Academic Lovers to Enemies to Lovers: The Headmistress by Milena McKay

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Everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”. For Professor Samantha “Sam” Threadneedle, the main character of Melina McKay’s moody and dark academia romance The Headmistress, that adage becomes very true. Three Dragons Academy, a remote all-girls boarding school that has been her home since she was an orphan left on the school’s doorstep, is close to financial ruin. Disquieted by the prospect of losing everything she has ever known and loved, Sam makes a wish for change. She is stunned, however, when change comes in the form of the new headmistress, Magdalene Nox. Magdalene has a reputation for being a ruthless administrator who will not hesitate to fire everyone if it means getting results. While all of Sam’s colleagues rush to hate Magdalene, there’s more to this new headmistress for Sam. Magdalene has haunted Sam’s dreams ever since their passionate one night stand three months ago. Soon, Sam and Magdalene are butting heads about the future direction of the school all while resisting their urges to re-create that special night.        

As a main character, you can’t help but root for and sympathize with Sam. She is a textbook example of a people pleaser, constantly giving of herself to her students and colleagues at the expense of her own needs. For example, she’s still in the closet at the beginning of the novel because she has wanted to avoid adding stress to the previous headmistress. She’s headstrong and combative when it comes to protecting those she loves, which can cause her to heedlessly jump into fights. She’s a lesbian white knight, ready to fight any fight, even if it means coming out the worst for it. It’s a personality type that I’ve always been drawn to, and her character arc of learning to balance her needs with the needs of others is something I very much relate to. 

In Magdalene, you have a very swoon-worthy love interest with great emotional depth. While she’s initially set up to be an “Ice Queen”, Sam and the reader discover that there’s more to her than that. She is not cruel because she wants to be. Her bluntness does not come from a place of animus, but rather from her drive to get things done. Just like Sam, she’s incredibly driven to save the school, even if it means making the tough choices. She knows she is going to be portrayed as the villain no matter what and plays that role because she knows it’s the most efficient way to save the school. However, there is also this sweet side to her that begins to emerge as her and Sam’s relationship develops. By the end of the novel, Magdalene ends up being this really lovable multifaceted character who also happens to be drop dead sexy. The fact that all of this is conveyed solely through Sam’s point of view is a testament to Milena McKay’s writing.   

Not only are Sam and Magdalene great characters by themselves, but the dynamic between them was a delight to read. Flashbacks to their one night stand appear early in the novel, so you know that these two have great chemistry. However, they almost immediately start butting heads upon Magdalene’s arrival at the school. Sam and Magdalene are both very driven and stubborn people, which makes for very entertaining arguments where sparks can really fly. Seriously, if I had a nickel for the amount of times I whispered “okay, now kiss!” during their arguments, I could afford to buy this book multiple times over. When they aren’t butting heads, the banter between them is infused with this playful flirtiness that I just ate up.    

In terms of story, I loved how tightly interwoven it was, with external conflicts seamlessly feeding into the internal conflicts between Sam and Magdalene. While forbidden romances between bosses and their subordinates are always fun, the fact that the external conflicts of the story kept forcing our couple together added that little bit extra. You have two stubborn characters who are insanely attracted to one another yet keep finding themselves on opposing sides of the same argument. It is in these disagreements where a lot of their relationship begins to develop and where the central tension between them lies. Furthermore, there are other external subplots that continue to crop up throughout the story and influence the narrative. There’s an anti-woke board member who’s hellbent on returning the school to its “traditional values”. There’s a group of queer students who could be forced to leave the school. There’s the bitter former headmistress causing trouble for both Sam and Magdalene. There’s even a mystery surrounding a series of “accidents” that seemed to be aimed at either injuring or killing Sam. While that does sound like a lot, none of them feel neither superfluous nor distracting. Instead, they are really well-balanced and serve to create a captivating story of two people falling in love despite all the challenges around them.   

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Three Dragons Academy with Sam and Magdalene. If you’re looking for a steamy romance with great characters, moody atmosphere, and enthralling story, I highly recommend giving The Headmistress your undivided attention.

