An Emotional Demon Hunter Romance: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

The Fall That Saved Us cover

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Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us centers around Cassiel, a former demon hunter who has left her abusive family behind in favor of a quiet life in a little bookshop she now runs. When a succubus named Avitue shows up one day, the two fall into a dangerous albeit passionate love affair that threatens both of their places in the world.

Despite such high stakes, this is a deeply personal book. In fact, when I think about this book, the word that jumps to mind is affectionate. This book had so much affection for its characters and their journeys, and it made it so easy for me to share that affection. While this book felt really heavy at the beginning, due to all of the religious trauma Cassiel was working through (and boy does this book do religious trauma really well!), by the end I was left feeling lighter. The relationships certainly helped with that, but even more so was the book’s emphasis on being kind, both to yourself and to others.

As for the relationships, I don’t only mean the romantic relationship between Cassiel and Avitue, though of course that is the main one. Cassiel’s friendship with her neighbor Ana, a witch who runs a nearby cafe and who gently but firmly encourages Cassiel to open up about her past when she’s ready, was a particular light. Likewise, the more complicated relationship with Zuriel, the sister who stayed behind, will likely resonate with many readers who come from difficult family situations.

Something I really appreciated with Cassiel and Avitue’s romance was the honesty. With a setup like this one, I find I expect a lot of secrecy and drama of the “how can I trust you!” variety. To my delight, however, Avitue was clear almost from the beginning about who she was, why she was here, and what each of them was risking by being together. This allowed the focus to remain on the actual building of a relationship, and it also made room for much more interesting conversations about how people deserve to be treated and what kind of future there is for a mostly-mortal and an immortal demon.

The only criticism I had was the pacing felt a bit off at the beginning, almost like things were being skipped over or time was moving weirdly or something I could never quite put my finger on. However, I didn’t notice that as an issue in the second half. While some might say the final conflict wrapped up rather quickly, that’s a feature for me rather than a bug, and honestly, I do think that choice ultimately served the book better as a whole. This is very much a character-driven book, and a drawn-out battle would almost feel like a detraction from a story that should center on Cassiel’s internal journey.

I am certainly planning on checking out Tamara Jerée’s next book, and if they ever wrote another book in this world (maybe about Zuriel and/or Ana), I would read it without hesitation. Though I would suggest  taking care if one struggles with religious themes, I heartily recommend Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us.

Gothic Horror Infused with Queer Rage: Grey Dog by Elliott Gish 

Grey Dog cover

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Elliott Gish’s debut queer Gothic novel, Grey Dog (ECW Press, 2024), is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Intense, foreboding, and atmospheric, Grey Dog is the latest in queer horror, and it’s a must-read!

Set in 1901, the novel is structured as the diary of Ada Byrd, a spinster and schoolteacher, who arrives in the isolated small town of Lowry Bridge under a cloud of misery after things went awry at her last post. Starting afresh with new students, Ada explores the surrounding woods and makes new friends who know nothing of her past. Slowly, Ada begins to hope for a future at Lowry Bridge and a place in the community. Maybe, in this new place, Ada can leave her past behind. 

Slowly, however, strange events begin to take place: a swarm of dying crickets, a self-mutilating rabbit, a malformed faun. Ada believes that something disturbing and inhuman lurks in the woods, pursuing her from afar and presenting her with these offerings—offerings that both repel and intrigue her. As the creature she calls ‘Grey Dog’ encroaches, Ada’s sense of reality blurs and her past returns to haunt her as she confronts the rage simmering inside her. 

I hesitate to say more without giving the plot away! One of the charms of this novel is its suspense and mystery, which quickly gives way to horror in the second half of the novel. Gish has the incredible ability to generate a sense of fear and danger in even the most seemingly innocuous moments. By structuring Grey Dog as Ada’s diary, the novel is confined to her perspective, which unravels more and more as the text goes on, although there are clues that Ada may not be as honest as the diary form suggests she will be. The reader feels as though they are living in Ada’s head and experiencing the confusing, haunting events of the novel along with her. 

As historical fiction, Gish pays close attention to the social and gendered contexts which confine and police Ada throughout the novel. Ultimately, Grey Dog is a book about rage—queer rage and women’s rage—and the pain of emotional and physical abuse. Ada can only repress her anger at the injustices of her life and the lives of those she loves at the hands of those who seek to control her. When the dam finally breaks, the result is both extraordinary and dreadful in equal measure. 

