having nutrients injected into her digestive system.

This ticked every box for me, and reading it in one sitting made me feel immersed in this unsettling story. If you’re looking for a creepy, claustrophobic, psychological horror sapphic read, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

My Top 10 Sapphic Reads of 2021

A collage of the book covers listed with the text Best Sapphic Books of 2021: My Favourite Bi & Lesbian Reads (The Lesbrary)

Generally, when I make an annual wrap up list, I include any Lesbrary books I’ve read that year, regardless of publication date. In 2021, though, I was reading so many books for All the Books that all of my picks happen to be new releases. To be clear, these are just my favorites that I read. There were so many queer books that came out that I wanted to read but haven’t gotten to yet, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, and She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I’m guessing those would all be on this list if I had read them in time.

I’ve decided to do this countdown style, but it’s a pretty arbitrary order. I recommend all of these, and I enjoyed them in different ways. (How do you compare a thought-provoking fantasy to a heartwarming YA contemporary to a soul-crushing litfic title?) I’ve also borrowed heavily from my reviews, full disclaimer.

10) Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

cool for the summer cover

Dahlia Adler is a personal hero of mine not only for writing great queer books (and editing lots of fantastic anthologies), but for running LGBTQ Reads, the queer book blog everyone should know about and follow. She pours so much love, time, and energy into that incredible resource.

So of course I had to pick up her new bisexual YA novel! It’s told in two timelines: the confusing summer that Lara spent with Jasmine; and the present, when Lara starts dating the guy she’s had a crush on for ages. It’s a bit of a Grease set up: Jasmine shows up unexpectedly at her school, and Lara has to reconcile that summer with her life as a whole. She also is grappling with her sexuality, and it takes her a while to accept that she’s bisexual.

I really enjoyed how this book depicted how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and they bond over that as well. I still don’t come across a lot of queer YA with Jewish main characters, never mind both the main character and love interest, so that was nice to see.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

9) Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Rise to the Sun cover

I read this during a heat wave, and it begins with two best friends driving to a summer music festival with the volume cranked, singing at the top of their lungs. It felt like exactly what I was craving reading!

While this is a story about friendship, summer love, and music—with a scavenger hunt, too!—it also has a lot more depth than that would suggest. It tackles gun violence, sexual harassment, and grief. Both characters are struggling with their sense of self.

My heart ached for Toni and Olivia, who get overwhelmed with their own insecurities and fears. They make mistakes. They hurt people. But they’re also doing the best they can and learning.

I love how much depth there is to both main characters and to everyone’s relationship dynamics (romantic relationships and friendships). This could easily have been a much simpler summer love story, and I would have enjoyed that too, but instead it felt much more messy and realistic. I appreciated Olivia’s journey to recognizing both her faults (and the damage they’ve caused) as well as her self-worth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

8) A Dream of a Woman by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. 

This begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. 

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

7) Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

the cover of Follow Your Arrow

I feel like this book deserves so much more attention than it’s gotten. It examines bisexuality as a distinct identity, including feelings of imposter syndrome. It also has a bi main character with a gender preference, which I don’t see a lot in books!

This was also a bit of a personal read for me. CeCe and her ex-girlfriend were influencers that had the perfect relationship that baby lesbians looking up to–until Silvie broke up with her. She worries that her audience won’t accept her outside of this relationship, especially if she starts dating a guy. Though I’ve never been famous, I have experienced a tiny version of this, and it was terrible.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

6) Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

This was really a year of fantastic bisexual YA reads. This one has the bonus of being one of the very few polyamorous YA books I’ve ever come across!

I started my review “Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️” and that continues to be my main pitch. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

My heart hurt for Lee when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life, which includes polyamorous relationships, and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I loved this story that takes on the messiness of queerness, shifting identities, and figuring yourself out (especially as a teen).

