Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

A Belated Bi Awakening: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Imogen Scott has endless experience as a straight queer ally. Her friends are pan and bi, her sister is out, and she never misses a Pride Alliance meeting. While visiting her best friend Lili at college, who has her own little queer community, Imogen takes “supportive” a step further. She pretends to be Lili’s ex-girlfriend and bi. The longer she wears the label, the more she wonders if it fits… especially when she’s in the company of Lili’s new friend, Tessa. Can Imogen keep her story straight, or is she finally starting to see who’s staring at her in the mirror?

This recent streak of bi/sapphic YA books (One Last Stop, Perfect on Paper, and now this) has left me slain. It’s all too much. I am FEELING too much. Be still, thy bi heart.

In all seriousness, this is the exact story little baby bi me needed back in high school, and I’m so glad it’s on shelves for adolescent readers now. There’s SO MUCH to discuss: the themes of self-identity, friendship, and coming-of-age so perfectly layered to make Imogen so obviously (I had to) exactly who she is. Imogen’s “bunny” brain is a realistic mental chaos of self-doubt and queer questioning. Everyone assumes straight is the default, when really, it should be bi until proven otherwise. Most people aren’t given the chance to question their sexuality, to explore who they are, instead establishing themselves in a pre-determined box. I’ve been there, and Imogen’s constant questioning and confusion make her emotions all the more real. She questions if queerness looks a certain way, or if we’re supposed to have our queer awakenings by a certain time, or if we’re supposed to be certain, but how could we with the constant DISCOURSE over everything? Imogen’s voice leaps off the page, making her easy to like; a character you want to follow to the end. Lili is everything as a best friend (and queer mentor), while Gretchen so perfectly straddles the line between well-meaning and toxic. We’ve all had that friend we realized (almost too little, too late) wasn’t looking out for our best interests, the one in the back of your head spinning every worst fear until it became a play-it-on repeat thought. Though she could have felt too extreme, we see why Imogen hears Gretchen out, why Imogen gives her a second chance, allowing her to become the cranked-up monster of self-doubt in Imogen’s head. Also, The Owl House, One Last Stop, and Sailor Moon mentions were everything.

This had an awkward start for me, namely because of all the names and identities we’re given in the first few chapters. It felt like Imogen’s younger, queer sister was less of a character and more of a plot piece (both to prove that Imogen was surrounded by self-aware queers and to show what queerness looked like in Imogen’s eyes). She doesn’t have some cute scenes with Imogen until the end, and by that point, I wanted more.

Recommended for fans of Perfect on Paper and One Last Stop.

The Vibes

❤️ Young Adult
❤️ Queer Cast
❤️ Bisexual FMC
❤️ College/Coming-of-Age
❤️ Identity
❤️ Romance & Friendship

💬 Quotes

❝ The only way to let someone into your reality is to retell it. ❞

❝ One girl can’t topple your entire sexuality, right? ❞

❝ All these moments, scattered and separate. All these disconnected dots. ❞

❝ Then she buries her face in the crook of my neck, and every breath she breathes feels like a love letter. ❞

❝ How I felt. Dizzy, off- balance, unsteady. Like my bones were too big for my body. Like I couldn’t zip myself closed. Like I’d colored outside my own outline, stepped out of frame, made myself three- dimensional. ❞

A Bisexual, Palestinian American Coming of Age: You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much cover

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Earlier this month, during a trip to Portland, Oregon to cheer on the UConn Women’s Basketball team in the Sweet 16/Elite 8 (Go Huskies!), my partner and I visited the renowned Powell’s City of Books.  We were perusing its gorgeous shelves when You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat (she/her) caught the eye of my partner, who has a knack for making book recommendations that are right in my wheelhouse.  I had been looking for a queer book that highlights the female Arab American experience and the front cover of this book had a single blurb from Roxane Gay, which stated: “My favorite book of the year.” I was sold.

You Exist Too Much was published in 2020 and won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Fiction.  Arafat’s debut novel follows an unnamed, bisexual, Palestinian American protagonist from her adolescence through her adulthood as she navigates identity, sexuality, addiction, intimacy, and her fraught relationship with her domineering mother.  While the story proceeds in a linear fashion, Arafat uses vignettes into the narrator’s past to contextualize her real-time thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Initially, the narrator’s lack of a name made me feel frustrated.  A name is important; it confers value and respect. Why would Arafat not name her protagonist when the stories and voices of queer women of color are already so stifled?

