Nat reviews Something’s Different by Quinn Ivins

the cover of Something's Different

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Of all the tropes in the world, the twin swap was not one that I would have thought myself a fan of, and yet… I might be now, after reading Something’s Different. Caitlin Taylor is an unemployed PhD grad who hasn’t been able to find a job in academia and reluctantly returns home to lick her wounds. Ironically, she finds herself in the heart of the academic world, working in a peripheral role as assistant to a college president— except the job isn’t really hers. She’s impersonating her sister. Chloe is Caitlin’s twin, a college drop out, historically a bit of an underachiever who follows her heart rather than her head. When she calls in a big favor from her sister, Chloe doesn’t think her boss will suspect a thing. But while they may look alike, the two sisters are polar opposites in their approaches to life, and what should have been just one week doing the bare minimum at Chloe’s job turns into a much more complicated situation for Caitlin. 

First of all, let’s talk about the absolute second hand anxiety that you will experience reading this book. The book isn’t angsty, but wow does it keep you on the edge of your seat. WHAT IF SOMEONE FINDS OUT? Will Caitlin be fired? Arrested? How will she even know what to do and where to go?? On top of all of this, sympathetic Caitlin, who’s been suckered into this gig by her mom and sister, has an actual anxiety disorder and oh my gawd how is she even functioning? Caitilin’s issues with anxiety bring up a big theme in this book: mental health and the stigma attached to those issues. More on that in a minute. 

For now, say hi to Ruth Holloway, ice queen extraordinaire and college president of a financially struggling institution. Ruth’s new assistant is suddenly competent. Helpful, even. And an analytic wunderkind? And hot? No, no, definitely not hot. Very inappropriate. While on the surface Ruth is successful and confident, she has her own struggles with mental health and a complicated relationship with the world of academia. She has some very valid trust issues that she navigates while serving as captain of a slowly sinking ship. With a bit of unexpected help from her (somehow now very helpful) assistant, Ruth realizes that despite their age gap, she and “Chloe” (Caitlin!) have a lot in common and work well as a team. 

Both Caitlin and Ruth manage mental health issues in their lives with medication and have very open discussions about their experiences. I appreciate Ivins addressing the side effects of medications, including the sexual side effects; it’s refreshing to see authors chipping away at the stigmas around issues like these. (Ivins gave us this same positive treatment in her previous book, Worthy of Love, in which one of the main characters has undiagnosed ADHD.) 

This book has great pacing, and while it deals with the politics of academia, it never gets bogged down with the details. Ivins creates great tension with the medium stakes risks of Caitlin getting caught, and there is a steady push and pull of chemistry between our main characters as they fight their attraction. Ivins dishes us up all the great tropes while giving us a fresh look at workplace politics from two very different points of view. 

Kelleen reviews Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

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At the risk of being profoundly cliche (and profoundly redundant as I reviewed a graphic novel last month), I’ve decided to review Mooncakes.

I am not a spooky season gal. I’m a curl up with a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea, watching Gilmore Girls by the light of a sandalwood scented candle while orange and yellow leaves fall outside my window kind of gal.

But somehow, I think this YA graphic novel is perfect for both kinds of autumnal gals. It tells the story of Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing witch working at her aunt’s magical bookshop as she navigates mysterious mystical forces, rabid demons, and the sudden reappearance of her childhood crush Tam Lang, a nonbinary werewolf who needs Nova’s help.

This graphic novel is an absolute delight. The artwork is beautiful and cheeky, with expressive, evocative coloring and atmospheric detail. And the story is so heartwarming and entertaining! Part mystery, part romance, whole paranormal romp, Mooncakes is a captivating story that practically turns its own pages. The characters are empathetic and hilarious, and the relationships between them are so sweet. In fact, the whole thing is cozy. It’s the perfect quick autumnal read. It’s bite-sized, but it packs a punch of queer paranormal joy.

The writing is fast and witty, and the representation is off the charts. The world that Xu and Walker create is adorable, but also incredibly powerful: queer disabled witches, nonbinary werewolves, and a world with no homophobia or ableism that still manages to honor the complexities of these identities. They explore the nuances of what it means to have a queer sense of home; the powerful, nurturing friendships between young women; and even present an allusion to the epidemic of queer homelessness that is treated with tenderness and care.

