Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Thais reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I have had Dread Nation in my TBR list for a while. After Deathless Divide was released, I was even more pressed to check out this duology, even though YA stories about zombies are not exactly something I would normally read. The premise was just too good—after the dead rise during the American Civil War, Native and Black American kids are taken from their families and forced into an education that basically trains them to protect white people from zombies.

The first book, Dread Nation, set up the world and had protagonists Jane and Katherine finding out that the biggest danger did not come from the undead. Deathless Divide starts just as the first book ended, with Jane and now friend Katherine fleeing the town they had been sold to and trying to find their luck in a nearby frontier town founded by people of color. But the people who were all too gleeful to see our protagonist basically enslaved into a death sentence flee to the same destination, and so Jane’s problems continue to follow her.

I had conflicting feelings about Deathless Divide. On one hand, the duology as a whole is the best YA series I’ve ever read. On the other, the books seem to show that I’m not really the audience for YA dystopian fantasy, even the most creative, amazingly developed ones. I have always struggled to get on board with how overly plotted and overly designed some YA fantasy books feel. It was an issue I had even with books I read and loved as a teenager.

Dread Nation had a chaotic energy that I loved. It had some tropes, but it mostly felt wholly original. Deathless Divide, on the other hand, seemed to try very hard to hit all outlined plot points, sometimes to the detriment of the characters, and it drove me mad, because the characters are the soul of the books.

It also had very specific quests the protagonists had to complete, unlike the ‘just survive’ approach of the first book, and after the first half, the sequel feels like it’s spinning on wheels trying to convince us the characters really would make all these decisions that would lead to resolution being delayed and delayed until the very last pages. For example, it’s impossible not to see where Justina Ireland (as amazingly talented as she is) tried to turn Jane bitter and where she left crumbs for Jane’s salvation.

I have loved Jane since the first book and I was even more excited to spend time with her in Deathless Divide, because while it is revealed in book one that Jane is bisexual, this installment was supposed to bring us a sapphic romance for Jane.

When Jane told people again and again that she had to get revenge, no matter what, I sided with her. I felt her pain. I was annoyed at Jane’s constant attempts to try to save people who were monsters, but I also believed in my core that she was a good person who felt she had to try. I was annoyed that Jane believed she could reason with people who saw her as less than human and convince them she was right, but I rooted for her nevertheless. I believed in her flaws. I trusted her as a character.

But all my love for Jane could not prevent me from seeing that halfway through this book she changed specifically so she could be redeemed. She became a different person than she was for one-and-a-half books entirely to drive the plot into meandering tangents that delayed her completing her quest. She made stupid decisions to delay the climax of the book and create tension.

That soured the book for me a bit. The fact that other characters also have their ultimate growth attached to Jane’s arc didn’t help.

Ireland created a cast of characters that was instantly likable, despite their many stubborn moments and their many errors in judgment.

I loved Sue more than I loved Jane. I loved Katherine more than I loved Jane. I wanted their journeys to stay their own. And I wanted to love Callie, and hated that she was not given as much complexity as Jane’s male crushes.

I won’t lie, the promise of a little sapphic action was what drew me to this series. I stayed because of the writing (despite my whining), but I still wanted to see Jane in the context of this relationship, given that her feelings for the two male romantic interests in past books were extremely relevant to the story and her growth as a character.

But Callie is never developed very deeply. We never see them falling in or out of love. We never know if there was anything in Callie that Jane liked beside Callie’s willingness to take care of her and stay by her side. It was so disappointing.

Jane and Callie are not the only LGBTQIA+ representation, however, and if I still loved this book, it is in great part because of Katherine. Katherine and Jane have an enemies-to-best-friends journey that is the emotional core of the books. I was heavily invested in their friendship, but I was especially engaged with Katherine’s arc.

Katherine is complicated and delightful. She is consistently loyal and curious about the world. Her ace identity did not feel forced, and it did not feel like a gimmick or a throwaway storyline. She is always whole and complex and driven, even when her story becomes all about her friend. She wasn’t my favorite character in Dread Nation, but in Deathless Divide, she rightfully steals the spotlight and stays the most cohesive character, even while growing and changing.

I wish Katherine had enjoyed more of an arc of her own. I wish the side characters had also gotten more time on the page. I rarely say this, but this duology could have easily been a trilogy, because there were enough character-driven plots that could have been pursued.