As I made my way through the novel, Arafat’s choice became clearer. The narrator is constantly fighting to create space for herself.  Her mother often tells her, “You exist too much.” When the narrator broaches even a hypothetical discussion regarding her sexuality with her mother, her mother effectively disowns her, telling her, “Stay away from me and the rest of my family.” The narrator continues to struggle with space in all her romantic relationships, sometimes worrying about taking up too much space, other times feeling like she doesn’t even exist. The narrator’s lack of a name is, in part, a reflection of her disengagement from her mother and the expectation that she take up as little space as possible.

Arafat has a real aptitude for creating characters with depth.  The unnamed protagonist is endearing, yet maddeningly messy, full of love, but also prone to disastrous decision-making. I did not always like her, but I did find myself rooting for her and admiring her resilience and her desire to cultivate healthy love. Her deep empathy for her incredibly flawed mother was achingly beautiful. 

While I did not enjoy the book as much as I hoped I would, I do think it’s an interesting read from a talented writer that’s worth picking up.  If you’d like to read more of Arafat’s writing, she is currently working on a collection of essays.  You can also find her at @zainaara on Instagram.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, domestic violence, racism, disordered eating, self-harm, homophobia, and biphobia.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

TAGS: ***, Raquel R. Rivera, You Exist Too Much, Zaina Arafat, Queer, Bisexual, Bisexual Main Character, Palestinian American, Arab American, Palestinian, Coming of Age, Addition, Homophobia, Biphobia

A New Take On the 20-Something F*ckup Novel: All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews

All This Could Be Different cover

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I have heard only great things about this book since it came out in 2022, but I somehow didn’t actually pick it up until my queer book club chose it for this month’s pick. I vaguely remembered downloading an ARC on my ereader, so I opened that up and jumped in. I was immediately struck by two surprises: 1) I wasn’t really enjoying the book, though I had been expecting to love it, and 2) I had started this book already. I was eight percent of the way through—which is not a lot, but it means at some point I started and abandoned it. Aside from the unease of reading through highlights I couldn’t remember making, I was also beginning to have a sinking feeling that this was not going to live up to the glowing reviews I’d heard.

Sneha is not an easy main character to like in the beginning of the story. She’s freshly graduated from her program and starting a new job in a new city: Milwaukee. She doesn’t have any real connections here, and she struggles to find her footing. Her property manager lives downstairs and erupts in anger if she makes the slightest noise. Her job is demanding and unpredictable. She hooks up with women without looking for anything lasting. And throughout it, she simmers with self-loathing that periodically boils over into cruelty and judgement.

Sneha is a queer woman of colour who has a lot of internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. She thinks hateful things about other women, people of colour, and queer people. She’s angry and judgmental, but she’s also passive. She feels constrained by being an immigrant, especially because her father was deported. She worries that any misstep will result in failure—not just her own, but also failure to live up to her parents’ dreams.

“What nobody told me when I was a very young person was that obedience, fearful toeing of every line, chasing every kind of safety, would not save you.”

At this point in the story, I was having trouble with it. It was interesting enough to keep going, but I began to think that maybe I’ve grown beyond identifying with 20-something fuckup literary fiction—a genre I loved when I was younger. I might have even DNFed it, if it weren’t for my book club. But then…it got me. Somewhere along the way, I realized I’d gotten invested in Sneha and the network of relationships she formed.

There’s such a payoff in Sneha’s character growth—not that she becomes a perfect person, but that she becomes more accepting of herself and others. And that payoff feels so powerful because she was such a mess in the beginning. So I can’t fault the book for that, and I will say it’s worth sticking with through those beginning chapters, when she is being insensitive and even cruel.

If you’re a fan of messy found family dynamics, I definitely recommend this one. All the characters are complex and flawed, but they come together to support each other. Tig is definitely the standout character of the novel: a charismatic Black nonbinary philosopher who imagines a better world and both accepts Sneha and holds her accountable.

“This is my tragedy and my great good fortune, to be the recipient of this bond, to be kept alive under its crushing warmth and weight, to be given it so freely, so much more than I have ever deserved.”

The small section of the book that takes place in India adds a lot of depth to the story, I think. Even Sneha’s mother is a complex character—maybe more so than Sneha originally gives her credit for.

