Secrets, Sororities, and Sobriety: Thirsty by Jas Hammonds

Thirsty cover

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What would you be willing to do if it meant finding your flock? Jas Hammonds explores this age-old question in their young adult novel Thirsty. Incoming college freshmen Blake Brenner has been with her girlfriend, Ella, since freshman year; they are voted “The Couple Most Likely To Still Be Together In Ten Years” and are desperately in love. The duo is planning to go to Jameswell University and to join the exclusive Serena Society, along with their best friend, Annetta. As the summer begins, so does the Serena Society’s pledging process, which includes a fair amount of hazing. Blake is determined to prove herself—unlike Ella, who is a legacy pledge, Blake is the first in her family to go to college and has no connections or money to boost her status. However, in proving herself, Blake begins to develop an unhealthy relationship with both alcohol and partying, and she must decide what parts of herself to keep and which ones to banish.

This may be stating the obvious, but Thirsty is such a hard book to read, especially if you are an alcoholic or have dealt with alcoholics previously. I did cry at least twice and had to take self-mandated breaks while reading, so be prepared to do the same. But as hard and scary as reading Thirsty was, it also is incredibly healing, powerful, and such an important book to have out there. Narratives about alcoholism in teens/new adults feel rare, and I think that if I had read this in my early 20s, this book would have helped me curb some bad habits and/or thought patterns that existed at the time. 

The characterization in Thirsty is realistic, to the point where I sometimes felt uncomfortable with how much I identified with some of the characters and their choices. Blake’s desires of solidarity and feelings of loneliness are heartbreaking to read, all while her euphoria acts as a sort of bandage to the reader’s emotions. I also heartily enjoyed Annetta’s role in Thirsty—in a book that is dominated by Blake’s relationship with Ella, Annetta’s scenes acted as a palate cleanser and a place to emotionally recuperate. Annetta’s relationship with Blake shows how friendships should be about support, even when it may be initially unwanted.

If you enjoy Elizabeth Acevedo, emotionally complex stories, and solidarity narratives, you can order your copy of Thirsty through Bookshop, your local indie bookstore, or your library.

Comp titles: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie, You’d Be Home Now by Kathleen Glasgow, and Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett.

Content warnings include: alcoholism, hazing, accidentally outing, transphobia, intentional outing, cheating, vomiting, and vandalism.

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. ❞

Manga-Curious: 5 Yuri Manga for First-Time Readers

For the longest time, I found manga intimidating, especially with the stereotype of manga being either sex fantasies for men or action-packed sagas. However, once I got past that initial fear (thanks to a coworker who helped me find some calmer titles to start off with), I found that manga, just like most formats, is more than just one genre. There are subgenres that where the plots are geared towards specific ages, with examples like:

  • kodomomuke (cutesy manga meant for young children), 
  • shonen (adventure stories marketed to teen boys), 
  • shojo (stories centered around exploration of relationships geared towards teen girls), 
  • seinen (adult fiction geared towards adult men), and 
  • josei (adult fiction centered around relationships marketed to adult women). 

Nowadays, I love narratives that center around personal relationships (platonic or romantic), which can be found more typically in shojo and josei works. If you want to get even more specific with it, there are sub-subgenres for romantic/sexual identities, such as BL (boy love) and yuri (sapphic). I think that is so cool, especially since I had started reading manga thinking that it was entirely centered on what men wanted to read and wouldn’t feature much, if any, queerness. If you want to get into manga, but don’t want to start with One Piece, never fear! Here are five of my favorite yuri manga that are great for people who haven’t read much manga before! 

Monthly In The Garden with My Landlord series by Yodokawa

Monthly in the Garden with My Landlord, Vol. 1 cover

After getting out of an unhealthy relationship with her ex-girlfriend, Asako Suga wants a completely fresh start and decides to move to into a cute house. The only thing she didn’t count on was that the house came with a cute live-in landlord, who seems to be hiding a secret about her past. As the two live together and learn more about each other, Asako and Miyako become closer in this cozy story. Monthly In The Garden with My Landlord is a fantastic beginner manga for people who love forced-proximity stories and new adult protagonists. The second volume just came out on March 19th, so be sure to get your copy here!