There were so many elements that worked in the book—the experiments and the anger they caused on Jane; the complicated journey to find a safe haven from the zombies, only to find out that there were few refuges to be had if you were Black; and the way each loss resonated and was felt deeply.

But I would also have loved for the one queer relationship to have gotten its due on the page, even if it didn’t have a happy ending. I would have loved for more of the characters to have time to feel whole.

I still think Justina Ireland did something unique and special. This was such an original idea, and while some of its elements left me frustrated, I think it says something about the book that I just wish there was a lot more of it. I cared about this world so much, to the end. I would gladly revisit it and spend time with any of the peripheral characters.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Whatever problems the book has, it also has beautiful people you will be glad you spent some time with.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Shana reviews The Deep by Rivers Solomon 

The Deep by Rivers Solomon

The Deep is the most beautiful book that I’ve read this year. It’s a lyrical novella based on a Hugo Award-nominated science-fiction song by clipping, a hip-hop group. The Deep is a reimagined mermaid story about an underwater society descended from African women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. We learn about the culture and history of these people, the wajinru, through the eyes of Yetu, their newest Historian.

Historians are responsible for holding the memories of every wanjinru who has lived, allowing individuals to live unburdened by the trauma of their collective past, only regaining temporary knowledge of their history through a yearly magic ritual. Yetu didn’t have a choice in taking on this calling, and she is overwhelmed by the weight of so many memories. In desperation, she tries to escape her role and carve a different path, one that brings her adventure, love with a surface dwelling “two-legged” woman, and a new respect for the power of memory.

Solomon packs a lot of eloquence into this small package and makes daring choices, like having the wanjinru appear fearsome to humans, rather than seductive sirens. The Deep feels longer than its 166 pages, in a good way. I enjoyed the wanjinru’s creative perspective on gender and relationships, and the way Solomon slowly explains the mystery of how their society came to be.

The story smoothly segues between Yetu’s present and the memories she carries. I sometimes dislike time jumps, but the inventive structure of the book made them feel seamless. However, I love complex worldbuilding and I found myself wishing for more explanation of the wanjinru’s fraught interactions with surface dwellers, alluded to through mentions of shipwrecks and oil rigs. The book’s atmospheric tone is gorgeous, but it also leaves some details to the reader’s imagination. For example, we never know exactly where in human geography Yetu is living.

The book imaginatively explores the nature and purpose of memories, generational trauma, and collective healing. It is so insightful that several times I gasped out loud while reading it. I appreciated the balance between the joy and ingenuity of the wajinru, and their painful history. I love books that use alternate history as social commentary and The Deep incorporates this with a light touch. It’s a powerful book, but also an engaging story with a sympathetic heroine. The Deep is a compelling and absorbing read that would appeal to lovers of feminist science fiction, underwater fantasy epics, or stories from the African diaspora.

Danika reviews Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia HibbertThis is an F/M romance with a bisexual main character.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t read a lot of M/F romance. Truthfully, I don’t even read a lot of F/F romance–which is often surprising to people who think queer books are all romance novels. I am, however, much more likely to read an M/F romance with a bi woman main character, and when I saw that this audiobook was available through my library, I though I’d give it a shot. And I’m very glad I did, because this ended up being one of my favourite romance novels of all time. (With a male love interest! I know! It’s shocking! That’s just how good it is.)

Part of what I loved about this book was the main character. Dani Brown knows what she’s about: she is devoted to her job (teaching and researching lit), to the point that she may forget to do things like sleep or eat. She has no time for romance, and doesn’t think she’s the kind of person who does well in relationships. She doesn’t remember anniversaries. She is embarrassed by romantic gestures. What she does enjoy is sex, and she’s determined to find a fun, casual, purely sexual relationship.

Zafir is the (grouchy) security guard in the building she works at, and they chat every day. When Dani injures herself in a safety drill, Zafir sweeps her up and carries her outside. The moment goes viral, and Zafir asks Dani if they can fake date to promote his rugby charity for children. (Where he teaches about toxic masculinity and expressing your emotions and dealing with mental health issues!) Dani agrees, hoping that this can turn into a no-strings-attached arrangement–but it turns out that Zafir is a romantic, which makes things more complicated.