I was also surprised to see how the story is structured: while most of the book takes place over a small time span, there are a few chapters that go over several years. I think some readers will find that jarring, but I appreciated seeing the bittersweet aftermath of this formative time in these characters’ lives.

I definitely recommend this as a book club book, because there is so much to pull out and discuss, from issues of classism and appropriation to it being set during the recession to Sneha’s character arc to Sneha’s relationship with Marina and a lot more. It’s definitely one I think I would appreciate even more on rereading.

A Standing Ovation for Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo cover

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“There is another girl / on this planet / who is my kin. / My father / lied to me / every day of my life. / [ . . . ] I want to put my fingers / against my sister’s cheek. / I want to put my face / in her neck & ask / if she hurts the way I do.”

And so begins Clap When You Land, a gorgeous dual narrative novel in verse about grief, loss, and the healing power of family written by acclaimed Dominican-American poet and writer Elizabeth Acevedo (she/her).

Camino and Yahaira (Yaya) are 16-year-old young women living in the Dominican Republic and New York City, respectively. Neither knows the other exists until the tragic death of their beloved Papi upends each of their lives and reveals that they are sisters. As Camino and Yahaira grieve and desperately try to make sense of a world without Papi, they must also navigate their complex feelings about each other and figure out what it means to be sisters.

Acevedo is a masterful storyteller. Her use of dual narrative and verse made for an enjoyable and accessible reading experience. The alternating perspectives kept me engaged, and there were never too many words on a page, which allowed me to really savor what I was reading. As a Latina, I felt a swell of pride every time I saw Acevedo describe a quintessential visual from our shared experience: curious neighborhood women in batas and chancletas; a mother with rollers stacked high atop her head; a community coming together to solemnly mourn a loved one with a rosario. I also really appreciated how Acevedo highlighted the range of Afro-Latine beauty through not only her descriptions of the different characters, but also the affirmations and terms of endearment Papi used with each of his daughters.

The representation in Clap When You Land goes beyond race and color. Although all the characters have a connection to Papi, it is the strong female relationships that are the novel’s throughline. Camino refers to Tia, the curandera (healer) that raised her, as “the single love of [her] life”. Tia has showed up for Camino in ways her parents could not. Camino’s belief that “curing is in [her] blood” and her aspirations of being a doctor are borne of her deep respect and admiration for Tia. Yahaira “likes girls” and has a girlfriend named Andrea (Dre). Although Yahaira’s sexuality is a core aspect of her identity, it is free-flowing and doesn’t require exposition. Dre is Yaya’s rock. Acevedo paints a beautiful picture of how a healthy and steady love can ground you in your darkest times.

I loved this book. It was my first experience reading Acevedo’s writing, but it definitely will not be my last. If you’re looking for a quick read with lots of great Latine representation that packs an emotional punch, you should pick up this book. Acevedo has also authored Poet X, With the Fire on High, and Family Lore. You can find her on Instagram @AcevedoWrites or on AcevedoWrites.com.

Trigger warnings for descriptions of a plane crash, death, sexual assault, and colorism.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane

the cover of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

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I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself follows Kris, a recent widow, as she navigates the world of Shadester and NoShad while raising the child that her wife, Beau, died giving birth to. She has to deal with her own two shadows and with the baby’s two shadows as the kid grows up. Along the way, we get to see what a speculative dystopia where any sort of crime, even accidental, is met with an additional shadow being tacked onto your person would be like.

What initially drew me in is the novel’s point of view. It is told in first person, but a lot of the time, Kris is addressing Beau directly using the “you” pronoun. There are also sections that aren’t really a point of view at all. Formatted as quizzes and impossible crosswords, Crane paints a picture of grief and its aftereffects. The child Kris and Beau have together is simply referred to as “the kid” in most instances; the reader doesn’t find out her actual name until close to the very end of the novel. At first, I was wary of this choice to not name her, but Crane wound up pulling it off spectacularly, coinciding the reveal of the name with Kris’s personal growth from “person who is taking care of this child” to “person who accepts their role as mother to this child.” It really drove the point of Kris’s grief home, and the reveal happened at the perfect time, both for Kris and for the reader.