It is such a comfortable, loving book. It’s a book about transformation and safety, and finding home in the people who love you. In my most humble opinion, it is the perfect read for any time of year, but especially for spooky season.

In fact, writing this review (while drinking tea and watching Gilmore Girls) is making me want to reread it all over again.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Til reviews The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell by Kate Brauning

the cover of The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell

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This is the sort of review best begun with a caveat that I intend no ill will toward those who enjoyed the book… but maybe they’ll want to give it a miss, because I really do not like this book. In fact, I found the reading experience so thoroughly a misery that I resent myself for sticking with it—and I have a bit of resentment left over for whoever approved that misleading summary.

Ostensibly, The Ballad of Dinah Caldwell is a futuristic revenge story in which a girl seeks justice for her deceased family. That does happen—but summarizing it this way is like describing Cinderella as the story of a girl who needs new shoes. Both are technically accurate descriptions of stories focused on a girl’s romance with her prince charming. That’s not inherently a bad thing, loads of people enjoy Cinderella, but it’s dishonest.

And I don’t like Cinderella.

Or this.

I chose this book because I love a morally grey badass heroine and I was excited to see a main character from the Ozarks. There are too few dynamic country girls leading YA adventures. Learning that said country girl was pansexual was a pleasant surprise, and as I continued reading, I even looked forward to reviewing this for the Lesbrary—positively. The villain, Gabriel Gates, felt appropriate to the heroine, too: not a President or a world dictator, just a capitalist baron ruling a few counties. He was a big enough bad to matter, but a small enough one that a girl might take him down.

Quickly, the shine came off. Dinah wasn’t a badass at all. This could have worked, too, but it only served to get to what seemed like the point of the story: Dinah’s romance with Johnny. Johnny is your stereotypical dreamboat love interest. He lives in a cave—but it’s a nice cave, and he has traplines so he never goes hungry and a hot spring for warm baths; he’s a musician and luthier; he’s a talented, ethical bootlegger; he’s got connections everywhere and inexplicable devotion to Dinah. Johnny is the real main character. The most emotional conflict even occurs when his little brother is taken in by Gates and begins parroting his rhetoric. It’s not a particularly well-executed conflict; I found it predictable, probably because the book focuses (inexplicably) on Dinah.

This goes back to my Cinderella complaint. The summary only mentions Johnny in the third paragraph, so I expected some romance. I did not expect the entire plot to put itself on hold for what felt like at least half the page count. It quickly became clear that the setting and plot served the romance, at massive detriment, because the plot still tries to happen. The result is a conflict that wants to be complex but instead is rushed, a denouement that someone forgot to write, and a romance that I didn’t want to read, all spearheaded by a character who thinks her grief entitles her to other people’s lives.

Yeah. People die in Dinah’s little revolution, and she doesn’t really seem to care, and nor does the narrative. It protects the characters it deems worthy—the ones who merit page time. In a way, I respect this. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sweeter-than-bitter ending. When paired with the amount of time spent on the romance, though, it begins to seem like the author really didn’t want to write the plot.

A few positives, to end on. The sex scene was good. It was awkward and required communication, that set a good example. I appreciated the worldbuilding—things like advanced tech being available only if people have resources to afford it.

Finally, I liked the metaphor of the pears. Near the beginning of the book, Dinah looks at three buckets of pears traded to her family for access to their well. Angry, she kicks over one of the buckets. She immediately regrets this and gathers up most of the pears, but so much happens that she misses one. There’s no closure on those pears—not once her mother and brother die, kicking off the plot—except that one outlasts the rest, crushed in the road, broken but still present. And had Dinah actually been a single thing like that pear, had she ended the book broken or even scarred instead of on a happy road to everything, it would’ve been a really strong metaphor.

Trigger warnings: animal death, child death

Danika reviews The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

the cover of The Drowned Woods

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“She had never been brave–but she’d always been angry. It would have to be enough.