Here’s the thing about Dani: her full name is Danika. Which is my name. Have you ever listened to a romance audiobook with a main character who shares your name? I’m not ashamed to say I was blushing, but it is a bit of ego soothing to hear a narrator extol the brilliance and beauty of Danika. Dani is a fascinating main character, though. She and her sisters are witches, which isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in books. She’s also a compelling mix of self-confident and insecure. She thinks highly of herself, but she doesn’t believe that others would approve of her, especially in a romantic relationship. I also loved that she’s unapologetically sexual, especially as a fat woman. I was surprised how affecting it was to hear a round stomach described positively.

I didn’t plan to review this on the Lesbrary when I first started listening, but I ended up loving it so much that I had to share. I even liked Zafir! I appreciated that he’s a grouch, but also sensitive, romantic, and committed. They’re both complicated, with their own backstories–Zafir had a family tragedy and mental health crisis in his past, and has had to rebuild since. Dani has her own reasons for being insecure in relationships. They both feel like real, complex people, which makes their relationship all the more interesting.

[Spoiler, highlight to read:] I also loved that Danika doesn’t have to change to be in a relationship. She just needs someone who loves her for who she is. [end spoiler]

As for queer content, Dani states her bisexuality several times, and we do see her female ex, but it’s not a huge part of the plot. If you’re willing to take a risk on an M/F romance, though, make it this one.

Mo Springer reviews You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz Lighty has a lot to deal with. Her mother is dead, dad left long ago, and her brother has sickle cell. She doesn’t have wealth like the other rich kids she goes to school with and her town, and the school’s history is primarily white. When she doesn’t get the scholarship into the school of dreams, meaning she might not be able to go at all, she decides to shock everyone by running for Prom Queen to get a chance at winning the scholarship prize.

Prom is a big deal in this town, and the story really makes it clear how important it is to everyone, as well as how important it is that someone like Lighty is running. I can still picture the hall of past Prom King and Queens, all white kids in framed photos looming over the students. With that, there are characters who are very against her running, some because they are competing with her, but another because they are racist. The book doesn’t shy away from the realities of modern-day prejudice and discrimination.

The characters really shined. I love Lighty’s friends, but I especially loved her friendship with Jordan. He starts out as kind of your stock character jock who used to be friends with the nerd but then abandoned them for the cool crowd. I won’t give anything away, but Jordan’s character has the biggest surprises.

Then, of course, we have to talk about that romance. Mack is a really fun character who could have easily become a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but honestly she reminded me of some of the girls I knew as a kid (and of course had crushes on). The author does a good job of making it clear Mack is more than just the bubbly, talkative, creative girl she presents as, but has a complex story and life.

Lighty and Mack’s relationship is both cute and interesting. They are of course teenagers and going to make the mistakes and bad decisions that teenagers will make. The two of them have a lot of ups and downs that were fitting of their characters and made you want to root for them more and more with each chapter.

I did have a bit of a hard time being sold on the stakes of having to get into an elite college. I went to community college for the first two years of getting my BA, so whenever a teen story is all about how the main character has to get into the super expensive, elite college, I end up wanting to jump into the story and shake them and say, “It’ll be okay! You’ll be just fine without it!”

The stakes surrounding the prom itself and the school’s hierarchy are much more believable. I really got the sense of how unrepresented Lighty felt and the book shows how much she has to fight against, with racism and then also homophobia. On top of that, to mention she is also dealing with her brother’s sickle cell and feels like she must take care of him. Her decisions might not always have been likable, but they were believable and added to the complexity of her character.

Overall, this was a really fun and interesting read. I highly recommend you pick it up!

Meagan Kimberly reviews Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow, No Thank You audiobook by Samantha Irby

I listened to this collection of essays on audio, in which Samantha Irby herself reads, which is how I highly recommend you consume this book. Irby brings her biting wit and raw honesty to each essay, making them feel more like confessions. But they create a lifeline to so many who feel the way she does, making readers feel more connected and less alone. And she does it all with great humor, never taking herself, or anything, too seriously.

She covers various topics, from critiquing personas and performances on social media in “Into the Gross” to how over she is of the criticism of people being addicted to their phones in “Hung-Up!” Irby has no problem calling out others who act like they’re better than the rest of the world. She understands that at the end of the day, everyone is a mess pretending to have their ish together.