The world being split into Shads and NoShads was also really interesting. Championed by a president who mirrors a particular former president of ours, the system of shadows is just a way to punish people publicly. Make one mistake—like Kris, who won’t tell us how she got her extra shadow until she’s practically forced to—and you’re marked forever, gifted another shadow in front of everyone who comes to watch the ceremony. Shads are looked down on in society. They only have one day a week where they can grocery shop; Kris is told multiple times that homeschooling the kid is the better option to keep her away from everyone else; and it is all too easy to gain more shadows after you’ve been given your first. The kid receives her second shadow nearly the moment she is born due to Beau’s death, and the world is made so much harder for her to navigate due to something she wasn’t even consciously aware of doing. The government installs cameras in every house and every business, watching twenty four/seven for anyone to make a mistake worthy of an extra shadow. Kris is pretty anxious even before she gets hers. She struggles with her desire for sex that involves BDSM, but that’s the only real issue anyone faces in the sexual identity department. Another thing I liked: everyone in this book is just unapologetically queer. Despite being made of Shads and NoShads, the universe here is a reflection of our own, so it was nice to read about gay and queer folks finding ways to be happy in crappy situations. Honestly, it felt sort of refreshing.

This world is so full and detailed, and I loved getting to explore it with Kris and her rebellious kid who refuses to listen to the rules. However, there was one particular part of the writing that tore me out of the story time after time after time, and it’s how the story is told. In the beginning of the book, we bounce from paragraph to paragraph. There is hardly a single page without some kind of section break for the first one hundred pages; for most of those pages, there’s multiple section breaks, seemingly for no reason. A lot of the story is told through one paragraph at a time. It was disorienting as a reader to bounce from place to place like that so often. I get why Crane did it. They wanted to write in a way that mimicked Kris’s grief. Kris goes back and forth between addressing Beau, along with her past with Beau, and telling the story of her growing child. Maybe, for that reason, it’s meant to be disorienting. Kris can’t tell a cohesive narrative yet because she doesn’t know how to without Beau next to her. However, I had to continuously take breaks from reading in order to digest everything and to get to a point where I wanted to read it again. As the story progresses, the formatting becomes more standard, and we eventually transition almost entirely to regular paragraph and section breaks. Again, this is a reflection of Kris’s grieving process. The easier it gets for her to live in a world post-Beau, the easier it is to read. I just wish I had known about it before I started reading. I don’t think it would have kept me from picking up the book; it just would have been nice to know what to expect.

Spoilers for ending:

The ending of this book was also pretty lackluster to me and felt super rushed, but someone who likes endings where everything turns out great and perfect all of a sudden would be a big fan. I am simply not the person who likes those. Everything just fell in place too perfectly for me. We go through all of these specific trials and tribulations with the world that Crane has built, and then some of the problems just…disappear. However, it’s a happy ending; I can’t be mad about that.

Trigger warnings for: death, bodily harm, drug abuse, homophobia, and BDSM. There is also a chunk of the book dedicated to the kid’s attempt to find out who her biological father is with some tense family dynamics related to her wants.

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. 

Bestselling Book Gets a Second Wind: Juliet Takes a Breath: The Graphic Novel

Juliet Takes a Breath Graphic Novel cover

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Back in 2016, when I first heard that there was a new young adult novel by a queer Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx who was also potentially my cousin (just kidding—all the Puerto Rican Riveras from the Bronx aren’t related, y’all), I remember feeling so excited. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (she/her) is the story of Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old baby dyke from the Bronx navigating the coming out process, radical feminism, and what it means to be a queer person of color.

In December 2020, nearly five years after the novel’s debut, Rivera released the graphic novel adaptation of Juliet Takes a Breath with gorgeous illustrations by Celia Moscote. I read the novel the summer it came out and was blown away.  I picked up the graphic novel seven years later and was just as impressed.

Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming of age story that opens on the eve of Juliet’s departure to Portland, Oregon for a summerlong internship with white feminist author Harlowe Brisbane. At family dinner, Juliet reveals that she is gay and has a girlfriend. Although Juliet’s brother, abuela, and titi are supportive, Juliet’s mother is rattled by her revelation and the two have little time to process their feelings before Juliet must leave. When Juliet arrives in Portland, she meets free-spirited Harlowe, who she clearly idolizes. However, as the summer progresses, Juliet develops her own queer identity, finds community amongst queer people of color, and comes to learn that Harlowe is not necessarily worthy of the pedestal upon which Juliet has put her.