Medieval Queer Chaos: Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

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Gwendoline and Arthur have been betrothed to one another since birth. Too bad they absolutely hate each other. When forced to spend a summer in Camelot together, Gwen and Arthur discover tantalizing secrets about one another: Gwen witnesses Arthur kissing a boy, while Arthur learns that Gwen has a crush on the kingdom’s lone lady knight, Lady Bridget Leclair. Stuck at a stalemate, they make a reluctant pact to cover for one another. While Gwen and Bridget finally connect, Arthur finds himself enamored by Gwen’s brother. Can they navigate their messy feelings to find their own places in history?

Oh my goddess, the queer chaos in this is everything. Lex Croucher has spun Arthurian legends of old into a queer medieval YA rom-com that could easily alter history as we know it. Gwen is a bi baby, newly navigating her feelings for a badass lady knight, while Arthur is a gay, sassy messy shooting heart-eyes at Gwen’s brother (the one-day king). The dialogue is EVERYTHING: sassy, quick-witted, and all too entertaining. There’s somewhat sexy sword-fighting (come on, sword-fighting is always sexy, but when your queer crush is schooling you, it’s all the better), fake dating (does it count as fake dating when you’ve been betrothed since childhood?), and heart-warming found family vibes. The queer panic and nervous humor were all too relatable, even though the story is set in medieval times. That’s a true feat; you can connect with the queer chaos, even if you’re shooting heart-eyes in the 21st century.

That being said, let’s talk about Gwen and her lady knight. I mean, get ready to absolutely SWOON alongside Gwen. Lady Bridget Lechlair is all fierce confidence—a necessity, when everyone has an unpopular opinion of you simply because you’re a woman, regardless of your badass abilities—but she’s also an enigma with a gooey interior. I loved seeing Gwen find her confidence through Bridget, discovering her voice and standing up for them both when necessary. Though Gwen is a royal, she’s questioned her inner power and authority, as everyone around her has made it clear her only worth is in her marriage to Arthur as a political move. Spending time with Bridget gives Gwen the chance to realize she’s worth so much more. Though the story’s quick wit and banter stand out, I think this character development is the story’s real strength. Sometimes, you need someone who believes in your potential before you can see it yourself.

The only real hang-up for me was the pacing. The ending felt especially rushed, which was a disappointment after the queer chaos dragged a bit. I wonder if the writer paused for a moment, then returned to finish the latter half of the story. I also found the relationship between Arthur and Gabriel (Gwen’s brother) a little underwhelming when it had so much potential at the start. Regardless, I appreciated all the queer hijinks and humor.

Recommended for fans of Heartstopper, Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy, Red, White, & Royal Blue, and the TV show Merlin. Get ready for a swoon-worthy, medieval mess of pining and romance!

The Vibes
⚔️ All the Queer Ships (w/ Serious Queer Panic)
⚔️ Fake Dating
⚔️ YA Debut
⚔️ Found Family
⚔️ Medieval/Historical Fiction/Rom-Com
⚔️ Enemies to Allies

What classic story would you love to read a queer retelling of?

Fake Dating at Its Best: Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date by Ashley Herring Blake

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Delilah Green Doesn’t Carethe first book in Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls series, was the first sapphic romance I had ever read. It is still my favorite because, not only is it an excellent book, but I credit it with opening up an entire new world for me. Nowadays, I’m predominantly reading either sapphic romances or stories with sapphic subplots. Astrid Parker Can’t Failthe second book in the series, was also outstanding, so when I saw that Iris Kelly, the sassy and playful side character in both books was getting her own story, I was excited. As soon as I had my copy of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, I dove in. I am delighted to say that Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, doesn’t disappoint. It is a hilarious and heartwarming story of a short-term fake romance that leads to long-term love.   

