Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Spoiler warning]

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

Danika reviews Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan

Zara Hossain Is Here by Sabina Khan cover

Zara Hossain is Here surprised me. This is a short book, and it’s written in a way that feels pared down to the essentials. When the story begins, Zara is experiencing Islamophobic harassment from the star football player at school, but she has a strong network and friends and family that supports her. This harassment escalates, though, and it takes the story in a darker and more complicated direction than I was expecting.

Zara’s family has been living in Corpus Christi for 14 years after emigrating from Pakistan. They’re still waiting for their green card application to go through, though, which has put them all in stasis for many years. Zara is graduating this year, but she can’t apply to universities until she has permanent resident status, at least not without racking up insurmountable international student tuition fees. She’s also the only Muslim going to a mostly-Catholic school, which means facing bullying, especially when her friends can’t be by her side. She tries to keep her head down and avoid drawing attention to herself.

In Social Justice club, though, she can use her voice and be her authentic self: progressive, Muslim, and proudly bisexual. (And yes, she uses the word “bisexual”! She’s also out to her supportive parents.) The club is run by a queer teacher who Zara idolizes (and has a crush on), and it’s also there that she meets Chloe, a white lesbian from a strict Catholic family looking for a place she can fit in. They quickly hit it off, and between protests, they flirt and start dating. I appreciated that they discuss a little bit about navigating white privilege in interracial relationships: Chloe is supportive, but she that doesn’t mean she immediately understands what it’s like to live as a person of color in the U.S., and she does have to learn and adapt.

Do be prepared to get hungry reading this: there is much more food on the page than I was expecting–mostly Pakistani meals. Get ready to either spend some takeout cash or try some new recipes, because there are so many dishes lovingly described that made me want to put down the book and pick up a fork.

It’s difficult to discuss this story without some mild spoilers, because an event about halfway through the book is what the entire plot hinges on. It’s also something I think you should be prepared for before reading. So I’m going to give a mild spoiler warning for the rest of the review.

Zara continues to be harassed at school by Tyler, which escalates to slurs painted on her locker, his suspension, and finally, Tyler and his friends spray-painting a racist message on their home. Zara’s mild-mannered father catches him and goes to Tyler’s father’s house to confront him, while Zara and her mother beg him to wait until morning. There, Tyler’s father shoots him, claiming self-defence and charging him with trespassing.

I wanted to mention the specifics because although the book begins with racist harassment, it’s not immediately obvious that it will involve a racist hate crime or gun violence. From that point on, Zara and her family are wholly concentrated on her father’s recovery–he is in a medically-induced coma. To make matters even worse, if he is charged with trespassing, it could jeopardize their green card status.

The rest of the story focuses on immigration and the sometimes unfathomable hurdles immigrants have to face. Zara is horrified to realize that there’s a chance that her family won’t be able to stay in the U.S. because her father was charged with trespassing–despite the fact that he was the victim of a possibly fatal hate crime. She also learns that although green card applications regularly take more than 8 years to complete, there are no protections for children who age out before their applications are finished.

Meanwhile, her mother (understandably) does not feel that her family is safe in this country anymore. Even if Zara’s father has a complete recovery, what’s preventing another racist with a gun from doing this again? She requires constant check-ins from Zara and panics when she doesn’t receive a text when Zara gets to the library. She moved her for a better life, but she no longer believes that it is.

Meanwhile, Zara is completely unmoored. The idea of either being forced or choosing to move back to Pakistan, a place she hasn’t lived since she was 3, is hard to even consider. There’s also the fact that she would be forced back into the closet, and that she might not be able to marry who she loves. That’s not even taking into account leaving her home, her friends, her family, her girlfriend… She wants somewhere that she can be her whole self in safety: a queer Muslim Pakistani woman.

I appreciated the complexity that this story brought to the subject of immigration. It discusses the wait time and challenges to completing the application process, but also the luck involved. This chance encounter could erase all her family’s years of being ideal citizens, including her father’s work as a beloved pediatrician. An author’s note explains the author’s own family’s immigration process was derailed by a clerical error, making all of their work null and void. Added to that is the layer of Zara’s family wondering: is this worth it? Do I want to be in a country where so many people don’t want me here? Even if most of the people they encounter are supportive, it just takes one armed racist or one well-connected bigot to dismantle their lives.

This is a book that doesn’t provide any easy answers. It acknowledges that these are thorny, deeply flawed choices to have to make. Zara wants to stay and fight to make things better, but her mother is tired of fighting–and both of those are fair. This is a great addition to books that start conversations about immigration in the U.S., with the added layer of being an out queer immigrant from a country that is not accepting of queer people. I highly recommend it.