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

5) Unbroken by C.L. Clark

the cover of The Unbroken

This is a tricky one to rank, because if I’m completely honest, I didn’t always enjoy reading it. It’s a gritty fantasy about colonialism and war, which isn’t usually my genre. But it also left me thinking about it long after I finished, and I think it’s really well crafted. Though I put it down feeling a bit exhausted by the emotional turmoil, months later, I’m now looking forward to the sequel!

Even after writing a thousand word review about this book, I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I appreciate it. I think it is a complex book the depicts the messiness and horrors of colonialism. It allows its characters to be incredibly fallible. It doesn’t shy away from the real-life consequences of their actions and of colonialism in general.

While it’s a comparatively small part of the book, I am interested to follow this series to see where Touraine and Luca’s relationship goes. They can’t seem to stay apart or forget about the other, but they never have an equal footing or healthy dynamic. It can be frustrating, but it’s also compelling enough that I am itching to find out what happens next.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

4) The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

the cover of The Chosen and the Beautiful

I’ll be honest: I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. But I still adored this queer, fabulist take on the story. It’s told from the perspective of Jordan, a bisexual Vietnamese American adoptee who occupies an uncomfortable space in society: she’s wealthy, but not entirely accepted by her peers, who still treat her as exotic.

In this version of the story, Nick and Gatsby have their own romantic relationship, which makes the love triangle (or square or pentagon) between Daisy, Tom, Gatsby (and Nick and Jordan) even more fraught. Nick is reluctant to acknowledge that he has any inclination towards men, but he clearly cares deeply about Gatsby and their… dalliances, even if Gatsby doesn’t take them seriously.

Although this is a fantasy novel, the magic is in the background for most of the story. Gatsby’s parties employ magical entertainment and decor–but that’s not dramatically different from the lavish parties he would throw without it. The book has a languid, dreamy quality. Time passes unpredictability: we are just seeing the beginning of Nick and Jordan’s relationship when she mentions how it ends.

It’s this beautiful atmosphere and language that made me fall in love with the book, and I can’t wait to read more from Vo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

3) A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

the cover of A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and bloody scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

2) The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

The Heartbreak Bakery cover

To be clear, this isn’t a lesbian or bi woman book. It has an agender main character who dates multiple genders, and the main romance is between Syd and Harley, who is genderfluid. (This is where I use the wishy-washy definition of which books the Lesbrary covers—books about a main character who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man”—to talk about a book I love and think you will too, even though it’s not sapphic.)

When Syd’s girlfriend breaks up with Syd seemingly out of nowhere, it’s crushing. Syd funnels that pain into baking, the same way Syd deals with everything. Except that it soon become apparent that everyone who eats Syd’s breakup brownies breaks up, including the owners of The Proud Muffin. Now Syd and Harley, the bakery delivery person, are on a mission to track down everyone who’s been a victim of broken-hearted brownies and find a way to fix it.

If that premise doesn’t grab you, we do not share the same taste in books! 

This book is so celebratory of queerness and queer community. People check Harley’s pin for their or his pronouns every day. Everyone is so accepting and kind, even in difficult moments. (And even if they express that a bit differently!) The bakery is almost entirely queer people, including an aro/ace character. There’s a polyamorous brunch! This is a bit of a spoiler, because it happens at the end, but I have to mention it any way: there’s a big gay Texas bake off! “Sure, but what makes this a bisexual babka?”

It feels like a big queer hug. In fact, I was overcome with cute aggression after finishing it and had to suppress yelling and shoving it random passersby’s hands. “READ THIS! IT’S SO GOOD.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

1) Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

the cover of Milk Fed

My top read of 2021 is probably the book I would recommend to the fewest people.

I found myself reading this book compulsively. I fell completely into Rachel’s worldview and couldn’t tear myself away. If you are someone who struggles with disordered eating or body image issues, this isn’t a book to pick up lightly. 