Just Friends by Ana Oncina

Just Friends cover

As a teenager, Erika was forced to go to an overnight camp by her mother, in an effort for Erika to make more friends. While there, she met a girl named Emi, who changed her life forever with their relationship. In this dual timeline manga, Erika and Emi are now adults, who remember that summer together as they engage in an affair marked by nostalgia and secrecy. Just Friends will make you long for the simplicity of your youth, even as you see how it can be weaponized into something unhealthy. I particularly enjoyed Just Friends because it didn’t feature a “good” relationship—it showed the spectrum on which relationships can reside, making this perhaps the most realistic of these titles.

The Two of Them Are Pretty Much Like This, Vol. 1 by Takashi Ikeda

The Two of Them Are Pretty Much Like This Vol. 1 cover

If you are a fan of the “they were roommates” trope, then you will want to read The Two of Them Are Pretty Much Like This. Scriptwriter Ellie and voice actress Wako are roommates, mentor and mentee… and lovers! This cozy manga covers their day-to-day lives as Ellie deals with writer’s block, Wako struggles with auditions, and the two hang out with friends. 

The Two of Them Are Pretty Much Like This is a four-volume series and is a delightfully quiet and charming example of slice of life manga. 

Our Teachers Are Dating series by Pikachi Ohi

Our Teachers Are Dating! Vol. 1 cover

If you like workplace romances, then you will like Our Teachers are Dating. Gym teacher Hayama and biology teacher Terano work together at an all-girls school and are crushing on each other hard. Their students and fellow teachers ship the two of them and work together to get the two teachers to confess. The rest of the volume covers the beginning of Hayama and Terano’s relationship, from stolen kisses at work to their first overnight trip. Our Teachers Are Dating is the first of four volumes in which we get to see this coworkers-to-lovers story, and the two protagonists are SUPER adorable. You’ll want to read this manga if you enjoy fluff stories, tender moments, and awkward (yet perfect) comedy. 

I Don’t Know Which is Love, Vol. 1 by Tamamushi Oku

I Don't Know Which Is Love, Vol. 1 cover

When Mei graduated high school, she was determined to leave behind an unfulfilled crush and to get a girlfriend in college. If only it was that simple… Mei is confronted with a variety of women at college and cannot decide who to pursue. With love interests like the older professor, the physically affectionate roommate, the voice-obsessed theatre techie, the sweet model, and the gregarious theatre ingenue, how will Mei ever choose? I will say, I Don’t Know Which is Love is verging on yuri harem territory, so be aware if you are not comfortable reading that kind of content. That being said, I loved reading this manga as it was super cute and played with the concept of having casual sapphic relationships. Definitely read it if you enjoy why-choose stories, romance, and college settings!

As always, you can get any of these books through your local library, indie bookstore, or through the Bookshop links above! Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In their spare time, he acts in local community theaters and plays role-playing games. You can find them on GoodreadsTwitter, or Instagram.

Messy Roots: a Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

the cover of Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

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Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age, first in Wuhan, China, then an early move to Texas, and finally through her choices of college in Pennsylvania and a job in the Bay area. As a Chinese American immigrant, Gao depicts her struggle to reconcile her childhood in Wuhan with the expectations of her friends and classmates in America via a direct and honest look at her own internalized biases and struggles, illustrated by a flowing and charming art style. I found Messy Roots to be a heartwarming and fast-paced read, and I’m really glad a friend recommended it to me.

Gao is brutally honest in her depiction of herself. She starts out by describing her efforts to fit in with her classmates in Texas, including by taking an American-ized name and minimizing hobbies and traits that mark her out as too obviously an immigrant. She finds her Chinese lessons burdensome and resents having to attend Chinese events at her family’s church. When she moves to college, she both connects more with the Chinese student community and realizes that she is attracted to women. Free from being directly under the eye of her family and people who knew her growing up, Gao, like many college students, starts to figure out for herself who she wants to be as a person. I felt like Gao’s personal journey really resonated from the page, because it was messy and not linear. I personally really empathized with how Gao’s attraction to women was evident through her early years with the benefit of hindsight, but not fully realized until college and near adulthood. Laura also struggles with who and how to come out to people, and especially to her family, but even when they are struggling to communicate, Gao depicts a complex and affectionately nuanced showing of family. I think memoirs like this are important, because real life does not reflect a neat narrative like in fiction. Reading this really focuses in on how you keep growing and learning as a person, and things that you think you had moved on from can later become important to you, and I really think this perspective is important for the teen audience this is intended for, although older readers can certainly appreciate that aspect as well.