Sabina Khan’s Zara Hossain is Here is out April 6, 2021.

Danika reviews Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi

Follow Your Arrow by Jessica VerdiAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

CeCe and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media stars. They have about a million followers each, and they are #RelationshipGoals. Their ship name is Cevie, and their lives online and off are intertwined. CeCe’s picture-perfect crafted persona begins to fall apart, though, when bickering with her girlfriend turns into fighting–none of which is reflected on the app, of course–which turns into a break up. CeCe isn’t sure what her brand is now that she’s single. To complicate things further, CeCe is bisexual–she’s been out for years–and she’s starting to get a crush on a very offline guy. How will he react to her online life, and how will her Cevie fans react to him?

This is the second of two bi YA books I read that come out today! (Also check out my review of I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre.) I have to take this space to do a little celebration of that fact! I remember when hardly any queer YA got published in a year, never mind two traditionally published bisexual YA books in the same day. Because this is the Lesbrary, I want to make clear that this features a M/F romance with a bi woman main character.

Follow Your Arrow is a coming-of-age-on-the-internet story. CeCe is immersed with “the App,” and her sense of self is wrapped up in it. She was once an outspoken activist–her walls are covered in protest signs she carried in marches–but she has sanitized this aspect of herself online. She used to get into screaming arguments with her Conservative father, until he left them. Now, she tries to make sure that nothing she does online could result in a pile-on. When her online fanbase begins to turn on her anyways, she has to re-evaluate. I appreciate that there’s some nuance here: it’s not a scare tactic about social media or “cancel culture:” the story acknowledges positives and negatives of both.

Like I Think I Love You, I really liked how this examined bisexuality as a distinct identity: not just gay light or… spicy straight. CeCe feels like she’s not considered queer enough to have pride or have it be an important part of her identity: she has talked herself out of getting a rainbow tattoo, because she doesn’t feel that she can “claim” this, or that people would object because she’s not “queer enough.” I also appreciated that she’s primarily attracted to women. Bisexuality with a preference isn’t something I’ve seen represented in YA before, but it’s very common in real life.

This turned out to be a bit of a personal read, but to explain that, I have to wander into potential spoiler territory–but not more than what’s on the back of the book. CeCe is worried that, despite being out as bi, she will receive backlash online if she dates a guy. To be clear: I have in no way at any time been famous on the internet. But I have been famous on one tiny part of the internet, which is the lesbian books part of it–at least 5 years ago. And when I started dating a guy after IDing as a lesbian for years online, I went through a miniature version of this on tumblr. Seeing people talk about your dating life and identity online, especially in a vindictive way, is very weird and definitely gets in your head (especially if you’re already going through an identity crisis). I cannot imagine being a truly public figure, because I sure couldn’t help myself from looking at that train wreck constantly until people lost interest.

I also appreciated that the story validates CeCe’s decision to set boundaries around her relationship with her father. I was worried that the trajectory was towards CeCe making amends even though her father was hateful, both politically and personally. (Mild spoiler:) Luckily, I was wrong about that. The narrative showed that she was right to separate herself, and that it is the healthiest thing for her.

I do want to give a content warning for biphobia: Follow Your Arrow includes hateful biphobic comments that I found difficult to read, but the narrative obviously contradicts them. If you’re looking for a coming of age story that considers bisexuality as an identity and the pitfalls of growing up online, I highly recommend this one!

Danika reviews I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

I Think I Love You by Auriane Desombre

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I Think I Love You is a bisexual YA F/F romcom told in alternating perspectives between Emma and Sophia. Emma is a romantic. She loves love, and she’s happy to play matchmaker with her friends. Sophia is the anti-romantic: after her parents split up, she now doesn’t believe in (romantic) love. When Emma tries to make a bisexual romcom to enter in a film contest, Sophia refuses, hoping to direct something artsy and tragic. Their bickering splits the friend group in half–but this is a romcom, so it doesn’t end there, especially when her friends come up with a scheme to try to reunite the groups.

This is a classic enemies-to-lovers/hate-to-love romance story, chockful of tropes. Emma and Sophia get in heated arguments, hurling out insults that cut to the quick–but even when they’re fuming, they’re still absentmindedly noting how the other’s face lights up when she laughs. At first, I was worried that Sophia was too cruel in their arguments, but as the book goes on, they both give as good as they get.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of this story are in its relationship to romcoms: if that’s a format you love, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you’re allergic to romance tropes, though, I’d advise giving it a pass. As much as the relationship between Sophia and Emma is the focus of the story, it’s not what I appreciated the most.

