A Belated Bi Awakening: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Imogen Scott has endless experience as a straight queer ally. Her friends are pan and bi, her sister is out, and she never misses a Pride Alliance meeting. While visiting her best friend Lili at college, who has her own little queer community, Imogen takes “supportive” a step further. She pretends to be Lili’s ex-girlfriend and bi. The longer she wears the label, the more she wonders if it fits… especially when she’s in the company of Lili’s new friend, Tessa. Can Imogen keep her story straight, or is she finally starting to see who’s staring at her in the mirror?

This recent streak of bi/sapphic YA books (One Last Stop, Perfect on Paper, and now this) has left me slain. It’s all too much. I am FEELING too much. Be still, thy bi heart.

In all seriousness, this is the exact story little baby bi me needed back in high school, and I’m so glad it’s on shelves for adolescent readers now. There’s SO MUCH to discuss: the themes of self-identity, friendship, and coming-of-age so perfectly layered to make Imogen so obviously (I had to) exactly who she is. Imogen’s “bunny” brain is a realistic mental chaos of self-doubt and queer questioning. Everyone assumes straight is the default, when really, it should be bi until proven otherwise. Most people aren’t given the chance to question their sexuality, to explore who they are, instead establishing themselves in a pre-determined box. I’ve been there, and Imogen’s constant questioning and confusion make her emotions all the more real. She questions if queerness looks a certain way, or if we’re supposed to have our queer awakenings by a certain time, or if we’re supposed to be certain, but how could we with the constant DISCOURSE over everything? Imogen’s voice leaps off the page, making her easy to like; a character you want to follow to the end. Lili is everything as a best friend (and queer mentor), while Gretchen so perfectly straddles the line between well-meaning and toxic. We’ve all had that friend we realized (almost too little, too late) wasn’t looking out for our best interests, the one in the back of your head spinning every worst fear until it became a play-it-on repeat thought. Though she could have felt too extreme, we see why Imogen hears Gretchen out, why Imogen gives her a second chance, allowing her to become the cranked-up monster of self-doubt in Imogen’s head. Also, The Owl House, One Last Stop, and Sailor Moon mentions were everything.

This had an awkward start for me, namely because of all the names and identities we’re given in the first few chapters. It felt like Imogen’s younger, queer sister was less of a character and more of a plot piece (both to prove that Imogen was surrounded by self-aware queers and to show what queerness looked like in Imogen’s eyes). She doesn’t have some cute scenes with Imogen until the end, and by that point, I wanted more.

Recommended for fans of Perfect on Paper and One Last Stop.

The Vibes

❤️ Young Adult
❤️ Queer Cast
❤️ Bisexual FMC
❤️ College/Coming-of-Age
❤️ Identity
❤️ Romance & Friendship

💬 Quotes

❝ The only way to let someone into your reality is to retell it. ❞

❝ One girl can’t topple your entire sexuality, right? ❞

❝ All these moments, scattered and separate. All these disconnected dots. ❞

❝ Then she buries her face in the crook of my neck, and every breath she breathes feels like a love letter. ❞

❝ How I felt. Dizzy, off- balance, unsteady. Like my bones were too big for my body. Like I couldn’t zip myself closed. Like I’d colored outside my own outline, stepped out of frame, made myself three- dimensional. ❞

A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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After winning the lottery, Opal Devlin puts all her money in a failing flower farm, only to find an angry (albeit gorgeous) Pepper Boden already living there. Though she’s unable to find her grandmother’s will, Pepper claims she’s the rightful owner of Thistle and Bloom Farms. While they agree to cohabitate, Opal and Pepper clash at every turn. Can something softer blossom between these polar opposites, allowing a new dream to take root and grow?