“Girls Gone Mild” is by far the most relatable and funniest essay in the collection, in my opinion. She gives a hysterical rundown of a typical girls’ night out for women 30+ who can no longer handle spontaneous outings and drinking too much. Her elaborate, minute-by-minute detail of how she plans her nights out now that she’s older sounded all too familiar and had me laughing so hard I cried.

In “Late 1900s Time Capsule,” she breaks down a typical mixtape from her youth track by track, annotating how each song captivated her teen angst, pretentious thoughts and intense emotions. As she talks about including the Indigo Girls on her mixtape she declares, “What do you mean you’re surprised I ended up with a lady?” proving there is a way to joke about queerness without being offensive. She even talks about those bygone days when you really had to be sure you wanted to invest in buying a whole album, because you couldn’t just purchase a single track.

Irby doesn’t shy away from topics often considered taboo, especially for women. She freely discusses sexuality alongside romance and relationships. She even tackles the horrors of getting your period in “Hysterical!” While hilarious in its unabashed humor, it’s also a critique on how any talk that does happen around the menstrual cycle centers on white women’s bodies and experiences, thus neglecting BIPOC bodies.

In essays like “Body Negativity” and “Hollywood Summer,” she tackles issues with body image and lack of representation of fat people. Or rather, the dismal representation of fat people. Although she takes on the topic with her signature humor, it’s clear it’s a subject that cuts to the core, and anyone who’s ever lived as a fat person in this world can relate.

Overall, this essay collection will make you laugh, but also make you think. It’s smart, witty, sarcastic, and filled with tales of horror about living as an anxious individual. You can’t help but laugh alongside Irby’s commentary on everything from making a living as a writer to moving to the country from the big city.

Shana reviews Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy is a novella about a second chance romance between Likotsi, an African woman visiting New York City, and Fabiola, the Haitian-American femme from Brooklyn who she can’t stop thinking about.

The story is part of Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which primarily features straight couples. Likotsi was my favorite character from the first book, and I was thrilled when she got her own story. The cover is amazeballs! I would love to have it as a poster for my wall. I often get annoyed by singular queer stories in a straight-ish series because they feel like throwaways, but this book delighted me.

Likotsi is the assistant to Prince Thabiso, the protagonist in A Princess in Theory, the Coming to America + Black Panther mashup in which she features heavily. Likotsi lives in a fictional African country that feels vaguely like Lesotho, but even more like Wakanda. She lives a fairly luxurious life, thanks to her proximity to royalty. Likotsi frequently travels for work and loves her all-consuming job, but she struggles to take breaks from running the Prince’s life and getting his UN policy priorities passed. The book opens with Likotsi enjoying a rare weekend off in New York, doing touristy things. She’s trying to distract herself from brooding about the woman she met in NYC eight months ago. Unfortunately for her, on her very first morning of vacation she runs into the girl on the subway.

Fabiola is an aspiring jewelry artist, and an accountant who loves math. She spends a lot of time worrying about her extended family, some of whom are undocumented immigrants. Fabiola has a fantastic sense of style, and I found myself drooling over her femmy outfit descriptions. When Likotsi and Fabiola meet up in the subway car, they’re both wary of one another. Likotsi is still smarting about Fabiola dumping her without an explanation. Fabiola isn’t sure if Likotsi can handle her complicated family situation. They end up exploring Fabiola’s favorite parts of the City together, while we’re treated to flashbacks of their initial whirlwind romance. Likotsi and Fabiola first met through a dating app, but the casual connection they were both planning on, quickly turned more serious. So why did Fabiola end it so abruptly, and can a relationship work when they live on different continents?

This was a fast and lighthearted read. I loved the evocative New York City setting, and enjoyed vicariously tagging along on the heroines’ adventures. I sympathized with Fabiola even though she was a breaker-of-hearts, because her family’s situation is tough. However, because this is a fluffy romance, all problems are solved, with hot sex scenes along the way. The book has some royalty trope flavor, because one character has more social power than the other, but there weren’t any celebrity dynamics to get in the way.