I read this for Book Riot’s All the Books podcast, where Liberty and a rotating crew of cohosts discuss the books out that day. I happened to pick two bisexual contemporary YA novels, both out March 2nd, that both discussed bisexuality as an identity category in a way that resonated with me. (The other is Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi, which I will review soon!) In this one, Emma worries about feeling like she shouldn’t make a big deal of her bisexuality–but it is a big deal to her, and it’s a significant part of her identity. She worries about coming out to her parents. Partly because they have made some offhand ignorant comments in the past, but also because she doesn’t know how to communicate how important it is to her. I think that bisexuality is often downplayed as not significant: when bi women are in relationships with another woman, they’re still seen as basically a lesbian, and when they’re with a man, they’re seen as essentially straight. It’s not often respected as a distinct identity, and one that can be just as meaningful to that person as being gay is. (Which is to say that everyone has their own relationship to labels.)

I also enjoyed the relationship between Emma and her cousin, Kate. Kate is a fatshionista who is unfailingly kind, and Emma absolutely idolizes her. That is likely tied to Emma’s low self-esteem, but I liked seeing this fiercely protective relationship between the two of them: I don’t read a lot of stories with friendships or family relationships that are that intense unless they’re siblings.

I’ll admit, sometimes I Think I Love You verged on the melodramatic for me, but it delivers exactly what it promises. It’s a hate-to-love story with bickering, banter, and heartfelt moments. I was worried that one aspect of the plot was going in a wildly unrealistic direction, but I was happy to proven wrong. If you want a romcom read with a bit of cheesiness, but also a great discussion of coming out as bi, give this one a try!

Carolina reviews One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston [Out June 1, 2021]

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

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Casey McQuiston’s first novel, Red, White and Royal Blue, changed the new adult literary romance genre with its compelling love story of the prince of England and First Son, cementing queer stories’ places on bestseller lists, bookstore shelves and the general public’s hearts. Their follow up, One Last Stop, lives up to all the hype surrounding the release and surpasses it, crafting a beautiful romance in the heart of New York City, all tied up in that beautiful pastel cover.

August rides the Q Train to and from her minimum wage job at a local pancake restaurant as she wades through her senior year of college and comes to terms with what lies ahead in her future. One day, she locks eyes with a kind, handsome butch named Jane Su on the train and falls in love with this stranger’s gentle kindness and fierce devotion to her fellow commuters. After a series of casual conversations, August realizes Jane’s vintage protest pins and Walkman aren’t just a commitment to a retro aesthetic; she has become unstuck in time from the 1970’s and is doomed to ride the train in 2020 for the foreseeable future. August decides to help Jane go back to her own time, trying every Groundhog Day style idea they can think of, falling in love all the while. Can August let Jane go back to her own time, losing the girl of her dreams, or can they find a happy medium?

One Last Stop was a delightful page turner, chock-full of McQuiston’s signature laugh-out-loud dialogue and biting wit. They’re able to pinpoint the pulse of New York City’s magic, and the hidden gems and mom-and-pop shops that make the city so special, warning against the insidious gentrification plaguing the city and turning special oases into yet another Starbucks. Not only is this novel a love letter to a city, but it’s also an ode to the mixed-up magic of a twenty-something discovering themselves, and the different kinds of love we make and find that last a lifetime. One Last Stop is a microcosm into your early 20’s, complete with every late-night roommate conversation, every doubt and regret and hope for your future, and every heated glance with a hot subway stranger, filling the gap in the literary market for people in their early to mid-20’s.

It also stresses the importance of queer friendship, community and history. August’s roommates are a fun, ragamuffin bunch of queer individuals sharing a space and a life with each other, there to the bitter end. Jane devotes herself to preserving the memory of her gay friends in the past, and making sure the world she and her friends fought for does not forget their contributions. Jane offers a window into little-known facets of gay history, focusing on the role of Asian-American leaders in the gay liberation movement, and on the much-overlooked Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans.

One Last Stop is part campy time travel comedy, part sexy romance, part lesson in queer history, part murder mystery, and part coming of age story. This gem of a novel will stay with readers for a long time after the last page, leaving a lingering scent of sugary pancake syrup and a feeling of nostalgia and rightness.

Thank you for the publisher and Edelweiss for the advanced copy!