Iris Kelly is surrounded by love. Her best friends have found love. Her parents are still madly in love after decades of marriage. Her brother and sister each are married and have kids. Iris, on the other hand, is committed to commitment-free hookups. She has experienced the pain of what a relationship can do to a person, and wants no part in it. This aversion to romance is at odds with her career as a romance author. And this creates the worst case of writer’s block while working on her next novel. Meanwhile, Stevie is a struggling actor who is also struggling to cope with the fact that her ex-girlfriend of six years is now dating their mutual friend. Looking for a good distraction, Iris runs into Stevie at a bar one night and there is instant chemistry. However, their one-night stand ends up going horribly wrong (seriously, it’s so bad). While both of them would rather forget the night and move on, fate brings them together when Iris auditions for a play Stevie is in. With all Stevie’s friends assuming that Iris is auditioning because they are dating, Stevie asks Iris to play along. Seeing this as an opportunity to get some inspiration, Iris agrees. The arrangement is simple: Iris and Stevie will pretend to date until the end of the show. Stevie will save face and get her friends to stop pressuring her to date around. Iris will use the experience for inspiration on her next novel. However, as the two spend more time together, things become far less simple.

The “fake dating” trope is not one that I often gravitate towards. This is because, being a terrible liar myself, I struggle with the idea of maintaining the lie of a fake relationship long enough for anyone to buy it. That being said, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date won me over so quickly with how it creatively uses this trope. For starters, it felt more believable than other “fake dating” stories because the only people being lied to here were Stevie’s group of friends and members of the play’s cast and crew. It also was not a lie that they needed to maintain for too long. The stakes of the lie are also fairly low compared to other “fake dating” books I’ve seen out there. It is not some grand scheme for money or a promotion. Stevie just needs a rebound so her friends will back off and stop pitying her. Iris just needs material for her book. Lastly and most importantly, I really liked how quickly the emotional connection between Stevie and Iris developed. Ashley Herring Blake skipped a lot of the standard casual fake dates you see in these romances. Instead, she dove straight into highly emotional moments for both Iris and Stevie, letting them build their connection more quickly. While it still did take them a while to act on their feelings for one another, their emotional connection began to develop much earlier on. Altogether, these things made the scheme feel more plausible and hooked me in very quickly.  

Something else I have loved about the Bright Falls series is how emotionally authentic and heart-wrenching these books are. Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date continues this trend with a story of two  characters dealing with some real heavy issues like General Anxiety Disorder, self-doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness. The way each of these is handled feels so genuine. How Stevie and Iris talk to and about themselves mirrors things I have heard myself or others say when struggling with these feelings. It made me want to reach into the book, hug them, and go, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

At the same time, Ashley Herring Blake also expertly shows how love can help us overcome issues such as these. She doesn’t treat love as a panacea, though. It’s not that these characters just suddenly feel better and solve all their problems once they find each other. Instead, she shows how a loving relationship is about being there for each other. Stevie and Iris put in a lot of tough emotional work into helping each other when they are at their lowest. It isn’t always easy for them, just like it isn’t always easy in the real world. And just like in the real world, Stevie and Iris still have a lot to work on individually even after the events of the novel. As a reader you walk away knowing that, together, they can overcome it all. That’s what a fantastic love story is all about. 

In addition, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date is a really funny book. The banter between characters is playful and witty. Scenes which could be played as embarrassing are painted in a more humorous tone. Ashley Herring Blake also has fun playing with other common romance tropes, setting you up to expect one thing and then giving you something else. Also, as a fan of puns, I was happy to see several really good ones. For example, this book has inspired me to find ways to name all my group chats using puns with the word “queer” in them. Lastly, it’s also a really spicy book, with plenty of tantalizing lead-ups to some really hot sex scenes.    

If you’re a fan of the previous books in the Bright Falls series, you will also really appreciate all of the call-backs and references to those books. Delilah, Claire, and Astrid play sizable roles in the story, for both Iris and Stevie, in ways that do not feel shoehorned in. I can’t say much more because of spoilers, but trust me when I say that Ashley Herring Blake closes out this series in a way that is satisfying for all Bright Falls fans.

All in all, I adored Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. It gave me everything I want in a sapphic romantic comedy and so much more. I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre, whether it be your first in the Bright Falls series or not.  