In the final part of the book, Gao tells about moving to San Francisco after college, and rooming with a group of her immigrant friends. Buoyed by the strong Chinese community in the area and the city’s diverse and modern atmosphere, Gao starts to feel like she is putting down her own roots. But when the pandemic hits in 2020, Wuhan goes from an obscure location to a household name in America. As waves of racism and hatred impact her life and her family, Gao once again struggles to make sense of her identity and her life. It’s a terribly poignant and personal look at a time most of us would rather not look to closely at. It’s sort of refreshing to see a narrative that actively includes the pandemic as a time period that had real impact on people, and not just through the possibility of getting sick. Gao’s narrative highlights the some of the real ripple effects that this global event had, and I think that is also important to show in literature. 

Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s effort to document her journey through her identity.  Unlike a conventional, fictional coming of age story, Gao shows that life is messy and most people’s development is not linear. Her unflinching introspection and willingness to shine a light on the complex and less pretty parts of personal development make for an inspiring and insightful read. I am definitely glad to have read her perspective, and think this would be an excellent book for both adults and teens looking for a new viewpoint about growing up, coming out, and finding yourself. 

An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson 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.

A Literal Dead Poets’ Society: All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

the cover of All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

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The days have started getting shorter as darkness takes up more and more space every day. The evening air isn’t quite cold enough to keep you inside, but every gust of wind chills to the bone, and the woods behind my apartment are filled with piles of dead foliage sprouting mushrooms. There’s just something about fall that keeps my attention set on horror all season long. It was in that spirit that I picked up All That Consumes Us in October, a book which bills itself as a “gothic dark academia novel.” That alone was enough to get me interested, but by the time I was done, Erica Waters’s latest work easily made the list of my favorite reads this whole year.

It’s safe to say Tara Boone is not having the best time with her freshman year at Corbin College. She longs to be a writer, but she’s stuck working two jobs to pay tuition and taking the education track so that she has even the slightest hope of having a career to pay her student loans with. When she gets a chance to enroll in Magna Viri—an elite, somewhat secretive honor society that only accepts a few students every year and promises free tuition, great jobs, and connections after graduation—she jumps at the chance, even if that chance comes as a direct result of the untimely death of one of Magna Viri’s freshman students.

Magna Viri isn’t quite the godsend it seems, however. Some of the older students seem sick, almost hollowed out, and even her fellow freshmen are beginning to show signs of wear. Tara at first chalks it up to how overbearing and aggressive the group’s advisor is, but it rapidly becomes clear that something far worse is going on as she begins writing in her sleep. She wakes up at her desk again and again with words that aren’t hers scrawled on paper in front of her, a story far darker and more violent than anything she’s ever written before.

Tara is one of the most painfully relatable characters I’ve read in a long time, from the overwhelming impostor syndrome to the constant comparing herself to the more elite students to the feeling like if only she wasn’t being held down by her lack of opportunity maybe, just maybe she could be as good as them. Tara’s every thought and feeling is achingly real because they’re so familiar, in a way that I think just about every working class creative has felt at some point or another.

The supporting cast is also incredibly diverse. Tara’s classmates come from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them are queer, her roommate is nonbinary, and the romantic interest has a chronic illness. That diversity isn’t just for show, either; each character’s interaction with the secrets at the core of Magna Viri is fundamentally shaped by their identity. I found all of them to be as well-crafted and memorable as Tara herself. Even as the story becomes more and more supernatural, the characters keep it grounded in a way that makes every punch hit that much harder.

I’m going to put a spoiler warning for below the break here, as well as the content warnings for All That Consumes Us, because I can’t fully describe why I loved this book without revealing a big part of the mystery. If what I’ve said so far intrigues you, I strongly encourage you to go read this book, and then come back for the rest after.

Content warnings: gaslighting, loss of bodily autonomy, possession, underage drinking and alcoholism, emotional abuse and manipulation, and brief scenes including violence, transphobia and misgendering, and hospitals

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The best thing about horror, to me, has always been the metaphor. Good horror, to my mind, isn’t just about sending chills up your spine or giving you that adrenaline rush of fear, it’s about using the safety of fiction to explore the things that frighten us. That includes the obviously terrifying things, like the thought of having your body literally controlled by someone else, but it also includes the awful things that have become so ordinary that we ignore them entirely or even just accept them as part of life, using those obvious things to blow them up to the point where the inherent wrongness of them becomes apparent.