Oh. My. (Sappho.) Goddess. You may think you know Mazey Eddings’ writing style, but I assure you, you do not. Many of us read The Plus One and/or Tily in Technicolor last year, but Eddings has far exceeded herself with this one. As a neurodivergent author, Eddings’ stories often have some element of neurodiversity/mental health, shining a light on the different ways people’s brains work while embracing those differences through beautiful, realistic characters. Opal and Pepper are no different, both on the spectrum yet unique in their behaviors and view of the world. These women are not predictable, pre-programmed components of a story; they are ever-blooming, learning how to plant roots alongside one another, share sunlight, and rise despite being different species. Both plants, growing and adapting to different elements, yet very much the same. While Opal and Pepper have always struggled to fit in with the world around them, they manage to cultivate a safe, healthy garden for one another.

This is one of those overwhelming, layered, awe-inspiring sapphic stories that will tug at your heartstrings long after you read it. Eddings’ language leaps off the page, making it a little reminiscent of One Last Stop (be still, my little sapphic heart). I’ve beyond annotated Late Bloomer, when I’m usually selective about choosing quotes. You don’t just see love blossom between these two women; you feel it. It made me smile, laugh, get all messy and misty-eyed. As I said, neither woman is predictable. Opal feels directionless at the story’s start, allowing her (fake) best friend and (on/off) ex to step all over her. I expected her to be the wallflower, especially with the BITE we see from Pepper (pun unintended) in her first chapter, but the two balance each other out. When Pepper feels uncertain or anxious, Opal steps forward, bold and unwavering. When Opal begins to crumble, Pepper holds her up. They support each other, never allowing the other to wilt.

Unfortunately, this book relies heavily on miscommunication. Both women are eager to hide their real feelings at the risk of scaring the other. That lack of communication continues until almost the last chapter.

Recommended for fans of One Last Stop and Imogen, Obviously. Side note: please, please read the author’s note. Good goddess.

✨ The Vibes ✨

❀ Neurodivergency/Autism Spectrum
❀ Sapphic Romance
❀ Grief/Healing
❀ Forced Proximity
❀ Spicy/First Time
❀ Cottagecore Vibes
❀ One Bed
❀ Touch Her and You Die
❀ Dual POV
❀ Miscommunication
❀ Flower Competition
❀ Grumpy/Sunshine

 Quotes

❝Slowly, she leans toward me, and my heart pounds so violently in my chest that my head swims. Is she . . . It almost seems like she’s going to press that smile to my mouth. Teach me how it tastes.❞

❝Ah. There’s the you I missed.❞

❝I used to stress over finding a label that fit me. Lesbian. Bisexual. Pan. Demi . . . I’ve filtered through them all many times over, none ever feeling quite right. Just say queer and move on with your life, Diksha finally told me late one night after what was probably my sixth sexual identity crisis of my early twenties. But what does that mean? I’d wailed, draining more boxed wine into my plastic cup. My brain loves order and labels and concise frameworks to understand things, and not knowing where I fit feels unbearable. It means you’re you, and only you get to decide who you like and when you like them, Tal had said from their chair in the corner. The name of your feelings isn’t anyone’s business but yours.❞

❝But instead, she reaches out to me—opening her hand like a flower unfurling its petals to the sun. I stare at it. The ink stains and calluses and chipped nails and bitten cuticles. For a moment, that hand looks like a second chance.❞

❝Her poems spoke softly—as intimately as confessions between lovers—about the terrible, wonderful ache of being in love.❞

A Zombie Invasion at Pride Novel Doesn’t Nail the Landing: The Z Word by Lindsay King-Miller

The Z Word cover

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I was so excited to pick this up. I read Eat Your Heart Out by Dayna Ingram more than 10 years ago (!) and I’ve been searching for a similar fun and gory sapphic zombie adventure ever since. At first, I thought I’d found it with this, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough at the ending to recommend The Z Word. Something about me as a reader is that I can hang with almost any weird premise and will sail over plot holes without hesitation, but I care deeply about characterization, and that’s where this one fell short for me.

