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.

Murder by Crowdfunding: Crowded Vol. 1 by Christopher Sebela et al.

Crowded Vol 1 cover

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The Crowded comic book series tells the satirical story of a dystopian world not too far in the future where the gig economy has become unhinged. In this world, everything has a price, including putting out hits on someone’s life through an app called Reapr. Anyone can be a target and anyone can crowdfund a kill, and loopholes in technology laws make it easy to get away with it while law enforcement and government officials look the other way.

Following the antics of Charlie, the hit in question, and her hired protector, Vita, the story unfolds into outrageous mayhem. It all seems so farfetched, yet in light of our reality, perhaps it’s not too far off target. Live streamers become famous for their Reapr kills and their followers can become patrons of their feeds for exclusive content and other rewards.

The vibrant and oversaturated artwork lends itself well to the story and characters. It creates a sense of inauthenticity and fabrication that makes everyone so fake. It feels fitting that the story takes place in Los Angeles, infamous for being filled with disingenuous people. It also adds to the fast-paced action as Charlie and Vita fight their way out of sticky situations (caused by Charlie’s reckless choices).

Neither Charlie nor Vita are likable characters, but Charlie especially makes it hard to root for her as a heroine. Despite her constant careless behavior and terrible treatment of others, including her bodyguard Vita, she has moments of humanity and vulnerability that make you not want to give up on her. But much like Vita, you also can’t trust her. Their bickering dynamic points the story toward these two possibly getting together. However, the shared moments in this first volume feel forced, so it doesn’t seem like that relationship has been earned yet.

Charlie is openly and unapologetically bisexual. She has no problem talking about her many conquests, man and woman alike. There’s even a sequence at a club called Bifurious where the artwork is entirely done in “bisexual lighting” in case it hasn’t been made clear until then. She flirts shamelessly with Vita, which Vita doesn’t directly engage in at first, but she doesn’t discourage it either.

Vita is revealed to have had an ex-girlfriend in the police force, making her solidly sapphic. However, it hasn’t been made clear or stated outright that she is a lesbian. As the story progresses, she gets close to Charlie, and it’s hard to tell if she flirts with her client to gain her trust or if she genuinely likes her.

Overall, this first volume is a fun and zany read. And the plot twist at the end (which I won’t spoil here) left me wanting to find out what happens next.

Content warning: extreme violence

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

Queer Smuggler-Duggery: Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco

Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco cover

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(Note: This book is a sequel but can be enjoyed without reading the previous one)

Fans of historical fiction with high-stakes hijinks and well-developed human characters with strong internal compasses can rejoice! Rough Trade by Katrina Carrasco opens on the early days of organized labor and careens headlong into a riveting world of gunfights, train heists, and scheming smuggler-duggery that doesn’t let up on its deeply immersive historicism for the next 300+ pages.

The first page also features this gem of a quote “Alma Rosales is sweating through every layer of the men’s clothes she calls home”.

The main POV character is said Alama Rosales, an unrepentant, fiercely loyal bisexual who has realized that a man’s persona suits her appetites and ambitions far better than skirts ever did. She’s a former member of the Pinkertons (Women’s Division) who long ago traded in that history for a chance to reinvent herself as hardened, hardscrabble stevedore and opium smuggler “Jack Camp”. That hard-earned equilibrium is disturbed when dead bodies begin to show up in unlikely places, attracting a figure from her past with secrets Alma would rather not face, and another from the ever-encroaching future she has to, sooner or later.

As the history and progress collide in the frontier harbor she’s come to call home, Alma is forced to confront exactly how far she’s willing to go to preserve everything she’s built on the unforgiving shore of Tacoma, 1888.

Rough Trade is at times a brilliantly twisty thriller, a tightly-examined glimpse into life on the early edge of American mythmaking, and a roustabout adventure that centers the people who kept the economy going both above and below the board and the table at the turn of the twentieth century. It is grounded in those realities, and the spaces socioeconomic marginalization made for all the aching beauty and equally fraught compromises that accompanied then-outlawed queer desires. In that way, it is also a heartfelt book and an unromantic one, about the freedom that comes from connecting to people who see you for yourself, in the risks of getting lost in a persona but also everything that can be gained when a fiction allows you to reveal who you want to be so bad you can taste it in your dreams. 