All That Consumes Us has plenty of the former, but it is packed to bursting with the latter. For those of you who read this far without reading the book first, signing up with Magna Viri is signing up to be possessed by the ghost of a former member, someone who’s genius they considered so great that it could not be allowed to disappear just because they died. You create that person’s work for your four years at college, and in exchange you get to put your name on it. It started out with the best of intentions, as a partnership, but overtime became corrupted, and now the students of Magna Viri are being drained utterly dry for the sake of their ghosts.

The ghosts of Magna Viri work incredibly well as a scathing metaphor for so much of what plagues academic and creative work. They are the toxic productivity that demands that we expend ourselves physically or else be considered worthless. They are the commoditization of creation and the treatment of creators as tools that enrich the elite. They are the idea that there are only a few truly great works and everything else is simply derivative. They are the colonization of young, diverse minds, forcing them to focus on mainly the works of dead white men in order to be considered educated, and to mimic them in order to be considered skilled.

All That Consumes Us forces you to reckon with the cruel realities of academia and creation that we all too often take for granted, and it does so in a package that is diverse, suspenseful, compelling, and deeply unsettling. Currently, it’s sitting at the top of my list this year, and I think it’s going to be difficult to dethrone. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Chaos Theory Psychological Thriller: Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn

the cover of Strange Attractors

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Strange Attractors by Ana K. Wrenn was released in August 2022 and it follows the complex character of Sonja J. Storey. The book has been described as a psychological thriller, and it takes a deep dive into the darker side of academia. It is not a light and fluffy romance, but if you allow the main character to have her flaws, and go on her journey, it is a novel that will stay with you for a long time after you’re done reading. I am usually a pure romance kind of gal, so this was certainly a different novel for me, but I am glad I took the plunge.

Dr. Storey is a professor of chaos theory, and this novel takes you on a well-written roller coaster of what happens when life seemingly begins to imitate the very theory one teaches. Dr. Storey teaches at a small college in North Carolina and has plans to put the tiny school on the map. Not only does she believe she can do it, but she also has the drive to do so. It takes one post-it note to set Sonja’s arc in motion. 

Interpersonally, Sonja is closed off and doesn’t make friends easily (or at all).  It’s fair to say she intentionally pushes people away with her ultra icy exterior. The closest relationship she has is with that of her telescope, which seems fitting as it allows her to escape in the stars, a place seemingly uninhabited by people. Her telescope can’t let her down, can’t judge her, and can be directed only where she points.

Those around her wouldn’t hesitate to call Sonja all sorts of names, but as a reader, we are let into parts of her story that the people around her are not privy to. As you read this novel, and Dr. Storey’s past is revealed little by little, it is of little wonder that she interacts with the world around her the way she does. 

Wrenn presents us with two characters in this book: Dr. Sonja J. Storey and junior professor Dr. Crystal Byrd. Where Sonja is closed off and receives every outside interaction with skepticism and a desire to exit the interaction immediately, Dr. Byrd is in many ways the opposite. Both have experienced trauma in their lives, but the path each has taken to both deal with that trauma and how they see the world around them couldn’t be more different. Where Sonja is closed off and icy, Crystal is open, warm, and friendly.  

When the two women meet, it goes as you would expect, but there is something about Crystal Byrd that Sonja, despite her unwillingness to allow anyone in, can’t seem to stay away from. Crystal is persistent, but it’s also undeniable that Sonja finds her intriguing. Despite her misgivings, Sonja allows herself to become close to the other woman. In Crystal, Sonja finds someone who does not hesitate to push back and call her out for her behavior when the situation warrants. Crystal makes it clear she is there for her and there to support her, but Sonja has to put in the work. Crystal won’t be her savior.

Wrenn weaves a tale that will have you wondering and guessing about connections, past and present, and questioning if things are really as they appear.  

Sonja J. Storey is a complex character with a lot of reasons to present herself to the world in the standoffish way she does. She is, at times, a cautionary tale of how our past influences the way we interpret and view the events of our life. Ultimately, I would consider Sonja’s story to be one of courage and of a character making the hard decision to move forward without constantly looking back. It lays bare the dark side of being a woman in academia and of a woman trying to escape a past that isn’t keen on letting her go. 