Wendy is a messy bisexual main character who is still mooning after her ex-girlfriend, Leah. Leah broke up with her because Wendy cheated, but Wendy was sure Leah was about to break up with her anyway. I could definitely see why Wendy was obsessed with Leah: she’s a fat, confident activist who is at the center of the queer community in their city and is always working to try to improve things. All the sapphics seems to be at least a little in love with her.

In a scenario most of us can relate to, Wendy keeps running into her ex at Pride. Leah is working with an alcohol company who is sponsoring Pride and funding an LGBTQ health center, so she’s at the center of the festivities. Wendy is determined to make a showing at Pride, even though it’s painful to see Leah… especially because Leah is sleeping with their mutual friends, a married polyamorous F/F couple.

During one of these Pride parties, the zombification begins, and Wendy, Leah, and some of their friends try to survive the night together. I have no complaints about the absurdity of the zombie plotline, even when it involves a pizza delivery driver so dedicated to their work that they equip their vehicle to mow down zombies. I guessed the cause of the zombie outbreak early on, and while it’s obviously not realistic, it’s a fun and relevant metaphor. I think excessive gore and flimsy reasoning is perfectly valid—even encouraged!—in a zombie book.

No, where The Z Word lost me was characterization. This is impossible to describe without spoiling a major plot point, so highlight to read. It turns out that not only is the alcohol company responsible for starting the outbreak (called it), but it was deliberate, and Leah knew about it. I can see what the book was trying to do in terms of making Leah complicit and showing the dangers of her white saviorism, but the specifics of it lost me. Leah knew that the drinks would make people violent, and she thought it was okay because it would be… good publicity that would help raise money for the health center? That reasoning is so strange, and I just don’t understand how she could justify it to herself. You’re basically talking about drugging people at Pride to make them violent. That’s not morally grey, that’s supervillain stuff. I don’t see how that lines up with the Leah who thinks of herself as a great activist. Then you combine it with a scene where we learn that Leah would leave her friends to die while she had the antidote just to avoid being found out. And somehow, Wendy still forgives her! If Leah was meant to be a supervillain all along, I don’t understand how her prior characterization lines up with that. I could see Leah as pushy, overly confident of her own worldview, and having a savior complex (tied up with her whiteness), but not as someone who would agree to drug people to make them violent and who would watch her friends die a preventable death in front of her.

It just didn’t make sense to me, and leaving it on that note soured the whole reading experience, unfortunately. I can see what the book was trying to do, but it didn’t come together for me.

A Bisexual, Palestinian American Coming of Age: You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much cover

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Earlier this month, during a trip to Portland, Oregon to cheer on the UConn Women’s Basketball team in the Sweet 16/Elite 8 (Go Huskies!), my partner and I visited the renowned Powell’s City of Books.  We were perusing its gorgeous shelves when You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (she/her) caught the eye of my partner, who has a knack for making book recommendations that are right in my wheelhouse.  I had been looking for a queer book that highlights the female Arab American experience and the front cover of this book had a single blurb from Roxane Gay, which stated: “My favorite book of the year.” I was sold.

You Exist Too Much was published in 2020 and won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Fiction.  Arafat’s debut novel follows an unnamed, bisexual, Palestinian American protagonist from her adolescence through her adulthood as she navigates identity, sexuality, addiction, intimacy, and her fraught relationship with her domineering mother.  While the story proceeds in a linear fashion, Arafat uses vignettes into the narrator’s past to contextualize her real-time thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Initially, the narrator’s lack of a name made me feel frustrated.  A name is important; it confers value and respect. Why would Arafat not name her protagonist when the stories and voices of queer women of color are already so stifled?