Juliet Takes a Breath features a refreshingly diverse cast of characters, which includes individuals who are bisexual, trans, and biracial. Puerto Rican culture is also prominently featured in the graphic novel, infused into its language, history, and imagery. Juliet’s Puerto Rican-ness is the foundation of her identity. She is anchored by her close-knit family, which provides her unconditional love and support even amid conflict.  Moscote perfectly captures the personalities and emotions of Juliet’s loved ones. Her renderings of Juliet, a beautiful,  curvaceous young woman with caramel skin and dark curls, in various states of emotion—joy, anger, pleasure, and sadness—are stunning.

Seven years later, I still love this story. As a queer Puerto Rican woman with Bronx roots, it made me feel seen. Beyond that, I loved how Rivera educated her audience on the importance of intersectionality and community and boldly tackled complex and emotionally charged issues like the white savior complex in feminism. The graphic novel format made these topics even more accessible. I highly recommend checking it out! 

Rivera is also the author of the original comic series b.b. Free, as well as Marvel Comics’ AMERICA series, which follows the adventures of America Chavez.  If you’d like to learn more about Rivera, you can check out her Instagram, @quirkyrican, where she posts about her writing and the joys of being a “masc mom”.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, racism, and white saviorism.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Sliding Doors, But Make It Bisexual: Going Bicoastal by Dahlia Adler

the cover of Going Bicoastal

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I watched Sliding Doors as a kid and was enthralled by the idea of watching a life play out in two different ways based on branching out from a single event. I suppose it was my introduction to the concept of parallel universes. So when I heard about the premise of Going Bicoastal, I had to pick it up: a Sliding Doors-style story with a bisexual main character, written by the one and only Dahlia Adler?? What a gift.

And, of course, in Dahlia Adler’s hands, this was a joy to read. It follows Natalya as she has to choose between spending the summer with her father in NYC as usual, or trying to reconnect with her mother in LA. In each chapter, we alternate between her life if she chose NYC and if she chose LA. It sounds like it could be jarring or awkward, but the structure is not only a fun hook, but actually strengthens the story—it feels like it couldn’t have been told any other way.

In my The Best Sapphic Books of 2023 (So Far), I said this was the “most bisexually structured book I’ve ever read.” It is fun to have a bisexual book refuse to make a binary choice. But it also unexpectedly soothed my anxious overthinker brain. This choice does change Natalya’s life, but neither option is wrong. Whichever decision she makes, she’ll be okay in the end. Both these stories are romances, so they both are going to have a happy ending.

The romances play out pretty differently: in NYC, she gets to know a girl she’s had a crush on from afar for a long time, and they connect over music. They click instantly. In LA, she initially clashes with a guy she interning with, but he slowly opens up, and they begin to fall for each other over tacos—and worry about what happens when the summer ends and she goes back to New York. This story is just as much about Natalya figuring herself out, though, and while the settings and love interests diverge, there are parallels in how these different experience help her to uncover her talents and plan a future for herself, further underscoring that there are multiple paths leading to a positive future for her.

I love how this story feels so seamless, though it must have taken a ton of work to make a concept like this feel effortless. This is one of my favourite reads of the year.

All The Pretty Girls Read Sapphic Stories: More Readalikes for Reneé Rapp’s Snow Angel

the album cover of Snow Angel

If you have Reneé Rapp’s album Snow Angel playing on repeat, these are the sapphic books you need to read! Pick up the one that matches your favorite song, or get the whole stack if it’s too hard to pick. You can get a copy of any of these titles from your local bookstore or library, or you can get a copy through Bookshop. Click here for Part One! 

“Pretty Girls”

the cover of Girls Like Girls

In the p.m., all the pretty girls/They have a couple drinks, all the pretty girls/So now, they wanna kiss all the pretty girls/They got to have a taste of a pretty girl

Pretty Girls is a song for people who keep falling for “straight” girls, and a celebration of those exploring their sexuality, even if it feels frustratingly drawn out to the other person. In the same vein, Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko, inspired by the sapphic anthem of the early aughts, follows the story of Coley and Sonya, two teenage girls in rural Oregon who each find themselves falling for the other girl. This lyrical debut novel fills out the gaps in the plot to Kiyoko’s music video, but balances the overall sweetness of the summertime romance with an exploration of grief and what it means to be out in today’s society. I think Pretty Girls would fit in beautifully during the summer romance montages that Girls Like Girls lays out.