At the same time, it was a cathartic read. Over the course of the book, Rachel goes from extreme restriction to feeling out of control to discovering something like balance. It’s a book that asks, What is your worst fear of your body? Isn’t that person worthy of love?

It’s also a darkly comic book that had me highlighting and underlining on almost every page. On her first boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it. I ended things a few months later, when I got the energy to move it.” Her assessment of her therapist: “She was probably someone who genuinely enjoyed a nice pear.”

Check out my full Lesbrary review for more!

What were your favourite queer reads of 2021? Let’s talk about them in the comments!

If you like what we do here, support the Lesbrary on Patreon at $2 or more a month and be entered to win a queer women book every month! $10 and up patrons get guaranteed books throughout the year!

Anke reviews Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

the cover of Harrow the Ninth

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Content warnings: Horror, graphic violence, character death, attempted murder and murder, body horror, gore, PTSD/trauma, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation.

If Gideon the Ninth seemed confusing, you will look back and call yourself a sweet summer child, as the meme goes, after finishing its sequel, Harrow. As the second book in Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, published in August 2020, I was fully expecting to look at the Lesbrary’s archive and find it reviewed already—and didn’t. 

And to be quite honest and speaking with the utmost love for my fellow Lesbrarians and Harrow itself, I can’t blame you, because this is the most confusing, frustrating and downright amazing book I’ve ever read. 

A dear friend, who encouraged me to liveblog at them while I was reading, was subjected to paragraphs of “AAAAH!!!”, “wHAT?!”, “I feel like I’m having a stroke reading this”, “like a nosebleed in literary form”, “this book is the personification of emotional whiplash” and “what is going on???“, interspersed with memes, quotes and prose segments from the book that made me feel out of my mind, as well as wild theorizing about the story’s mysteries. I’m sorry, Elvie, I love you and cherish you and thank you for making me read this and letting me yell my confusion at you. In short, dear readers here: If you’re planning to tackle Harrow, find someone who’s already read it and ask them to let you yell your confusion at them. It will make the experience immeasurably better for both of you.

This is really just an attempt to emphasize the wild ride you will embark on opening this book, but honestly? Nothing I can say in this review can possibly prepare you for what Harrow the Ninth is going to throw at you in its 512 pages. It can be summarized, roughly, but that won’t do the story justice. 

The first part of the novel is told in two interchanging POVs. One is a second-person narration describing Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s ascent to lyctorhood that she achieved at the end of Gideon. This POV details her life in the Mithraeum and her interactions not just with her fellow Lyctors: Ianthe Tridentarius for one, in addition to the original remaining Lyctors Augustine, Mercymorn and Ortus, as well the Emperor Undying, the Necrolord Prime and God of the Nine Houses, John. 

They embark on an absurd (and absurdly funny), emotionally charged gothic workplace comedy slash slice of life montage counting down to the ominous event of the Emperor’s Murder in the chapter headings. It tackles worldbuilding, training, some friendly amputation, heavily implied necrophilia, cannibalism, soup-making and multiple assassination attempts, among other things. Some of these are one and the same. Readers also learn about the two primary antagonistic forces that John-God and his merry band of Lyctors face: A group of anti-necromancy fundamentalists called Blood of Eden as well as the so-called Resurrection Beasts, results of an ancient and extremely powerful feat of John’s necromancy. 

And among all that, there is no sign of Gideon. These chapters reveal plenty about Lyctorhood and the particular fusion that Lyctors undergo with their Cavalier. Harrow, interestingly, while remaining a necromantic prodigy, fails to perform in this regard. This also is the continuing thread that runs from this to the second POV the story is told in—the other part of the book, told in third person, re-narrates Gideon and the trials at Canaan House, but with decisive changes: Characters are dying in different orders and ways than previously, and there is a monster sleeping at the heart of the house. And above all, to the reader if not to Harrow, Gideon’s continued absence hangs like her two-hander. In her stead, readers find Ortus Nigenad, another Ninth House member, who is busier composing a verse epic about a Ninth House hero than being a Cavalier, which proves to be both a curse and eventually even a blessing. 