There is something uncompromising about the way Carrasco’s characters exist. I appreciated how they feel lived-in, like real people saying and doing what they think will bring them closer to their desires—and whose plans must change shape when those desires do, too. Identities in Carrasco’s vision of the Wild West are adaptable, craftable, at times malleable. They serve as shields, comforts, and weapons, all with a keen understanding of how they can be used in service of their wielders’ all-pervading wants. It felt like a breath of fresh air to delve so deeply into the negotiations and nuances of this story, and I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy rollicking, tightly-plotted adventures with strong characterization.

Who Will Enjoy This?

  • People who want queer characters that rival the most ruffianish of cads historical fiction has ever conjured
  • People who really, really miss the feeling of reading a Sherlock Holmes story for the first time and want to revisit it at book length.
  • People who want Canada to be something other than a beacon of shining enlightenment FOR ONCE, lol.
  • People who really, really enjoy morally ambiguous queers guided by their own inner compass (even if the needle is a little/lot crooked)
  • People who want a period-accurate piece on gender nonconformity and queer life.

I can’t stress that last part enough. A book with period-accurate takes on gender-nonconformity and queer desire.

Who Might Think Twice?

  • People who want more focus on sapphic steam and intimacy than whatever the dudes are doing. There’s a lot more guy on guy (or genderfluid-masc on guy) action in these pages than explicit sapphic content, fyi. Lots of sapphic yearning, but I fully understand anyone who is tired of reading about that and wants period-accurate five-chili-rating reads. You won’t find that here but for one scene. It is a delightful scene, though, and very bittersweet in context.
  • People who want HEAs for all their queer characters. Or all the characters they become emotionally invested in.
  • People who don’t like unresolved character arcs. This is actually the second book in a series, not that I knew that going in…

Content warnings: murder, violence, drug use

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 Lush Fae Romantasy Series: Faebound by Saara El-Arifi 

the cover of Faebound

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I have recently become deeply entrenched in the lands of fantasy romance fiction, and when I heard that Saara El-Arifi, author of the fabulous The Ending Fire trilogy, was releasing a new sapphic fantasy romance, I was eager to read it! Faebound (2024) is the first book in a lush and exciting trilogy with the well-crafted worlds that we’re used to with El-Arifi’s fiction. 

Faebound follows Yeeran, a warrior in the elven army, and her younger sister, Lettle, who is a diviner. When Yeeran miscalculates in battle and makes a terrible mistake that costs lives, she is exiled from the Elven lands. Cast out into the wilderness beyond civilization and beyond safety, Yeeran and Lettle must fend for themselves—that is, until they encounter the seemingly impossible presence of the fae in the lands beyond Elven territory. The fae have been in hiding for a millennium, but Yeeran and Lettle are thrown into their world, and they find themselves embroiled in a plot much larger than themselves, but one that affects their loyalties and their desires. 

I enjoyed this novel overall, but there were parts of it that left me with mixed feelings. My primary genre lately as a reader has been fantasy romance, and El-Arifi’s latest is a unique and absolutely individual contribution to the genre. The world is complex and fascinating, and Yeeran and Lettle’s characters are vividly articulated. As a first book in a trilogy, this book is doing a lot to set up the larger plot and the world of the later books. I do wish that perhaps this had been a bit longer in order to fully immerse the reader in the world, but at no point was I lost or confused. El-Arifi makes use of the worldbuilding space to make the stakes of the plot clear for the reader. A slower development might have been useful—I’m thinking of the kind of pace of The Final Strife

I do think that some of the nuances in the romance suffered as a result of the length. I loved the sapphic romance element, but it felt so rushed, and I wasn’t seeing the transition from enemies to lovers as anything but abrupt. It just didn’t feel exciting to me, despite starting off so well in the beginning. The other romances in the novel were stronger, but I did want more. 

Plot-wise, Faebound was fun. I did immediately figure out the main reveal in the novel, so it was a bit maddening to watch the characters struggle to figure out what was obvious, but I was very much along for the ride throughout. 

Overall, Faebound is an interesting addition to the fantasy romance genre and it’s got lots of great BIPOC and queer representation, barring some of the clunky elements related to the pacing and the romance. 

Please add Faebound to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Saara El-Arifi on Instagram.

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

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