I picked up this Welsh dark fantasy heist novel because I was promised two things: a corgi and bisexuality. I’m happy to say that it delivered on both. And now I need more corgis in fantasy novels.

Surprisingly, it’s the corgi who makes an appearance first; Mer’s bisexuality isn’t mentioned in the text until about 100 pages in. This book is separated into three sections and has three point of view characters. Mer is a water diviner, and she’s long been on the run from the prince. She once was a weapon of his, and after her escape, she can’t stay anywhere for long. Then, a solution appears: her old handler, who was simultaneously a father figure and her captor, has left the prince (cutting off his own finger to be free of his signet) and has a plan to overthrow him. There’s a magical well that is the source of the prince’s power, and with Mer’s magic, she can stop it—along with a team of other people with specific skills. Thus begins the heist.

Their team will need muscle/an assassin, and that’s where they find Fane, the second POV character–who is also the one with a corgi. Fane made a deal with the fae as a young man to get revenge on the people who killed his family. As these deals often go, though, it turned out to be more of a curse. Now, he constantly fears accidentally killing the people around him, and he’s determined not to use his deadly power for his own gain.

Then (spoilers?), about 100 pages in, Mer’s ex-girlfriend Ifanna joins the team. She’s a thief, the daughter of two women who run the thieves’ guild. Her and Mer’s relationship ended when she turned her in to the prince’s guard. Unsurprisingly, though there’s a bit of a romantic subplot with Fane and Mer, I felt like she had more chemistry with Ifanna–or, to be more precise, I just didn’t buy the romance between Mer and Fane, even before Ifanna shows up. Sidenote: I believe this is a queernorm world, because no one comments on Mer’s bisexuality or Ifanna’s two moms.

I definitely think this will appeal to fans of Six of Crows and other heist novels, though this story is really concentrated on these three characters, not the rest of the team. I liked the twists and felt like it was well-paced, between building the team/planning and the actual heist aspect, which includes a tense sequence through caves that will soon be flooded by the incoming tide.

The mildest of spoilers, but important information for many: the dog is okay! In fact, I really feel like this book was written with the pet-lovers in mind. The corgi is just a fun, adorable companion during this fairly dark fantasy story, and he ducks out when things get dicey. (More unimportant spoilers:) Mer is mentioned feeding an abandoned dog in the first chapter. At the end, after all of the epic events that have taken place, this dog has not been forgotten. He’s rescued. This trope always gets me.

Speaking of spoilers (actual, for real spoilers, highlight to read): One weird note is that the text on the cover is actually a giant spoiler. It’s literally the twist in the climax of the story. So that’s a puzzling decision. Also, my only real complaint, other than not really buying Thane and Mer as a couple, is that Ifanna just drops off in the epilogue. Even if they didn’t end up as a throuple (always an option, authors!), I thought they’d at least stay in touch. (end of spoilers)

Though fantasy heist novels are not usually the first subgenre I gravitate towards, I really enjoyed this. The dark fairy tale tone felt like a perfect fall read, and who can resist a bisexual fantasy novel with a corgi prancing through it? Not I.

Danika reviews The Dawnhounds (Against the Quiet #1) by Sascha Stronach

the cover of The Dawnhounds

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This is a queer, Maori-inspired, pirate, biopunk fantasy with worldbuilding so intense that I will be honest, I often was not following it all. It takes place mid-war, during a tense stalemate, in a city that’s bio-engineered plants to be buildings, weapons, and almost everything else. Metal is practically outlawed. As punishment for crimes (or perhaps just for being poor), people have their minds wiped for a certain number of years (theoretically) to act as mindless workers for the government.

Between the intricate worldbuilding and the references to Maori culture, stories, and landmarks that I’m sure I missed, this felt like a dense book to begin. But the story of the main character had me invested enough to let the rest of the story just wash over me.

Yat was once a street kid who scaled the roofs of buildings, lurking in the shadows and stealing to get by. Now she’s a cop, and she is busily convincing herself that she’s doing good in the world. It’s not exactly a leap up in respectability, though, partly because she recently got caught at a gay bar, which goes against the religious government’s orders. (Yat is bisexual.) Now she’s stuck working the night shift, trying to prove herself trustworthy.

Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot in the face, and dies in the harbor… and then she wakes up. A god has resurrected her, and now she has strange powers. She’s a weaver, able to pull the life force from people and plants and direct it in different ways. She falls in with/is kidnapped by (depending on who you ask) a found family of pirates, led by a sapphic married couple that Yat can’t help but envy for their freedom to have this relationship outside of the shadows. Now, obviously, queer pirate found family is an excellent selling point, but I do have to let you know that doesn’t come in until halfway through the book. In fact, the description on the back covers more than half the plot of the entire novel.

Because this is the first book in a series and it has such ambitious worldbuilding, much of this book seems to be setting up for the rest of the series, explaining how the world works: who is at war with whom, how the magic system operates, the status of the gods, etc. The heart of the story shines through, though, and I am definitely invested. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

This is being pitched as Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun, so if you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a fascinating and expansive setting, I highly recommend this one. Just be prepared to dive in and let the details flow past you, because The Dawnhounds is not interested in holding your hand through it all.

Content warnings: f slur, homophobia and biphobia, body horror

Larkie reviews Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Nothing But Blackened Teeth cover

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Trigger warning for suicidal ideation 

A compact novella with a haunted house story, strained friendships, and a hungry ghost, I had high expectations for Nothing But Blackened Teeth. Were they met? Kind of, but overall the book fell a little flat for me.

First off, there are five leads: the main character Cat, rich white guy Philip, engaged couple Talia and Faiz, and snarky comedian Lin. They’ve rented out a haunted Heian period mansion (which, of course, is said to be haunted) for Talia and Faiz’s wedding. Most of the book focused more on their friendship dynamics and how quickly they fall apart, like…literally from the get go they’re already at each other’s throats. This trip sounds like it would have been a nightmare even without a ghost trying to keep one of them as her eternal companion. 

The creep factor started in early as well, as Cat indulges some morbid fantasies around the legends of the house, and in the beginning I really enjoyed it. Cat has a tendency to go on rambling tangents that have a bit of a darker turn, due in part to her previous struggles with her mental health, and it really adds to the setting. 

However, after the first visual appearance of the ghost, I found a lot of the scares to be a bit of a let down. The characters seem more focused on fighting each other and discussing how the narratives of horror movies usually spin out than they do on the ghost, who is perfectly happy to watch them destroy themselves rather than contribute much of anything on her own. It feels like Khaw is trying to spin the narrative on who horror movies usually treat as fodder—the queer characters, the comic relief—versus who is allowed to be the hero. But it bogs down the whole story and detracts from some of the excellent imagery and visceral horror that is there. Maybe I would have liked some of the later horror sections more if they were really allowed to shine, but the horror elements feel like they’re secondary to the somewhat forced melodrama of the characters.

Danika reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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If you’re looking for a book equivalent of watching Hocus Pocus or Halloweentown–but as a bisexual romance novel–this is the book for you. Emmy Harlow left her childhood home of Thistle Grove after a humiliating breakup. She was determined to make a new life for herself in Chicago, leaving behind her friends and family and cutting her waist-length hair to her chin. And she did reinvent herself: she’s happy with her new life and her new job… even if she is a little lonely. Now, though, she’s on her way back to Thistle Grove to visit, because she has duties to fulfill as the scion of House Harlow. Because Thistle Grove isn’t your average small town: it’s magic, with 4 families of witches that date back to the 4 founders.

Gareth Blackmoore is the scion of the Blackmoore family, the most powerful one in Thistle Grove, as they are happy to tell you. Their family has run the town for generations, slowly squeezing out the other families. And he’s also the one who broke Emmy’s heart.

Emmy has returned to town to be the arbiter of the spellcasting tournament, a competition between the families that Blackmoore has won every year. It gives the winner more power as well as leadership over the other families. This time will be different, though, because Emmy quickly realizes she’s not the only one Gareth has wronged. Her high school crush, Talia, and her best friend, Linden, have since had relationships with him–and for each of them, he insisted on keeping their relationship a secret and then dumped them because they didn’t live up to his standards of greatness. The three of them make a pact to get revenge on Gareth, and the competition might be the perfect opportunity to give him a taste of humiliation.