Confusing? Yes, and this isn’t even half of it. I don’t want to cover the rest, because revealing the big plot twists that explain some of the most pressing questions once the two narrative strands converge (and then raise more of them—this book raises as many questions as it does skeletons!) would spoil some truly mind-blowing “wtf” moments. Among the online fanbase, theories to piece together the answers to some open questions, speculation and attempts to fill in the gaps abound. Many point out that Tamsyn Muir’s literary wizardry relies on misdirection and withholding information to sneak the plot’s puzzle pieces in place. The glamour of the prose, the jokes and memes are just the distracting cherry on top of a much more convoluted plot around Gideon’s disappearance and the connection to the wider mythology of the series. 

What bears pointing out beyond that, since this is a Lesbrary review: even in Gideon’s absence, there is plenty of queer content. As in the first book, sexual orientation is a non-issue, but hey, if not even God is straight, that’s probably a moot point. My liveblogging at my friend Elvie included plenty of “Ianthe and Harrow should kiss—angrily” because in Gideon’s absence they are the main female-female relationship of the story, in which vulnerability and emotional closeness battle with Lyctor politics and the characters’ own agendas. In short, it’s a delightful mess, much like the rest of the relationships in the story, and more often than not it also made me want to transport Harrow back to Drearburh in a hurry to just give the poor girl a break. 

I am not entirely sure how to end this review, other than on another attempt to sum up the experience of reading it. Harrow the Ninth is a literary masterpiece, something that feels like a combination of dream logic, memes and humor pasted onto a deftly plotted narrative skeleton (pardon the pun). I want to say that Tamsyn Muir pulled out all the stops in both an exercise in worldbuilding and characterization, as well as connecting Harrow’s particular story to a wider world and the goings-on in it. But that would probably not do justice to the upcoming sequels, which are bound to be even wilder. 

Sam reviews Huntress by Malinda Lo

the cover of Huntress

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Winter is finally here, which means it’s perfect weather for me to re-read Huntress by Malinda Lo again. I’m not sure exactly how many times I’ve read this book, but it must be close to a half-dozen—a number that stands out even for me, especially for a YA novel. Which isn’t to say anything bad about young adult literature! As a publishing category, YA is so broad that you can hardly say anything general about it at all. But, more often than not, I find that lesbian young adult novels tend to leave me feeling like there’s just not enough to really sink my teeth into. This is certainly not the case with Huntress, whose slow, detailed, and deeply emotional storytelling pays off in one of my favorite books of all time.

Huntress is the story of Taisin and Kaede, two very different young women who are tasked with saving their kingdom from a slow but devastating disruption to the natural cycles of the world. Taisin is an apprentice sage, whose studious and responsible nature sits at odds with a prodigious magical talent. Kaede, on the other hand, is proactive and down to earth; rather than striving towards an honored place in society like Taisin, she is trying to escape one. Both are well written and incredibly likeable, and almost until the end of the book it’s hard to say which, if either, is the true protagonist. Occasionally the narration will dip into the perspective of other characters for a paragraph or two, which always feels a little jarring, but otherwise the writing in Huntress is phenomenal. Though technically a prequel to Ash, knowledge of Malinda Lo’s debut novel isn’t required, as the story of Huntress is set several centuries earlier. Fans of Ash will find the Kingdom a much more overtly Asian-inspired fantasy realm than before—a welcome change that really helps Huntress come into its own as a novel.