Wrenn’s debut novel is smart, twisty, dark, and a read that will stay with you long after you’re done. There are scenes that serve as absolute gut punches—but this is not meant to be a Hallmark romance. Wrenn is brilliant in being able to set a scene so emotionally charged that I found myself holding my breath and heart. And it wasn’t just once.

I highly recommend Strange Attractors if you’re in the mood for something a little darker, and if you’re a fan of Ice Queens protected by an iceberg that makes the one that took down the Titanic look like an ice cube from your freezer. I maintain the freeze is understandable, but whether you agree will be up to you. I took this journey knowing that not everyone loved Sonja J. Storey, but love her or not, I encourage you to read with an eye to at least understanding her and the layers she possesses. When everyone around you, including those meant to protect you, have failed you over and over, self preservation tactics seem bound to kick in. I felt for her, and I was rooting for her. I think the sign of a good novel is one that, even when you’re done, you can’t stop thinking about it. Strange Attractors is that novel. 

Content warnings: discussion of past abuse, descriptions of past sexual assaults.

A Tender Sapphic Graphic Novel Romance: If You’ll Have Me by Eunnie

the cover of If You'll Have Me

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If You’ll Have Me is a very tender, very human story about two women with their own baggage who realize that sharing the burden often makes it easier to bear.

Both Momo and PG have been unlucky in love, and their first meet-awkward hardly seems poised to change that. But as they spend more time together, their feelings and blush-strokes both begin to deepen.

It was refreshing to read a sapphic romance set in a college setting. As I get older, I’ve found myself gravitating towards stories with women who have come through the gauntlet of adolescence only to find they still have a lot of learning and growing to still do. I’ve also met more women who didn’t have their first relationships in high school, in undergrad, or until they started working. It is nice to see those stories get told, too—especially with such lovely artwork! Every panel, even the bluest, is so suffused with warmth. The color palette and linework are probably some of my favorites in recent memory. While the aesthetic influences are pretty clear, the art style also has its own unique signifiers.

I appreciated how the importance of communication was explored in this story. The different inter-character relationships are well written, and handled with warmth and sincerity while not shying away from the conflicts that can arise from good intentions. We see how Momo and PG interact with friends, family, and how those dynamics shape their interactions with each other. We get to know their support networks, their social habits, and this makes their private moments all that much more textured.

One of my favorite aspects of this story was the emphasis on showing rather than telling, which comics as a combined visual and written medium are uniquely suited to. Some of the conversations are just as shaped by what is not said as what is, and the panels where we see PG with her family do this beautifully. There is a weight behind their words, whole histories being considered in the spaces between the panels.

The Enthusiastic Ally to Bisexual Pipeline: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Now that I’m twice the age of many of the protagonists in Young Adult books, I have a different relationship with them. I still read YA, but I find myself feeling protective of the main characters instead of relating to them. Nothing exemplified that shift more than reading Imogen, Obviously, where I just wanted so badly to give Imogen a hug as I read it.

Imogen is a high school senior who is a very enthusiastic queer ally, even though she’s, as Imogen puts it, “hopelessly” straight. Her sister and two closest friends are all queer. She goes to every Pride Alliance meeting. Her favourite movie is But I’m a Cheerleader, and she collects editions of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston.

Her best friend Lilli is a year ahead of her and has already found a queer friend group in university—the same school Imogen will be joining in a few months. Imogen is happy for her… even though she feels out of place. She doesn’t want to intrude, as a cis straight person.

When Lilli finally convinces her to visit, she drops a bombshell when Imogen arrives: Lilli felt insecure about not having a serious relationship with a girl before, and she lied about Imogen and her being exes. So now everyone thinks Imogen is bi, including Tessa, who gives Imogen butterflies, which is obviously just Imogen queerbaiting inside her own head.

Imogen as a character broke my heart, to be honest. She’s a people-pleasing overthinker who analyzes herself to death, twisting herself into knots until she loses sight of the very obvious. The very obvious like: she’s not straight. The very obvious like: her friend Gretchen isn’t the authority on all things queer, and can be pretty toxic when she acts like it.