A Sapphic Romance That Soars: Fly With Me by Andie Burke

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They were mirrors in a way. Both of them watching their loved ones suffer. Both unable to help in any meaningful way. Both coping—one with work and the other with a list. Both scared shitless of hurting the other one.

Content Warnings: Terminal illness, chronic illness, misogyny, toxic relationship, grief, traumatic brain injury

ER nurse Olive Murphy’s fear of flying doesn’t stop her from getting on a plane to honor her brother, but it seems her fear is misplaced. A medical emergency forces Olive to leap out of her seat and into action, only for the flight to get redirected. She would have missed the marathon she was meant to run at Disney if not for Allied Airlines pilot Stella Soriano: a gorgeous, type A woman who captivates Olive with a glance. They share a magical day at Disney together as the video of Olive saving a man’s life goes viral (after all, she did TECHNICALLY save Mickey Mouse), prompting an uptick in positive press and sales for the airline. Stella sees it as an opportunity to earn her long-deserved promotion and asks Olive to play the role of her fake girlfriend as they generate more press. Can Olive stand playing a fake role when her heart is already on a one-way flight?

Get ready for a sassy, steamy, sapphic love story bound to soar into your heart. Andie Burke’s debut novel has a little of everything; an insta-crush, fake dating (complete with a binder full of rules and research!), sharp and witty banter, plus some real and raw mental health rep. Between their anxieties, family responsibilities, and messy emotions, both Olive and Stella are relatable main characters you can’t help but fall in love with. Sparks fly from the moment Olive and Stella meet, and Olive’s mega-crush is adorable without making her seem adolescent. We gain a lot of insight into both characters’ lives despite the fact that the story sticks with Olive’s point of view, which isn’t always an easy feat. The prose is descriptive but not overly flowery, but it’s the character development that really flies off the page. I absolutely adored Olive’s best friend, too (imagine Felix from Orphan Black).

Burke does a wonderful job of normalizing mental health conditions without it being the main focus. Olive’s symptoms are as much a part of her as the heart-eyes she wears when Stella is in the room. After her (toxic) ex broke up with Olive because her anxiety disorder and panic attacks were “too much,” Olive is afraid her symptoms will eventually scare Stella away. Meanwhile, Stella’s responsibilities as her father’s caretaker (who has Parkinson’s) create the cracks in her type-A facade and show us why she’s so committed to earning her promotion. Both characters encounter misogyny as well. While some readers might feel that there’s too much going on, Burke carefully stacks these issues atop of one another. That’s life; we’re all juggling multiple conflicts, both internal and external. Read the quote I selected again. These women are mirror images of one another. Their struggles, while different on the surface, make it all the easier for them to empathize with and support each other. There’s also no perfect, easy solution to the problems these women are facing because, again: that’s life.

A part of me does wish this story split the POV, allowing us to see Stella’s perspective. Keeping the focus on Olive ensured Stella’s feelings for her remained hidden, but…come on. We all know where a sapphic romance novel is bound to end: with a sapphic romance. The “fake dating girlfriends with benefits” situation is where the story really gets messy. It’s difficult to believe that Stella doesn’t have romantic feelings for Olive at that point. The miscommunication trope is still my least favorite, but it lingers much too long in this one, leading to a not-at-all surprising third-act breakup. Even so, this remains the best sapphic romance I’ve read so far this year.

Recommended to fans of the fake dating trope, serious character development, and a heart-eyed, healing main character.

 The Vibes ✨
✈️ Fake Dating
✈️ Bisexual Main Character
✈️ Sapphic Ship
✈️ Panic Attacks/Depression/Mental Health Rep
✈️ Debut Author

Major thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC of this book via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion regarding the book.

Nat reviews Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

the cover of Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

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Ever since I read J.J. Arias’s Guava Flavored Lies, I’ve wanted to go to Miami so bad, just to hit up a Cuban bakery or three for a pastelito de guayaba and a cafecito. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by Arias, and, as with a lot of prolific authors lately, this recent work is a departure from her normal MO (in this case, exemplified by Vampires and the Goode series).