I’ve joked before that the best fantasy books are road novels, and Huntress definitely fills that bill (although it might qualify better as an Otherworld tale in the Arthurian sense, but that’s splitting some very esoteric hairs!). The main characters spend the entire book making a long and perilous journey, and it is the act of travelling that serves as the engine for the story. The book takes its time, lingering by small details and never forgetting the quiet but meaningful moments other novels might rush past. The scenes from Huntress that stick most in my memory are curiously mundane, in the grand scheme of things; dumplings eaten in the rain, archery lessons in the predawn gray outside an inn, a humble feast for a daughter come home. Even the threats and challenges the characters face honor this attention to smaller things—on a quest to save a dying world, danger comes most often in the crossing of rivers, cliffs, and the deep woods. Huntress takes its time, and the book is far better for it.

Above all, however, Huntress is a story about love; the loves society expects us to have, the loves we choose, the ones we deny, and the loves that come unexpected and take us by surprise. The problem of love is raised in the very first chapter, where Taisin, through oracular vision, discovers that in the future she will fall in love with Kaede—a revelation that distresses her greatly, as she has striven long and hard to become a sage, who take vows of celibacy. Kaede, as a noble’s daughter, is expected to marry for politics, but she knows without question that there is no way she could marry any man. Conflicting expectations, desires, fears, and hopes make their relationship layered and interesting. Though it’s certainly no surprise that they fall for each other, the entire process is so carefully slow and naturally developed, I can hardly think of many other books that compare.

Huntress is all at once a rich fantasy novel, an enchanting fairy tale, and a compelling romance in perfect balance. If you haven’t read it yet, I can think of no recommendation I could offer so wholeheartedly and without reservation. So enjoy, keep warm, and I’ll see you again once the days turn back towards the sun.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Vic reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Growing up, I devoured books quickly and easily, but by high school, I started to lose interest in the books I found in bookstores or the library, jumping from book to book without finishing a single one.  The problem, I determined, was that I was bored with reading about straight people all the time, and published books, as far as I could tell, were all about straight people.  And then I found a list of YA books featuring LGBT+ characters, and I bought every book on the list, among them Huntress by Malinda Lo. I didn’t end up reading all of the books (genre still matters, among other things, even when LGBT+ books are scarce), but I loved Huntress, enough that it has been the book that, for me, represents the time in my life when I discovered that there actually were books about LGBT+ people, if you knew to look for them.  Fortunately, now it is much easier to find those books, but my fondness for Malinda Lo remains, so when I first heard about Last Night at the Telegraph Club, her name excited me almost as much as the summary (and I love historical fiction, so that is saying something).  Happily, it did not disappoint.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club centers around seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a closeted Chinese lesbian living in San Francisco during the Red Scare.  At school, Lily befriends another girl, Kath, with whom she begins to visit the Telegraph Club, a popular lesbian bar.  As their feelings for each other deepen, Lily also has to contend with both the racism that could see her father deported, though he is legally an American citizen, and the knowledge that if her love for Kath were to be discovered, it would put both of them in danger.

Though Lo keeps this story firmly planted in history, she does so without it ever becoming either too grim or too rose-colored.  The setting is fully realized, with timelines interspersed throughout the sections to further contextualize the events of the novel, and Lo does not shy away from depicting the racism and homophobia that Lily and the people around her face, ranging from microaggressions to being deported or disowned.

Despite all of this, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is full of love and levity.  While it is true that a part of Lily is always disconnected from her environment, as the only lesbian she knows in Chinatown and the only Chinese girl at the Telegraph Club, the love she feels for her home and the freedom she experiences at the Telegraph Club matter just as much as the fear and the pain.  Though Lo makes it clear that it is not easy to be Chinese, a lesbian, or a Chinese lesbian in this time or place, it is not simply a life of prejudice or hiding or suffering.  She presents a multifaceted view of all parts of Lily’s identity, with a strong feeling of community and hope, and it is those aspects that make this novel really shine.

Perhaps what I loved most about this book was the relationship between Lily and Kath.  I found their dynamic to be a breath of fresh air, both in this book specifically as well as in a more general sense.  From the beginning, Lily and Kath clearly enjoy talking to each other.  They ask each other questions about themselves and their interests, and they listen.  As a reader, I never struggled to understand what they liked about each other, which, for me, is what really makes or breaks a romance.  Their bond was real, a genuine connection that grew out of friendship more than anything else.  They were sweet, and they were passionate, and I rooted for their happiness all the way through.