As I made my way through the novel, Arafat’s choice became clearer. The narrator is constantly fighting to create space for herself.  Her mother often tells her, “You exist too much.” When the narrator broaches even a hypothetical discussion regarding her sexuality with her mother, her mother effectively disowns her, telling her, “Stay away from me and the rest of my family.” The narrator continues to struggle with space in all her romantic relationships, sometimes worrying about taking up too much space, other times feeling like she doesn’t even exist. The narrator’s lack of a name is, in part, a reflection of her disengagement from her mother and the expectation that she take up as little space as possible.

Arafat has a real aptitude for creating characters with depth.  The unnamed protagonist is endearing, yet maddeningly messy, full of love, but also prone to disastrous decision-making. I did not always like her, but I did find myself rooting for her and admiring her resilience and her desire to cultivate healthy love. Her deep empathy for her incredibly flawed mother was achingly beautiful. 

While I did not enjoy the book as much as I hoped I would, I do think it’s an interesting read from a talented writer that’s worth picking up.  If you’d like to read more of Arafat’s writing, she is currently working on a collection of essays.  You can also find her at @zainaara on Instagram.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, domestic violence, racism, disordered eating, self-harm, homophobia, and biphobia.

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

TAGS: ***, Raquel R. Rivera, You Exist Too Much, Zaina Arafat, Queer, Bisexual, Bisexual Main Character, Palestinian American, Arab American, Palestinian, Coming of Age, Addition, Homophobia, Biphobia

A Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

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When I picked this up, I was expecting a horror novel. And that makes sense, because it does have a lot of ghosts in it. But the ghosts are more a part of the setting than the plot; while they’re literally present in the town, their significance in the story is on the metaphorical side. I think “Gothic” is more fitting as a genre categorization.

We’re following Jericka, who has been bouncing from place to place her whole life as her mom kept uprooting the two of them. Now, she’s spending the summer helping to take care of her grandmother as she dies of cancer. What makes this a lot more complicated is that Gram walked out on Jericka’s mother and uncle when they were children — leaving them alone with their abusive father.

One thing I appreciated about Jericka is that she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. When she meets her Gram, she asks her directly why she left her kids and why she reached out when she got sick. This is not one of those books where you wish the characters would just talk to each other — if anything, there are times when it would benefit Jericka to stop and think about what she’s going to say for a minute before lashing out.

This is a quick read, and the writing can feel a little… sparse at times. Like Jericka, the author gets directly to the point in a way that can feel abrupt. But the strength of this story is in its characterization and relationships. The three generations of women in that house all have complicated relationships to each other—Jericka soon finds out some secrets about her own childhood that are hard to grapple with. There are no easy answers here. Jericka begins to build a relationship with her grandmother even knowing that there is no way for Gram to make up for the damage she’s done to her children. She also starts to see her father and his wife, who she’s only communicated with through the occasional phone call and birthday card.

Then there’s Jericka’s complicated romantic life. She has a boyfriend back home, James, and their relationship is… comfortable. She loves him, but she doesn’t know if she wants to try to continue their relationship long distance when they go to university. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a girl in Clearwater: Kat. Kat is the only one who talks about the ghosts in town. She’s not popular, but she has a fiercely loyal best friend who will defend her at all costs. She talks a mile a minute and makes a terrible iced hot chocolate. I appreciated that Kat was multifaceted and flawed, not just a perfect love interest. Jericka has been out as bisexual for years, so her struggle choosing between James and Kat has more to do with her fears about the future than any worry about what it means for her identity.

I suppose I should actually talk about the ghosts, but it doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to get to them. The characters and their complex relationships — especially family relationships — are the stars here. The ghosts, usually called echoes, are the manifestation of a central tension in Jericka’s story: the choice between putting down roots and always being on the run. The people in Coldwater seem unable to leave this town, but Jericka is tired of constantly moving. The echoes are the ghosts of the women who died when the old schoolhouse burned down, and they implore residents to never leave.

Of course, this is also a story about grief and loss. Jericka is building a relationship with her grandmother knowing that soon Gram will be dead. Jericka decides that although this is extremely painful, and although she can’t forgive Gram for what she did, she doesn’t want to continue the family tradition of silence and disconnection. She’d rather reach out even with all of that history between them.