From two households alike in dignity, Sylvie Campos and Lauren Machado are business rivals and lifelong enemies thanks to a decades long feud between their families. But the conflict for our main characters may be more complex than it seems on the surface – details about Sylvie and Lauren’s past will be revealed along the way that give us a bit more insight into why the anger between the two seems so very… extra.

The story is largely centered around the feuding between the Campos and Machado families, who both own popular Cuban bakeries in Miami, and who each accuse the other of having allegedly stolen family recipes when the founding families parted ways. Opening with a flashback to Lauren and Sylvia’s schooldays, we get a glimpse of how the families’ long time squabbles have affected their kids, who are literally at each other’s throats, though it’s tempered with a hefty dose of humor.

Lauren and Sylvie end up thrown together in the foodie version of the only one bed trope; that is, one food festival and only one functional espresso machine. Aside from their day to day struggles while being stuck side by side at a high profile event, and all the verbal sparring that comes along with it – Sylvie is still determined to try to solve the mystery of the family feud and to prove once that Lauren’s family are recipe thieves.

By the end of the book you’ll have some intense cravings for croquetas and a strong cafe con leche. But the food is also a vehicle for themes of old vs new, as the younger generations of both rival bakeries are being groomed to take over. Lauren wants to modernize some aspects of her family’s business, trying out vegan recipes and experimenting with (much to Sylvie’s dismay) oat milk in her Cuban lattes. Sylvie just wants to perfect the classics and build on her family legacy. Food is the love language of both our MCs, and rather than being at odds, their styles are complimentary, though it takes some translation to realize it.

A satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance, Arias gives us an example of the amazing quality of writing coming from self published authors and small presses these days. Solid, witty prose and dialogue, and pacing and intrigue to move the story along. I hope this is a book that finds its way into a lot of e-readers! And as a long time independent publisher of Sapphic romance, Arias has a backlog of works in the event you fall for her recent bakery wars romantic comedy.

Nat reviews the Pirates of Aletharia by Britney Jackson

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Get ready to don your trusty tricorns for a high seas adventure full to the brim with pirates, betrayal, forbidden magic, and the plotting of sweet revenge. Pirates of Aletharia is so much fun I can’t wait to read it again. An equal parts cocktail of fluff and angst — a search for redemption while enjoying a few nights of too much overproof rum. 

Emilia Drakon is in the midst of escaping the gallows of her public execution in the land of Illopia when we meet her. This daring escape and our introduction to the Villain (yes with a capital V) of the story here is key, but note that this incident takes place in chapter one rather than as a prologue. The meat of the narrative starts several months later, making the transition feel abrupt, and even making the first chapter feel a bit rushed. But aside from a bit of rough seas at the start, the book hits its stride quickly. Just be prepared to stay up late reading it, is what I’m saying.

While the book has dragons, magic, and swashbuckling aplenty, the banter between the broken but lovable main characters are where the author knocks it out of the park. They say if you write excellent characters the reader will follow them anywhere, and this is a great example. While there is a fair amount of action, much of the book is character development, heavy on the repartee. At some point I looked up and thought, it’s been like a hundred pages, where even is this boat going? And then I realized, I honestly didn’t care about where the compass was pointed or how it was even getting there. All the important stuff was unfolding between Captain Maria Welles and Emilia Drakon. 

Though sometimes silly and often indulgent, the author will treat you to chapter after chapter of verbal foreplay and I am totally here for that. One minute we’re snarling and sneering and hating each other, the next we’re leaning close and murmuring with our bodies pressed nearly together and our cheeks warm for no particular reason at all. There are sword fights and a bit of stabbing amongst friends, and of course the threat of mutiny (because pirates). You can also expect lots of enthusiastic consent, and perhaps even a lesson in knot tying. Ahem. You know, like one does on ships. There’s even a Villain monologuing scene near the book’s end, and who doesn’t love that

The side characters were fantastic as well and quite integral to the story. Judith, the ship’s Cook and  the captain’s best, if not only, friend is not only gay as the day is long (and a big fan of the rum no one else will touch) but she’s extremely important for the reader getting to know the real Captain Welles. She also features quite heavily in Emilia’s portrayal, making her a very well rounded and valuable secondary player.