I think Once Ghosted, Twice Shy works well as a standalone. There are passing references to characters from the previous book, and this story glosses over some of the cultural context of Likotsi’s country, but none of that would prevent a reader from following along with the story. The plot is pretty straightforward—women date, they fall in love, the end—which I found relaxing, but could be frustrating for readers looking for more twists and turns. I’m generally not a huge fan of flashbacks, and they sometimes disrupted the flow of the story here. But the flashbacks also added balance to their relationship dynamics, because Likotski drives their romance initially, and with Fabiola taking the lead the second time around.

I would love to read more characters like Likotsi in f/f romances. She’s a dandy who loves clothes; and an unapologetically romantic and squishy cinnamon roll. Likotsi has access to a great deal of power through her work, and I enjoyed seeing an African character in that role especially since Africans are underrepresented in American queer romance. I also adored watching the two women flirt by talking about math and art. The heroines in this slow burn story had excellent chemistry, and I was dying for them to get together. My main critique is that the book felt short. It’s only 106 pages, so we mostly see the characters on only a few epic dates. I was left wanting more of these two. Overall, a quick and pleasurable read.

Rachel Friars reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Kalynn Bayron’s Cinderella is Dead is the queer fairy-tale retelling we needed in 2020.

Bayron’s novel is doing amazing things for queer fiction, fantasy, and YA. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s books like this, and more from Bayron herself. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Cinderella with queer girls. I can only recall Malinda Lo’s Ash (2009), which I read as a very confused teen, and still have on my shelf to this day. Bayron’s innovative and sparkling retelling is such a joy to read.

Cinderella is Dead takes place 200 years after the death of Cinderella. Based on the palace-approved version of the fairy tale that sixteen-year-old Sophia and her friends know by heart, Cinderella married her prince and lived happily ever after—for a time. Now, as a homage to Cinderella and her story, teenage girls are forced to appear at an Annual Ball, presided over by the current king, where all eligible men in the kingdom are free to select their wives. If a girl remains unselected…they are forfeit.

The novel opens with our main character, Sophia, preparing for the ball. However, Sophia would rather not go to any ball to be paraded in front of men who would have the authority to use her as they saw fit. Instead, she would rather marry her best friend, Erin. But things are complicated—the ball is not optional, and neither is conformity. After fleeing the palace the night of the ball—much like Cinderella herself, although under very different circumstances—Sophia finds herself in Cinderella’s tomb surrounded by the story she’s always known. However, when she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella and her stepsisters, she learns that Cinderella’s story may not be so idyllic after all. What happened to the fairy godmother? Were the stepsisters actually ugly and monstrous? Sophia is determined to find the truth.

The novel is miraculous not only for its representation of queer and Black characters, but for its world, which seems to draw on both the conventions of the Cinderella story and history itself. Sophia is living in a world where queerness isn’t unheard of, but exists underground, subtly, or silently. She lives in a world where being different is unsafe, and the world around her struggles to catch up to her own bravery. In a world that demands absolute conformity, dissent comes at a steep price, and Bayron, through her characters, allows us to see the way queer people avoid that price in order to be who they are. This isn’t unheard of in centuries—or even decades—past, and is still relevant in some parts of the world today. So, even though the world of Cinderella is Dead has those elements of magic and fantasy that make the story so thrilling, there are also pieces of history that make it a important piece of queer literature.

The characters are vivid and thoughtfully presented, and each person close to Sophia presents us with a different view of queerness in a post-Cinderella world. Luke, the son of a family friend, is our window into the avenues through which people can explore their queerness, and the consequences of being discovered. Erin, by contrast, is one of the many portraits of the painful position of women—especially queer women—in this society. The fact that this story, with all of its intricacies, is structured around the story of Cinderella, makes it doubly fascinating.

One last word about the romance: Constance and Sophia are such a great pair! After a fraught dynamic with Erin, who struggles with her sexuality and society’s expectations, it’s clear that the relationship between Constance and Sophia is meant to be a vibrant alternative. Although I felt that their relationship could have used more detail in terms of the natural progression of their feelings for one another, that could just be me wanting more.

Overall, I loved this book and it was so much fun to read Bayron’s novel and to discover a world where queer girls can, quite literally, do anything. Although queer fairy-tale retellings have become more popular in recent years, we always need more, and we especially need more written by people of colour, and this one is particularly beautiful and unique.

Please visit Kalynn Bayron on her website, or on Twitter @KalynnBayron.

Content Warnings: abuse, domestic violence, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.