I loved Grey Dog. I could hardly bear to put it down. I’m reading it for the second time this week and it’s just as fantastic as it was the first time. This novel has become a new favourite for me and I look forward to reading Gish’s future work!

Please add Grey Dog to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Elliott Gish on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Pressure Cooker of a Childhood: Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

the cover of Hiding Out by Tina Alexis Allen

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Usually, I review novels for this blog, ideally young adult or middle grade speculative, and that’s representative of my reading choices. This adult memoir is outside the norm for me. I can’t very well review it as an expert. So take my dabbler’s opinion with a grain of salt when I tell you I found the experience intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying. (I might say the same of life!)

Allen grew up in a Catholic family with twelve siblings, a loving but dependent mother, and a domineering, abusive father. She grew up around secrets and an almost reflexive homophobia. The environment left her vulnerable: to her brothers’ wandering hands and grooming from one of her teachers. It should have been a relief to learn that her father shared her secret and was also gay. Instead, this led to Allen being drawn even deeper into a life of drinks, drugs, and secrets.

In many ways, this is a tough read. Allen endured so much from such a young age, and as a narrator, she doesn’t always acknowledge it. That’s part of reading for an adult audience: no easy answers. I so wanted consequences for the teacher and later the basketball coach who took sexual advantage of this child. None came. It’s a strength of the book not to shy away from the uglier aspects of Allen’s experiences. Life wasn’t easy for her, and this stands as a testament to the pressure cooker of her childhood. If you hesitate over such stories, please know that Tina Alexis Allen is sober now and, by her own account, happy. These are struggles with safe endings.

The mystery of her father’s other life is a fascinating one. He runs a Catholic travel agency. So why does he have multiple secret passports? Why does he stash briefcases filled with cash? Why do foreign customs agents just wave him through?

As a reader, this is where I became frustrated. I read as an alternative to reality. I like dragons and magic and stories where the heroes win even if they had to fight and struggle and bleed for those victories, even if (especially if) they’re flawed, too. So Hiding Out was a weird choice for me. I wanted a more satisfying explanation than I got, but that lack of satisfaction—it’s the truth. Life is messy. This book reflects that.

I don’t mean to be overly critical or suggest this is a bad book. It wasn’t the right book for me. Equally valid? It might be the right book for you.

Content warnings: incest, child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, emotional abuse, drug use, grooming

A Vampire Pandemic: Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

the cover of Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

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Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin isn’t your ordinary vampire book. In this world, vampires are known as Saras: people who are infected with Saratov Syndrome, a brutal pandemic that changes how society functions. You can’t get into a place without first pricking your finger on a scanner meant to identify anyone who is a Sara, and if you go out on your own at night, you’re taking your life into your own hands. Mia is a young woman in her twenties whose mother was turned into a Sara when Mia was a kid, and we follow her as she navigates the codependent, abusive relationship she has with her mother throughout the years.

The best thing going for this book is the world. I was instantly enamored with the concept the moment I started reading, and when things lagged, I stayed because of how interesting I found the Saras. Mia is her mother’s bloodletter. They have a daily ritual: Mia draws her own blood and pours it into her mother’s cup, and that is how her mother gets by without murdering other humans in front of Mia. Treating Saratov Syndrome—treating vampirism—like a pandemic is an inspired idea. I could see the bones of the Covid-19 pandemic shaping the story through curfews, isolation protocols, and an emphasis on people leaving the house at their own risk. As a healthcare worker, this resonated with me and gave the story meaning that I hadn’t expected to find. It’s also such a fresh take on vampires. Saratov Syndrome is probably one of my favorite depictions of vampirism. It’s a disease with no cure. It produces both Saras and people bent on killing them in the name of self-defense. Caffeine, alcohol, and rusted metal become known deterrents to Saras, and you see how the world is changed from our reality in order to make room for that.