In a social media graphic for the book, the author describes Imogen as having queer discourse brainworms, which is a good way to put it. She tries to educate herself about queer issues, but just ends up thinking that there’s only one right way to be queer. She doesn’t feel the same way about girls as she does in her crushes on guys, so she concludes that means she doesn’t like girls at all. Even when faced with obvious evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself that she’s just trying to be bisexual for clout and that she’s a bad person for appropriating queerness.

“Queerness recognizing queerness. It’s kind of beautiful when you think about it. I really do wish it was mine sometimes.”

Imogen longs to be part of the queer community, and while I’m sure there is some 100% straight and cis person this applies to in the world, it’s such a relatable queer experience. I was in middle school when I excitedly talked about looking forward to joining the Gay/Straight Alliance in high school, and how if I could choose, I’d be pansexual and panromantic. But, of course, I was hopelessly straight…

Gretchen was a difficult character. Some people will absolutely hate her, which I understand. But I found myself thinking that my high school self was somehow right between Imogen and Gretchen: an anxious overthinker who also was so deep in queer discourse that I thought I knew it all. Gretchen is going through some things and lashing out at other people—I hope that this is just the beginning of a journey of processing her trauma, because she’s not in a healthy place now.

I haven’t even mentioned the Tessa/Imogen romance! It is adorable. Tessa is a lesbian and Imogen (spoiler?) is bisexual. Both are Jewish. Poor Imogen takes a while to understand she’s falling for her, but it’s a fun ride, including college shenanigans with her and their friend group.

I loved reading this, even if being inside Imogen’s head could be a little too relatable at times. This is actually my first Becky Albertalli read, but I can now confirm the hype is justified. I highly recommend it to any queer person who once also thought they were hopelessly straight.

Nat reviews How To Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow

the cover of How to Excavate a Heart

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Sweet yet angsty. Coming of age and coming out stories. A meet cute that’s…not so cute. Jewish holiday rom com. All the big, tender feels of young love. Non-stop cackling, except when you take a break to have a good cry. A prominently featured corgi. These are a few of my favorite things about Jake Arlow’s How to Excavate a Heart.

College student Shani Levine is determined to spend the holidays alone doing a winter internship at the Smithsonian—that means she’ll be away from her family, her mom specifically, which she feels guilty about while also desperately feeling the need to get away. There are a lot of complicated feelings around this stage of life, and Arlow’s character portrayals feel very authentic—the main characters are both first year college students figuring out what it means to be independent, to manage this in-between phase of life, caught between home and their new freedoms. This is also where Arlow nails the post-teenage angst humor. 

We meet May in a rather abrupt manner—and this is not really a spoiler as it’s in the book’s synopsis and in the first chapter—with the front of Shani’s mom’s Subaru. May is also spending the holidays in DC with her dad, but not because she wants to be there. She’s having her own family issues, and being rudely greeted by the bumper of a car doesn’t exactly put her in the holiday spirit. May initially comes off a bit frosty, but of course we’ll eventually see those walls melted away. 

The book is told in first person from Shani’s perspective, so you really get into her mindset. As she works out her feelings and makes self discoveries, you’re along for the ride. While this book is a holiday romcom, it’s also just as much a coming of age story, and we see a lot of Shani trying to figure out how and when to talk about her “new” life with her mom, when she doesn’t quite know how to come to terms with it herself. This includes keeping her first real relationship a secret, along with her sexuality. 

(Spoilers and Trigger Warnings:) We kind of see this coming, like the Titanic about to hit the iceberg, as we see more snapshots of Shani’s first relationship. Each memory reveals more specific—or perhaps more accurate—details, as her relationship with May progresses. Our narrator is holding back so much in part because she’s just not had certain realizations herself about the abusive nature of her first relationship. Acknowledging these truths is a big turning point in the book, and it’s clear Shani can’t move forward with May until she’s come to terms with her own past. (End of Spoiler)

The supporting character cast gets major points, especially Beatrice (Aunt Bea) who is her own one woman comedy show, and Shani’s mentor at work who’s a few years older—the wise lesbian we all wish had been in our lives to dispense advice. And yes, the corgi (dogs absolutely count as characters). Overall, Arlow’s given us a sapphic holiday romcom that will excavate your own frozen little heart.

Trigger warnings: abuse, sexual assault