I cannot overstate how much Halloween is packed into this book. Not only is it about witches, but the town itself doubles as a Halloween tourist trap, with visitors blissfully unaware of the real magic going on just out of sight. Every restaurant or bar is decked out in decorations and has witchy cocktails. Mixed in with the fake stuff are real seances, spells, and more. It even got a little bit over the top for me sometimes, like being punched in the face with Halloween, but I know that’s what a lot of people are hoping for.

While this is a fantasy novel, there’s also a strong romance component. Emmy and Talia immediately have a lot of heat between them, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they give into it. It’s not instalove, because they knew each other a bit in high school, but it is insta-attraction. Insta-lust. The romance builds based on that. I never got fully invested, I’ll be honest, because I couldn’t get a good sense of their dynamic (other than Emmy drooling over Talia), but I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority there.

More than the romance, the revenge, and even the competition, though, this is about Emmy’s struggle with where she belongs, where home is. When she left Thistle Grove, it meant leaving behind her magic–which was never very strong, but it was a part of her. Her cousin is eager to step into the role of scion, waiting for Emmy to officially give up that title, but she’s not sure. Returning has made her realize how much she missed this place, her family, and Linden.

There’s an aspect of “blood family is the most important” and “there’s nowhere like home” that I don’t love, but it is discussed some. She left town to run away from a bad relationship with a guy. Yes, she balked at how Thistle Grove slots people into roles based on their family, but she wouldn’t have left if Gareth didn’t taint the place for her.

If a bisexual romance novel version of Halloweentown appeals to you, definitely pick this one up. It’s perfect for diving headfirst into Halloween, and it’s a cute, fun read–just what you want from a holiday romance. The competition aspect is also exciting and cinematic: I’d love to see it on screen. This is the first in the series, with the next following another Thistle Grove inhabitant!

Meagan Kimberly reviews A Lot Like Adiós by Alexis Daria

A Lot Like Adiós cover

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Gabe and Michelle had been best friends since childhood. As they grew into teenagers, their feelings took a turn toward romantic, but before they did anything about it, Gabe left.

Over 10 years later, Michelle works as a freelance marketing specialist in the Bronx and Gabe owns a gym in LA, and they haven’t had contact since he left, until now. Gabe makes a return to New York to work with Michelle on a marketing campaign to open a new branch of the gym. Emotions run high, lies become tangled and it’s time for both of them to face the past if they’re going to reach their happy ending.

This is a Latine story on every level. Sprinkled with Spanglish and Spanish throughout narration and dialogue, mentions of Puerto Rican and Mexican foods and their families being way too involved in their relationship all create a familiar environment for Latine readers. Gabe’s strained relationship with his parents is also a familiar situation that many children of immigrants can relate to and plays a central role in his character development. Throughout the novel, Gabe begins to untangle his old feelings and realize a great deal of miscommunication occurred between them.

Meanwhile, Michelle works toward untangling her relationship with work and burnout, especially as how those parts of her life act as a crutch to keep her from making meaningful relationships. As she reconnects with Gabe, she begins to let go of control and stop doubting herself and her abilities.

As the story unfolds, there are inserts of a fanfic Gabe and Michelle wrote together as teenagers called Celestial Destiny. They shared a love for a sci-fi TV show that finally gave them Latinos in space and then was canceled after only one season, a stituation too many of us are all too familiar with. But these inserts serve as a fantastical way to convey a lot of character development that Michelle and Gabe keep from one another and even themselves.

Bisexuality is dealt with subtly in this book. There’s a conversation early on between them where Michelle states, “Gabe, are you telling me we’re both bisexual?” They have a brief conversation about their past relationships regarding being bi and that’s the last you hear of it. It’s a different way for bisexuality to play a role in an f/m romance story than I’ve seen before. There’s never a big deal made about it. It’s addressed but it doesn’t make up the bulk of the plot or character development. But that doesn’t make these characters any less queer.