I wouldn’t recommend this for readers looking for a terrifying horror read, but if you are a fan of family sagas and coming of age stories set against a gothic backdrop—with a few creepy scenes—I think you’ll enjoy this one.

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

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

When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey cover

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

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

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

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

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

TRIGGER WARNING: BLOOD AND GORE

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

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

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

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

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

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

Trigger warnings: body horror, blood and gore

Traumatized, Angsty Bisexuals: 6 Times We Almost Kissed (and One Time We Did) by Tess Sharpe

6 Times We Almost Kissed cover

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Penny and Tate’s mothers have always been best friends—but the same cannot be said about the daughters’ relationship. Having clashed their entire lives, they must now put aside their bickering when Penny’s mom agrees to become a liver donor to Tate’s mother, as both parents have decided to combine households for the summer. Although this will help the families get through this physically, emotionally, and financially difficult period, it will certainly not help Penny and Tate’s ever-confusing dynamic. Because, for some reason, they keep almost kissing. And even though they made a pact to keep the shared home drama-free, living across the hall from each other makes it increasingly more difficult to continue pretending that nothing ever (almost) happened between them.

As a fan of Sharpe’s writing, I can confidently say this is her best work. I’d read The Girls I’ve Been and Far From You in the past and really enjoyed them, but neither of those books got close to packing the same kind of emotional punch that I experienced while reading 6 Times We Almost Kissed.

Now, granted, it may be unfair to compare two thriller/mysteries to an angsty romance, and, granted, I am a very emotional reader. But this book… This book had me sobbing the entire way through. I know this is usually said (often by me) in a hyperbolic way. But it is a factually accurate assessment of my reading experience to say that tears were streaming down my face, non-stop, throughout the entirety of this story. I refused to read this book out in public because it was a guarantee that I would embarrassingly start crying in front of unassuming strangers on their daily morning commute.

I’d know from her other novels that Sharpe was particularly skilled at writing teenage characters who have suffered through unimaginable trauma. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that the cast of characters in this story were equally well-written, if not more so. The complexities of their family dynamics felt extremely raw and realistic, and I couldn’t help but deeply root for each of them to grow and heal. It is in fact quite a heavy story, but it felt almost therapeutic to read through, to the point that even though I knew it was going to cause me irreparable emotional damage, I could not put it down.

Sharpe does an excellent job of showing how a parent’s illness, a parent’s death and/or a parent’s grief will affect their child in the short- and long-term. The book really is an in-depth look into the ways our reactions to collective trauma impact those who were also affected by it, and the ways in which their own coping mechanisms can bend and mold the person that we become after the fact.

I do have a soft spot for sapphic main characters with complex mother-daughter dynamics, which ultimately are at the core of this novel. Yes, it is about romance and love and allowing yourself to believe that people can care deeply for you even after witnessing you at your lowest. But it is also about how difficult it is to be a mother after facing life-altering events; how painful it is to be the child of a parent who struggles to recover from pain, suffering, and loss; how limited rural medical access can force people to put themselves at risk for the sake of those they care about; how you can hurt those around you, but it does not necessarily make you a bad person unworthy of forgiveness and love.

If you’ve read some of Sharpe’s other novels and appreciated either the character analysis or her iconic non-chronological style of storytelling, you will love this book. She definitely included much less mystery than in her other YA novels, but she makes up for it tenfold in angst, love, and tears.

Representation: bisexual main characters

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: emotional abuse, neglect of a daughter by a mother, PTSD, accidental death of a father, ovarian cancer, remission, oophorectomy, liver donation, mentions of suicidal ideation and pain medication being monitored, mentions of a past interrupted assault, anti-therapy and anti-medication attitudes

A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

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

the cover of Gwen and Art Are Not In Love

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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?