The relationship between Mia and her mother is also a high point for Night’s Edge. The book oscillates between present Mia and past Mia, showing us their fraught relationship beginning with her mother’s death/subsequent Sara-turning through where they are now after more than a decade. This is the strongest relationship in the entire book. There’s a love interest, of course—her name is Jade, and she’s everything Mia is not. However, I found myself more intrigued by whatever was going on between Mia and her mom. Throughout the book, you have to watch as Mia slowly figures out that her mother is an abuser, and it hurts when a promise her mother made in the past is broken the next time we switch to the present. When her mother first becomes a Sara, you see her try to avoid hurting Mia for a while, but that soft edge is gone from her in the present. The mother she had before is not the mother she has now. Mia’s life is shaped completely around not exposing her mother’s secret and always being there for her every need or whim. She thinks that she has to spend all of her time protecting her mother from a world that doesn’t understand her the way Mia does. She’s never dated anyone. She doesn’t do anything with her life. She works morning shifts at a bookshop, and she attends to her mom every other moment. This is it. This is Mia.

Then she meets Jade at the coffee shop next door, and her life slowly begins to change. Mia feels an instant spark of connection with Jade. Jade is nice, bright, and seems to feel that same spark for Mia. Their relationship takes shape quickly. Suddenly, Mia is seeing a world outside of her mother’s control. You would think, then, that their relationship would be really interesting. However, Jade is a cardboard cutout of a person. That sounds harsh, I know. She’s supposed to be a stark opposite to Mia, a fun-loving, colorful-eyeliner-wearing, rocker chick who shows Mia what life could be like if she got out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s all she is. There are no moments of growth for her, no character development, nothing. Jade is the same person at the end of the novel that she is at the beginning of it. While Mia starts to seriously consider and make an effort to leave her mother behind and go with Jade across the country, Jade is just kind of there, an escape plan, a plot device to move Mia’s story forward. Anytime the two interacted, I found myself wishing that Jade would give me something more to hold onto. I wanted Mia to see Jade and figure out what her life could be herself, without Jade telling her what she could do and where she could go. (Spoilers follow) Jade offers to let Mia come with her when she leaves to go on her next adventure, and Mia agrees, following someone else’s plan for her life again. Mia eventually choosing not to go with her is one of the few times Mia makes a decision for herself, and I saw her growing as a character when she did that. She doesn’t make a lot of her own choices, so I cheered for her whenever she did.

All in all, this was an okay read. The end of the story is a bit of a letdown to me (Mia fails to make a decision, and something happens anyway), but other readers might not see it as such. If you want a refreshing take on vampires and codependency, give this a shot! Trigger warnings for: child abuse, blood, death, violence/injury (including domestic violence), and a scene involving active shooters at a musical event.

When We Find Our Bodies in the Cornfield: What Stalks Among Us by Sarah Hollowell

the cover of What Stalks Among Us by Sarah Hollowell

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I don’t know if this book will be for everyone, but it was a perfect read for me.

The premise of this YA horror novel is that two friends get lost in an ever-shifting corn maze, and then they find their own dead bodies in the maze and have to figure out how to avoid the same fate. I love a horror premise like this: we’re thrown into a messed up supernatural situation and have to figure out what’s going on and how to escape without turning on each other. But typically, in a horror book, it takes a while to get there. Not so here! On page one, they’re in the maze. By page nine, they’ve found the body.

Sadie is fat, bisexual, and has ADHD and anxiety. We’re very much inside her head: she ruminates constantly about what the right thing to do or say is. Logan is also bisexual and has ADHD, and they’re both close, but they’ve only been friends for about a year, and she’s worried about driving him away or having him judge her. It doesn’t help that she was recently in an abusive relationship and lost her friendships during it. So she doesn’t let him in—knowing that doing that also pushes him away.

The voice in this novel is so strong: it really does feel like being inside the head of someone with ADHD and anxiety. Often, Sadie struggles to know how to respond to people and imagines a video game-style dialogue tree of what to say next. She is constantly referencing (out loud or just internally) memes and pop culture. The reason I think this might not be for everyone is that all these references seemed pretty millennial to me (“heckin’ windy”, Pirates of the Caribbean, Supernatural, etc), but since I’m a millennial, they were spot on for me. I’m just not sure teens today would relate.