Within the little bit about the characters’ sexualities, however, there is more nuance given to Michelle. She speaks about dating people of different genders but never having sex with women. She doesn’t hide her sexual orientation from her family, but she doesn’t discuss her dating life with them either. It seems like she’s still getting comfortable with her bi identity.

For those who like their romance novels extra steamy, you’re in luck! A Lot Like Adiós includes lots of hot sex, dirty talk and wonderful examples of consent. Alexis Daria did a fantastic job of portraying a passionate relationship without shying away from sex, desire and pleasure, making it all guilt-free and without shame. It’s totally sex-positive,

Kelleen reviews An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

the covers of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

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I am in the middle of THE most epic reading slump this summer. I haven’t been reading a tenth of what I usually do, and the genres and storylines that usually capture my attention just aren’t doing it for me right now. But I’ve read these books 3.5 times so far in 2022 and I can’t imagine it won’t be more. There’s something about alien invasion and ultra-mega-creepy levels of instant fame that my soul finds very comforting right now.

This duology follows one 23-year-old woman, April May, as she accidentally makes first contact with an alien life force and then even more (or less, depending on who you believe) accidentally becomes wildly internet famous. With her band of friends and enemies and frenemies (including her ex-roommate/girlfriend), April must navigate these hitherto unreckoned dimensions, trying to save the world without losing herself.

The most remarkable thing about these books, in my opinion, is not the aliens or the internet but April herself (at least in the first book). Hank Green writes with such a strong, precise, compelling narrative voice with a narrow, central first person narrator who is so charming and funny as to make you forget how utterly unreliable she is. Especially when read in audio, the whole experience feels like April is telling you a story, directly into your ears, and the intimacy of that narration is electrifying. Hank writes complex, sympathetic, human characters whose humanity is the crux and core of every terrible decision and beautiful triumph. The story is fresh and exciting and dynamic, and then he breaks open all the doors in the sequel lending nuance and dimension with each distinctive POV.

I found myself so invested in the (beautifully executed) intricacies of plot, but even more invested in the humanness and complex hope of each of these characters. In this story, good conquers evil, but not easily. We see the full complexity of humanity, which makes each choice and each word less wholly good or wholly evil, but rather leads us to the only logical conclusion: that on the whole, human beings are good, and with intention and empathy, we can and must save the world.

April is a bi woman, and her identity feels present and honest without being didactic. And the journey we take with her relationship with Maya, the (very low) lows and the (very high) highs is so central to the complex and well-wound project of this story as a whole. It’s hopeful and messy and honest and absolutely essential.

Every time I think about these books, this story, I long to immerse myself inside it once more and then I remember that I am inside it. I live in a world eerily approaching an alien-invasion-meets-socio-political-internet nightmare. And I know there’s reason to be afraid, but I also know there’s more.

On second thought, perhaps it is the overwhelming hope that my soul finds very comforting right now.

DFTBA.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Larkie reviews The Girls are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

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I love a good horror movie, and can never resist a classic haunted house, so when I heard that The Girls are Never Gone is about a podcast host investigating a 30 year old murder and possible haunting of a dilapidated old mansion, and it’s sapphic, I jumped on it. This book was a lot of fun, first of all. It had a fairly lighthearted tone overall, as the story followed three friends caught up in solving a 30 year old mystery and unveiling some of the even older history in the house.

The friendship in this book was one of my favorite parts. Of course I was expecting a bit of romance and tension, since I did pick up a sapphic horror book, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun as the three girls (Dare, Quinn, and Holly) worked to restore the Arrington estate. It made me want to grab a couple of friends and go explore somewhere spooky and then have a sleepover because we’re too nervous to be alone afterwards.

I will say that I do kind of wish the book was a bit scarier. There were some excellent spooky scenes, but they were mostly sandwiched between more lighthearted aspects of three teenagers having fun and exploring together (and shenanigans with Waffle, the blood sugar signaling dog who does a better job at detecting ghost activity). With all the creepy elements, you’d think that this book would be scarier overall, but it wasn’t really. This might be a good thing if people enjoy horror aesthetics without wanting to be terrified, but it missed the mark slightly for me. However, lots of the scary lake aspects were excellent. I love it when people vomit up lake water, what can I say?