“Tummy Hurts”

the cover of she is a haunting

Now my tummy hurts, he’s in love with her/But for what it’s worth, they’d make beautiful babies/And raise ’em up to be a couple of/Fucking monsters, like their mother and their father

In Tummy Hurts, Rapp explores a past relationship through an analysis of heartbreak, grief, and bittersweet predictions of the continuing cycle of unhealthy relationships. This song contradicts and supports the exploration through using a childlike imagery of an upset stomach and the consequences of an unhealthy romance. If you are looking for a book that explores being haunted by a past relationship or dysfunctional relationships, I would recommend reading She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran. In this horror young adult novel, Jade is visiting her estranged father and her only goal is to end the five-week visit with the college money he has promised her—but only if she can seem straight, Vietnamese, and American enough. However, Jade can’t ignore the effects of colonization on the house or a ghost bride’s warnings to not eat anything. She is a Haunting explores the concept of places being haunted by dysfunctional family dynamics, just as “Tummy Hurts” explores the haunting of a romantic relationship.

“I Wish”

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers cover

I wish I could still see the world through those eyes/Could still see the colors, but they’re not as clear or as bright/Oh, the older we get, the colors they change/Yeah, hair turns to gray, but the blue’s here to stay/So I wish, I wish

“I Wish” is the Pisces moon of Snow Angel, with Rapp singing about how she wished she didn’t know about death as a concept. This sweet ballad mourns the loss of an important figure and the resultant loss of innocence in the world around her. Similarly, Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers explores themes of existential dread, fear of not living up to people’s expectations, and a loss of innocence once you grow up. Twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes to Vegas to celebrate getting her PhD in astronomy, but accidentally ends up getting drunkenly married to a strange woman from New York. This triggers a rush of questions about herself, including why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled in her life, and Grace flees home to move in with her unfamiliar wife. Honey Girl is a story about self-growth, finding queer community, and taking a journey towards better mental health, and it honestly made me cry as much as I Wish did the first time I listened to it.

“Willow”

the cover of Even Though I Knew the End

Don’t cry, don’t cry, Willow/I’ll cry, Willow/Willow/I’ll cry for you

Willow is another sad ballad, in which Renee talks to her younger self (metaphorically) under a willow tree, and tries to reassure them that everything will be alright. This concept of wanting to take away someone’s pain, regardless of your own, made me think of one of my favorite novellas, Even Though I Knew the End by C. L. Polk. Elena Brandt is the hardboiled detective of mystery noire past, with her private eye set up in a magical 1930’s Chicago, and a lady love waiting in the wings for her. However, Elena’s days are numbered and she decides to spend the last of them with said lady love, Edith. Just as she is about to leave the city, a potential client offers her $1,000 to find the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. To sweeten the pot, the client offers something more precious—the chance to grow old with Edith. As Elena dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life, she learns that nothing is as she thought it was. If you want a read that will capture your mind and heart for an afternoon, then grab a copy of C. L. Polk’s Even Though I Knew the End. 

“23”

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

But tomorrow I turn twenty-three/And it feels like everyone hates me/So, how old do you have to be/To live so young and careless?/My wish is that I cared less/At twenty-three

Finally, 23 explores the emotional turmoil and questioning that can come with turning twenty-three years old. Rapp’s lingering lyrics ask why she doesn’t feel like she has been succeeding in life, especially when compared to society’s expectations and assumptions about her career. By the end of the song, Rapp expresses the hope that she can grow into herself as a person and learn to love herself more by her next birthday. In the same vein, Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kahn is about a nineteen Black year old college student named Alice, whose summer was going to be perfect until her girlfriend broke up with her for being asexual. Alice had planned on remaining single as to never experience being rejected for her sexuality again, but then she meets Takumi, and Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood. A huge theme in Alice’s story is that of figuring out what you want to do and/or be as opposed to what your family and friends (or society) expects from you, whether it is about your sexuality or career choices. I think Alice would be wistfully listening to 23 right before the climatic third act, as she contemplates what to do.

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, they act in local community theaters, play D&D, and are halfway through their MLiS program. You can find them on Goodreads, Twitter, or Instagram.