I know I am not the first reviewer to say this, but Last Night at the Telegraph Club is exactly the sort of book I was looking for in high school.  It is a compelling historical fiction novel centered around a protagonist whose story so rarely gets told, but in Lo’s capable hands, no part of this feels unfamiliar.  I was able to both see myself and learn where I did not, and when I finally closed the book, it left me feeling whole in the way that all my favorite books do.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism, racial slurs, misogyny, miscarriage

Kelleen reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

In my opinion, the best historical romance novels are about today. Let me explain: though they’re set in a time in the past (usually Regency-Victorian England or Western North America in the late 1800s), the contents, themes, issues, and politics of the romance and the world are negotiating and commenting on the sociopolitical issues of today. This book takes that directive and blows it out of the water. Written in 2019 and set in 1867 England, this book is so intrinsically about the sociopolitical frustrations with patriarchal power and the both personal and systemic violences of that power. It is not nuanced, it is not subtle. It’s about two old women falling in love and going up against terrible men. It is the ultimate fantasy of taking down a truly bad man with your own sapphic joy, overdue spite, and arsonry spirit.

This novella starts the way all good romances do: Violetta has a problem. She has been sacked from her job managing the boarding house where she’s worked for 47 years exactly 11 months before she would be entitled to her pension. And so she devises a scheme to pose as the owner of the boarding house, con one of the tenant’s rent out of his wealthy old aunt, and pocket the 68 pounds.

The wealthy aunt, Mrs. Bertrice Martin, needs an adventure. And a romp through town with her new lady love to take down her truly Terrible Nephew is just what the doctor ordered.

I love this book. Both the prose and the dialogue are snappy and compelling in their oddness. Courtney Milan is a master of new, interesting story concepts, lovable, prickly characters, and real, swoony romance. And this straight-shot sapphic, anti-patriarchal romance without even a whiff of homophobia is, almost always, just what the doctor ordered for me as a reader.

I love a romance about people who don’t get romance novels written about them and this is one of those–old women with the wisdom, fear, joy, and pain of having lived a life subjugated by the capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy. Old women (Violetta is 69 and Bertrice is 73) with needs and desires and the hard outer shells that they have built up in order to live in a world that is not only not built for them, but one that actively resents them as “surplus,” unnecessary and unworthy. They must do the work to break each other open and to make themselves receptive and vulnerable to the intimate knowing that true romance requires. The physical intimacy is raw and breathtaking and so real, with real bodies and heart-rending tenderness.

Yes, Terrible Nephew is cartoonishly (and then very cathartically) bad, but all of the other men in this book are bad in different, more subtle, more real ways, and watching these women band together in their romantic love and partnership, as well as finding other women to support and fight alongside, is powerful.

On top of all that, there is casual cane usage and some intensely beautiful conversations about grief and depression in between bouts of rowdy farm animals and off-key carolers.

In this book, love (and crispy cheese) conquers all, even bad men and creaky bones.

Content warnings: sexual violence (off page), misogyny, ageism, depression, grief

Kelleen is a new contributor to the Lesbrary. You can read more reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Anke reviews Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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As we’re moving through autumn, Mooncakes is a warm cup of your favourite beverage in book form. If you are looking for a sweet, cozy and ultimately wholesome graphic novel to light up the darker season, you should turn to this adorable, modern-supernatural and intersectionally queer love story about family, belonging and taming one’s (very literal) demons. 

I’ve been in love with Mooncakes since its webcomic days on tumblr, since before it was published by Oni Press in 2019 in a revised version. Suzanne Walker, co-creator and writer of the story, has been a dear friend of mine since our shared fandom days. What’s stayed constant since then is her ability to completely ace the emotional beats of any story she chooses to tell, so naturally the same is true for Mooncakes. To match Suzanne Walker’s writing, Wendy Xu, illustrator and the other co-creator of Mooncakes, has brought the story to endearing, vibrant life and colour.