As for the plot, as I mentioned, I loved that we got dropped immediately into the maze. It’s also not one of those in medias res beginnings were we immediately jump back in time and spend five chapters building up to that point; the majority of the book is set in the maze. I wasn’t sure if that would get old, especially since this is nearly 400 pages, but I never got tired of it. The mystery unravels steadily throughout, and the tension keeps building.

It feels weird to call a horror novel heartfelt, but that is what I was left with. I love books with queer friendships, and I appreciated Logan and Sadie reaching out for each other even when it was difficult. Despite being fairly new friend, they clearly care about each other deeply. Also, despite the time loop murders, the supernatural corn maze, and all the other horror elements, this is fundamentally a story about trying to find your self worth after abuse and trauma. And a good part of that happens in community. Major spoiler, highlight to read: I especially enjoyed that they ended up befriending their murderer. The power of friendship! End of spoilers.

I can’t set aside that part of why I loved this book is that I felt Seen. I’m also a fat bisexual with anxiety (who has also been putting off getting assessed for ADHD). I’ve been in an abusive relationship as a young person and had to rebuild my self worth. I could definitely relate to Sadie, especially since I recognized all the references she made. So it’s hard for me to have any objectivity about this story.

Even if you don’t deeply relate to Sadie, though, I think you’ll really enjoy What Stalks Among Us. Despite this not being particularly short, I read it in one day—almost in one sitting. I was completely absorbed in the story, charmed by the characters and their relationships, and invested in figuring out what was happening in this maze. The answer/ending was satisfying, and matched the bigger themes of the story. If you’re looking for a horror book you can marathon read on Halloween, you need to pick this one up.

Healing Through a Haunting: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

the cover of The Fall That Saved Us

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The author’s content notes, which also apply to this review: “While Cassiel’s story is focused on healing, heavier themes of trauma and shame are explored to give context to the protagonist’s journey. Please consider the major content notes: cutting scars, brief self-harm ideation, discussion of an eating disorder, family emotional abuse, and a manipulative mother. This book contains sexual content and is only intended for adult readers.”

The first time I learned about Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us, I was sold. A sapphic paranormal romance with a protagonist who runs a bookstore and heals from trauma? That sounded like the perfect way to ring in October. I’m happy to say that not only did it meet my expectations, but it became a favorite of the year.

Cassiel has cut off ties with her divine family of demon hunters, other than her sister, with whom she now has a complicated relationship. She has spent the last three years living in the ordinary world for the first time, trying to establish a life independent of the oppressive rules of her mother, Gabriel. She runs a bookstore and is friends with Ana, a witch with a coffee shop. Still, she won’t fully open up even to Ana, and she has struggled to integrate into society or unpack her internalized shame, as she was raised to avoid pleasure of any kind.

Though Cassiel is laying low, she attracts the attention of the succubus Avitue, who has been ordered to steal Cassiel’s soul. Avitue haunts Cassiel, attempting seduction through gifts and shared dreams. But by the time the two meet face-to-face, Avitue has realized that Cassiel is more than meets the eye, as someone who has been harmed by her family and is trying to escape the life of a demon hunter. Ordinarily, a confrontation between a succubus and an angel’s descendant ends in violence, but they both exercise restraint. This gives them enough pause that they develop a tentative trust and a less tentative chemistry. When Cassiel’s family gets involved at the same time that Avitue’s superiors apply pressure, they must team up to navigate these threats while also navigating their feelings.      

A whirlwind romance with a succubus pushes Cassiel out of her comfort zone in more ways than one, forcing her to confront the idea that demons are more complex than her family claimed and allowing her to embrace sensuality for the first time. Initially, going against her conditioning makes her recoil. However, Avitue understands that it’s important for Cassiel to push herself toward new ground on her own terms. When she falls, Avitue is there to catch her.                  

As an immortal succubus who fell millennia ago, Avitue is chaotic, morally grey, and distant from humanity. She is electrifyingly charismatic and doesn’t mind wielding this as a tool. However, coming into contact with Cassiel forces her to question her own assumptions about their natures. From the start, Avitue cares for and refuses to hurt Cassiel. Their developing relationship involves all of the negotiation and communication that this sort of dynamic requires, without shying away from the darker aspects of Avitue’s life.  