Trigger warnings: homophobia, racism

Meagan Kimberly reviews Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee

Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee audiobook cover

Jess Tran comes from superhero parents and has an older sister with powers, but she did not inherit this gene. She decides to find her own way in a world of metahumans and superpowers and ends up at an internship working for The Mischiefs, her parents’ and the city of Andover’s nemeses. However, everything is not what it seems in the world of superpowers, heroes, and villains. With the help of her crush Abby and her friends, Jess sets out to find and reveal the truth.

One of the more refreshing aspects of the story is how Lee handles Jess’ coming out. It’s casually stated when she tells a brief story of a flashback to English class during her earlier high school years. From there, it’s simply a part of who she is and not a narrative point in which the plot revolves around.

The story deals a lot with being exceptional, and it’s weaved deftly within the world-building. In a world where metahumans were created by X29 after the Disasters, it’s easy to see why Jess feels inadequate, especially compared to her superhero parents and sister. Even though her younger brother doesn’t exhibit metahuman powers either, he’s also a child prodigy. Jess finding a way to know her value without exceptional traits makes her a protagonist to root for.

Lee’s world-building gets woven throughout the plot, which readers can appreciate. However, there are often more questions than answers to many of the details she brings up. Through Jess’s point of view, we learn about World War III, the Disasters, the creation of the North American Collective, and other similar governments around the world. But aside from a history book lesson, the reader doesn’t learn much.

An argument can be made though that this is done on purpose because it’s coming from Jess. She only knows what they’ve taught her in school, and up until now, she hadn’t questioned what she was taught. As she unfurls as a character and starts to realize the world she’s been fed is a lie, that’s when she questions the Collective, the hero/villain dichotomy, and her place in it all.

The blossoming romance between Abby and Jess is absolutely adorable. Everything from the squishy feelings of a crush to the first kiss to their comfortable jokes together creates a realistic and loveable relationship growth. There’s a scene in particular when Abby sleeps over and the tension is so well written.

Overall, a lot of plot points were obvious to the reader, though not obvious to Jess. But even so, it was a lot of fun to read. And the way it ends leaves the readers wanting more of the world, which is good because it’s the first in a series.

Danika reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

You liked me best when I was like an oil painting; perfectly arranged and silent.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through. In case you need more convincing, though, I will forge on ahead.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She was dying as a casualty on a battlefield when he came in as her savior, turning her and nursing her back to health. She is overwhelmingly in love with him: “And God, how I adored you. It went beyond love, beyond devotion. I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

I should specify that the name Dracula never appears in the book. Constanta is telling this story to him, explaining what brought her to killing him, and she decides that because he took her name away–renaming her Constanta–she would similarly rob him of his name. It feels silly to talk about a book about vampires being a meditation on an abusive relationship, but it really is. Although this is fantastical, her descriptions of how she–and later, the other “brides”–are treated feels all too realistic.

He is patronizing, possessive, at times adoring or absent or cruel. Constanta learns to walk on eggshells, not speaking asking more than two questions in a row. He wants to be her only source of joy: “Vienna made you irritable as much as it made me blossom. I wouldn’t realize until later that you were irritable precisely because I was in bloom, because there were suddenly so many sources of joy in my life apart from your presence.”

Constanta was a devout Christian before being turned, and she still practices her faith, to his disdain. She also hunts despicable people, those that she believes the world will be better off without. She finds monsters who are untouchable and kills them. He believes this is petty, childish. He studies humans from a scientific distance, believing that they are superior to humans. He mocks her concern with human society. After all, they live for centuries, making each plague or war an inconvenience that they travel to escape from, but nothing to take too seriously.

Vague spoilers:

She is unhappy and confused by his mercurial affection, but she’s still captivated by him and relies on him. Their relationship changes when he manipulates her into accepting new “brides,” seemingly becoming bored with just her company. At first, it’s Magdalena: a commanding, powerful woman with political correspondents around the world. She is resentful of him bringing her into their relationship, but she can’t help but fall for Magdalena herself. At first, this arrangement works: Magdalena and Constanta keep each other company in his absences (often in bed), and he is charmed by Magdalena’s energy. Soon, though, his controlling nature saps her of her vitality, and she is left a shadow of the free, vital woman she once was.

Still, they might have continued this way for centuries more, until he adds Alexi to their mix. Alexi is a young man (“no more than nineteen”) who adds fresh life to their home–but Alexi also challenges him and refuses to accept their limitations, leading to constant stand-offs and tension. Constanta could endure her own pain, but she can’t stand to see Magdalena and Alexi suffer.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and gory scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person. She begins to see it through a different light, and she doesn’t apologize for her actions. She recognizes that they loved each other, but that they couldn’t live this way, and that all three of them were in danger if they let it continue.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.