Pirates of Aletharia is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I can’t wait for the sequel just so I have an excuse to read the first one again! 

Trigger Warnings: violence, offscreen torture

Nat reviews Plain English by Rachel Spangler

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Rachel Spangler is probably one of my most read authors of sapphic romance because they are so darn reliable. I’ve never been disappointed. In my mind, I often refer to Spangler as “the author who writes sports romance,” and yeah, I’m a big sucker for a feel-good sports story. But Spangler’s writing is much more diverse than that label gives them credit for, and their newest book Plain English showcases that range.

I’d already read Full English last year, the first book in the English series, which is set in the small English town of Amberwick. Plain English, the third book, features many of the same characters. (I somehow missed the release of Modern English, the second book – more on that later.) It doesn’t matter much if you read the three English books out of order, but it’s always fun to have that experience of already knowing some of the established cast. That said, from the synopsis I was generally expecting a pretty straightforward continuation but with more royalty, angst and motorcycles. 

We’re introduced to a very flawed, sometimes infuriating protagonist Lady Phillipa Anne Marion Farne-Sacksley of Mulgrave. (Titles, titles, titles, announced in my best Robert Baratheon voice.) Lady Mulgrave, whose preferred name is Pip, or also literally any name that isn’t “Lady” Mulgrave, is a bit of a playboy with a Peter Pan complex. Here for a good time, not for a long time. We meet Pip in a way that immediately showcases their gay disaster profile: while sneaking out of a one night stand’s bedroom and wrecking a vintage motorcycle in a field within the span of a couple of hours. 

Enter Claire Bailey, a financially struggling artist looking to find her way after trying to keep her head above water in London for the last decade. Claire might be a bit of a mess herself, but she’s well on her way to getting that mess sorted. Learning (mostly) from past romantic mistakes, and moving forward with a new chapter of her life. Claire unexpectedly meets Pip by way of the aforementioned embarrassing motorcycle fiasco, and she immediately catches the aristocrat’s eye. Of course Pip is exactly Claire’s type, a type that embodies some big red flag energy wrapped up in a handsome, irresistible package. Claire knows any kind of relationship will end in disaster, and that Pip has a life and a path already mapped out due to the nature of English custom and aristocracy. And thus the perfectly reasonable idea of embarking on a short term relationship with plenty of boundaries (ha!) and absolutely no complications whatsoever (haha!). 

Don’t let the cheeky, playful banter between these two fool you. Claire and Pip are some of the most raw, vulnerable characters I’ve seen on the page in romance recently. The first love scene and the communication between them as they both navigate uncharted waters was perfectly executed. I also appreciated how Claire and Pip’s close friends set aside their personal feelings and frustrations to support someone they care about in their time of need, while acknowledging that Pip still has their own issues to work out. There’s a lot of hurt/comfort happening throughout, so buckle in. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Please excuse me while I jump forward to gush a bit about Pip’s character. We see a lot of adult characters in romance processing past trauma, healing, grieving – but we don’t always get to see them in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Especially one involving gender identity. This was an unexpected aspect of the book, and I cannot stress how much I loved it. There were some moments in the book, especially as Pip deals with their conservative, controlling family, that really punched me right in the feels. I want to tell you so much more about it, but it’s best to just experience it for yourself. (End spoilers.)

Back to this book existing as part of a series – one reason I might recommend checking out Full English first is to experience the growth of a particular side character who returns in Plain English. We first meet Reggie in Full English when she’s just a pup, experiencing her adorably awkward and earnest interactions with the adults who recognize something familiar in her, which is explored further in Plain English. It is precious. You will love her. 

That said, I also realized while reading the book that I’d missed the second installment in the series, Modern English, and caught up after I started writing this review to make sure I hadn’t missed anything big. If you want more of an introduction to how aristocracy works and all those stodgy English rules, then maybe you’d prefer to read all three in order. Of the three books, Plain English was hands down my favorite, but as a series, they complement each other so well that it would be a shame not to read them all.