The theme of healing from trauma, especially religious trauma and familial abuse, stood out to me the most. Cassiel is reclaiming her own body, her own divinity, and her own experience with the world. As she explores all of the things she was denied, she finds that rather than being cut off from her power as her mother had claimed, she is actually growing more fully into herself. The narrative is a celebration of love, warmth, and tenderness, and an indictment of forcing people to sacrifice parts of themselves in order to fit into narrow boxes. 

This book understands that healing is not linear. Cassiel has already spent years living out in the world, but she still hides herself away from it, and she relapses into shame when she experiences attraction, enjoys food, or tries to wear nice clothing. Because she has people who genuinely care about her, she is able to pick herself back up when she falls. Healing may not be a straight path, but time marches onward, and so does she.

As someone who hasn’t read a lot of paranormal romance, the pacing of some books can require adjusted expectations, with characters who’ve only known each other a short time falling in literally eternal love. However, I realize this is a genre convention borne of the combination of high-octane plots and immortal characters, and that this type of story asks for suspension of disbelief. What’s important is that I bought into these particular characters’ dynamic given their circumstances. The story calls for a breathless intensity that the book delivers on. I was also impressed with the layered ending, as the book’s complex conflicts weren’t wrapped up in a tidy bow after one event. 

An additional note that made this nonbinary reader happy: while the synopsis refers to both characters as women, Avitue doesn’t feel a connection with the concept of gender due to her experiences as a succubus. Being nonbinary doesn’t require any specific pronouns or presentation, so I was glad to read about a femme-presenting character who uses she/her pronouns and does not identify with gender.  

The Fall That Saved Us is haunting yet hopeful, with lush writing and aching devotion in every line. If that’s how you’d like to experience your fall, there’s still time to pick this one up before Halloween.

Emory Rose is a lover of the written word, especially all things whimsical, fantastical, and romantic. They regularly participate in National Novel Writing Month as well as NYC Midnight’s fiction writing challenges. They are fueled by sapphic novellas and chocolate.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

the space between worlds audiobook cover

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Cara is a traverser in a world where travel between universes has been discovered. In most worlds, she’s dead, making her the perfect candidate for the job, as traveling to worlds where your counterpart is still alive results in your death. But the protagonist isn’t all she seems, and neither is the company and people she works for. Once she learns the truth about the business of multiverse travel, she must decide where she really belongs.

There are so many layers complementing each other, showcasing the intricacy of the issues presented. It’s a story about class divide, power, ethics, morality, capitalism, family and relationships. Every element is intertwined with one another, making Cara’s journey complex as she navigates who she really is.

The whole book is incredibly well-paced, with plot twists you never see coming and happening just at the right time. Perhaps this is because Cara is an unreliable narrator and you only ever see the world through her eyes. As she perceives her role in multiverse travel and ignores the bigger picture for much of the story, it’s hard to see what’s coming. This is what makes her such a compelling main character and the story so entrancing.

Johnson creates a dynamic duality of science and religion with the concept of traversing. During the process, traversers experience trauma that leaves them bruised, and if done too frequently with no breaks between jumps, even causes broken bones. Cara describes it as pressure as her body pushes the boundaries between worlds. She and the other traversers refer to this phenomenon as the goddess Niameh giving them a kiss. But the scientists behind traversing simply explain it through logical means, referring to physics and biology. There’s also a layer of Niameh representing beliefs other than white Christianity.

Through Cara’s backstory and memories, there are nuanced discussions of being a victim of abuse. The multiverse shows what can be if people’s circumstances are different. At the same time, it puts on display how complicated emotional ties are between abusers and their victims. It brings to mind questions like, “Can you love someone who is abusive, especially if you know the kindness they’re capable of?” and “Can you resent a kind person you know is capable of violence and abuse they haven’t committed in this world, but have in another?”

Cara’s character arc takes her from hating where she comes from, Ash, to accepting who she is and where she’s from is nothing to be ashamed of. She longed to become part of Wiley City for so long, only to find it wasn’t as bright and shiny as it appeared on the surface. To become Wiley was to accept a definition of success determined by those in authority, rather than success on her own terms.

I listened to the book on audio, narrated by Nicole Lewis, and I highly recommend it if you like listening to fiction on audio. Lewis is a charismatic narrator and brings every character to life.

Content warning: abuse

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.

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.