The story begins with a reunion: Chinese-American teenage witch Nova Huang, who works at her grandmothers’ café-and-magical-bookshop, encounters her childhood crush Tam Lang in the forest while investigating reports of strange goings-on one autumn night. Not only is Tam a werewolf, they are also fighting a demon designated to possess them by a creepy cult hoping to harness their little-explored but extremely powerful wolf magic. The story that unfolds features help from Nova’s grandmas Qiuli and Nechama (a married couple of Chinese-American and Jewish kickass old lady witches! Yes!), a bunch of black cats, enchanting forest spirits and emotional-support scientist Tatyana.

The sweet, uncomplicated romance between Nova and Tam, whose feelings rekindle as they collaborate to solve Tam’s demon problems, is a delight to watch. After a decade of missing each other, their budding relationship comes as a delightfully warm and sincere emotional backdrop that both heightens the stakes and adds depth to the story. Considering that the comic is rather short at 243 pages (and some bonus content), there is not much room for a complicated plot to top everything off, nor does there need to be. It’s all about the emotional and personal coming-of-age journeys of Nova and Tam, their shared affinity for magic, and how they come into their own during the events of the story. What endears the characters further to the reader is the fact that the intersectional representation that adds so much joy to the story is also intensely personal to the authors. 

In an article at Women Write About Comics, Walker describes Nova as an amalgamation between the two co-creators, explains how the story was always going to be queer, that Nova is bisexual and that Tam is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns (and it’s accepted by everyone in the story, including the creepy cultists). Nova’s hearing loss as a recurring motif of the story is treated with respect and finesse regarding characterization and worldbuilding, just as the comic as a whole expands on existing witch and werewolf lore in interesting ways. Magic, in Mooncakes, has no panacea to offer against disabilities, but they are accommodated rather than bypassed. Workarounds like nonverbal magic and an especially adapted wand let Nova practice witchcraft regardless of her hearing aids, a melding of tradition and innovation that reoccurs throughout the story and finds its echoes in other intersectional moments that always work toward the themes of family and belonging, growing roots and letting go. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Mooncakes concludes with an open but satisfying ending that should delight fanfiction writers everywhere with the potential it offers: Both Nova and Tam take steps into a self-determined adulthood, and we are assured that they will go there together. (end of spoilers)

Kait reviews When You Least Expect It by Haley Cass

the cover of When You Least Expect It

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This is my first review for the Lesbrary, and I know that a review is only as useful inasmuch as you, the reader, agree with (or at least know the tastes of) the reviewer. If I, a total rando with no other qualifications than my sexual preference and gender identity, recommend this book, why should you care? (Answer: Because I have excellent taste. But we’ll get there.) So I chose one of my favorite books of all time to review, to provide you with a little info on what I like, that you might tune your literary senses accordingly.

Also, it’s just a damn good book.

When You Least Expect It is the story of Caroline, a humbug lesbian divorce lawyer cursed by Cupid who in turn curses the Christmas season and all its trappings. After a chance run-in with Hannah, the wife of a detestable former co-worker, she jumps at the chance to help the woman (and her daughter, Abby) navigate the tricky legalities of separation. A friendship and quasi-rainbow family starts to coalesce, with just the one slightly thorny issue of Hannah being entirely straight. Caroline, unable to help herself, falls in love anyway and resolves to just be the best friend she can be… until something starts to shift.

Now, in any romance novel, no matter how good, clichés will creep in as the story finds its way — the best writers know this, and will use (and, at times, subvert) them consciously, rather than relying on them to support a broken plot. Even a good chunk of the plot description above fairly titters with tropes, from the “pining after a straight girl” to “adorable precocious child befriends woman who only wants to have a family.”

This book does not suffer from those ailments. One person’s archetype is another’s starting point, and none of these characters seemly thinly drawn. They are not two-dimensional playing cards, showing their faces when need be and completely featureless when looked at askew. They are living and breathing in three dimensions, with hopes and fears and worries that complement and play off one another.

They’re just so gosh-darn relatable! Though I’ve never had an unrequited crush on my straight BFF (and yet to find myself in the position to a divorce a philandering millionaire), I still felt deeply connected to these characters, to the point I wanted stop reading about three-quarters of the way through because I knew I’d have to leave them behind at the end. (Spoiler alert: I’ve read it five times since April, so not entirely true!)

I also need to specifically commend Cass for managing to weave tension into the story without resorting to hacky contrivances (looking at you, every story relying on two people not taking two minutes to clear up a clear misunderstanding). Though there’s certainly a fair number of, shall we say, “twists,” they all feel earned and justified by what came before them.

While the book may not have too many explicit sexual scenes (an important thing to note for many readers!), it does contain a lot of downright pleasurable sensual writing. As a very touch-focused person, like Hannah, I very much appreciated the descriptions of touching, stroking and overall tactile interactions.

Here’s the thing:  I am an unabashed fan of romances, specifically lesbian romances. But I definitely did not expect to fall in love with this book as much as I did when I read it.

Which really, just goes to show you how right the title is.

Sheila reviews Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

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“I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

Trigger warnings: death, suicide, parental death, divorce, sexual assault, war/military

As a queer woman, I have spent a large portion of my life knowing the name of Alison Bechdel (and the appropriately named “Bechdel Test”) without actually knowing anything about her. Fun Home details her childhood and early adulthood as the lesbian daughter of a closeted father; Bechdel is an incredibly talented writer, and the connections she draws between things are astoundingly complex. I spent the entire read of this graphic novel in awe of how she managed to connect each moment in later chapters to some of the earliest memories mentioned in the first.

This is a book for literature enthusiasts—especially lovers of classic literature. Each page references authors like Proust and Joyce, delving deeply into analysis of their works in order to make sense of Bechdel’s and her father’s life. At times, her parents are Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, off in Europe before life gets in the way of their way of life. Utilizing these famous (and fictitious at times) people to discern and understand her family is something I was able to relate to; at times, our parents seem more like collections of stories and past events, people just out of reach but never truly willing to be completely comprehended.

This is a heavy work, as one Bechdel’s father dies when she is in college—an event which she labels as suicide. Her inability to put herself past this event is further explored when she discusses that sometimes the lines of parent/child warped, making the child the parent, and vice versa. The Bechdel family’s running a funeral home is also ever present, something which Bechdel uses to align her family with The Addams Family. Death and bodies are constant throughout this work, both physically making an appearance in Bechdel’s life but also again in reference to authors and their literary works. 

Fun Home portrays an interesting comparison between the lives of lesbians and gay men. While there are more differences between Bechdel and her father than just those—such as military experience, age, and setting—Bechdel spends most of the book trying to find similarities between their experiences. Since her father died when she was 20, Bechdel has the rest of her life to ponder and overthink every experience she had with her father, every story she heard from or about him, to try to paint some sort of impossible, complete picture. More than anything, Bechdel is struck by the unknowns of her father. Even his darkest secrets (which include pursuing and assaulting teenage boys) are only viewed from an outside, limited perspective.

I had expected this graphic novel to feature Bechdel’s childhood, but more than anything it is a literary relationship between father and daughter. Now that I am in my 20s, I find my relationship with my parents changing (which I assume is a common occurrence). Somehow, they remain a glitching mix between person and caricature, real and unreal, known and unknown. Bechdel captures this confusion and mystery perfectly in every page of this graphic novel. While it is intense and dark at times, with difficult literary analyses at others, I cannot recommend this work enough.