A Cozy Queer Comic of Community: Matchmaker by Cam Marshall

the cover of Matchmaker

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

This was a surprise, last-minute entry in my list of favourite reads of 2023!

I stumbled on this while researching new releases for Our Queerest Shelves, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it was by a local British Columbia author/artist! I requested it from the library knowing pretty much nothing else about it except that it was queer and looked cute. I ended up devouring it in a couple days, and I’m now mourning that it’s over.

This follows Kimmy and Mason, best friends and roommates trying to survive the early 2020s in their early twenties. Kimmy is a nonbinary/genderfluid transfem lesbian, and Mason is cis and gay. As the title suggests, Kimmy is determined to set Mason up with his first boyfriend, which is made a lot more complicated during a pandemic when Mason is high risk.

This was originally a webcomic, which is obvious from how each page is set up to be somewhat complete in itself, but there is a narrative. We follow Kimmy and Mason through dating, breakups, and accumulating a growing group of queer friends. I loved these characters so much, and I was laughing out loud at several pages. It’s just such a cute, funny, and relatable read.

Kimmy is an unforgettable character. They’re over-the-top bubbly and silly, and they radiate confidence. I really appreciated reading about a fat transfem character who is so secure in themselves. They usually use they/them pronouns, but they also experience gender fluidity and change pronouns some days.

About halfway through the book, we find out Kimmy has depression, and they have to taper off their medication to start a new kind. As they go off their depression medication, they become an almost unrecognizable numb, closed-off version of themself Mason calls “Normal Kimmy.” Their friends support them through the weeks of this until they’ve adjusted to the new medication and begin to feel like themself again, including being able to better take in what’s happening around them.

This community of queer friends was the strength of this story. Not only have Mason and Kimmy been best friends since high school, but they also make connections with other queer people, quickly growing a supportive friend group. Despite the struggles they’re dealing with in terms of employment, the pandemic, dating, capitalism, and more, that rock solid foundation made this a comforting and cozy read.

This is not a short comic: it’s 280 pages. But by the time I finished it, I was already missing spending time with these characters.

I do have one complaint, though, and I hope it’s changed in later editions, because it doesn’t fit with the range of queer identities represented positively in this story: Kimmy refers to their lack of libido from being off their medication as being asexual, including triumphantly declaring, “I’m not ace anymore!” when their sex drive returned, which isn’t great, especially because I believe that’s the only mention of asexuality in the book.

That unfortunate inclusion aside, I really enjoyed this book. You can also still read it as a webcomic!

A Cozy Queer Bookstore Fantasy: Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

the cover of Bookshops & Bonedust

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a prequel to Legends & Lattes, which I adored. It’s a cozy fantasy novel with low stakes and impeccable vibes. Let me skip the conclusion of this review: if you liked the first book, I can’t imagine you won’t also like this one. And if you didn’t like Legends & Lattes, why would you be picking this one up?

There are a lot of the same beats as the first book. While in that one, Viv retired from adventuring, in this one she’s temporarily laid up with an injury. Until her leg heals, she has to wait it out in a village. She’s only been with her adventuring group a couple of months, so she’s antsy to return and nervous of being left behind. Still, she has no choice: for the next few weeks, she has to take it easy.

In book one, we saw Viv build and run a coffee shop with the help of some new friends. In this one, she continues the theme of accidentally collecting friends despite her gruffness, but this time, she’s helping to fix up a bookstore! Viv isn’t a reader, but being barred from strenuous exercise drives her to visiting a rundown bookstore looking for escape. Fern, the rattkin bookseller, manages to make her a reluctant bibliophile. Along the way, Viv helps her to try to save her failing business, starting with a redesign.

One fun difference in the format of this volume is that we get excerpts from the book she’s reading! Fern sensibly starts her with an adventure novel, and then convinces her to try a romance. The excerpted books have their own writing styles, and most of them are sapphic, too.

Speaking of sapphic, I was curious about how the romance element in this prequel would go. I was invested in the romance I knew unfolded later in Viv’s life, so how much could I enjoy a doomed relationship in years prior? That turned out not to be an issue. Both Viv and her love interest know she’s only in town for a few weeks, and they’re both going into this knowing it’s temporary. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but there are no hard feelings. Also, I really liked the love interest, who I won’t name because I had fun trying to figure out who it would be. I’ll just say I can see why Viv was interested.

At a glance, this can look like just a retread of the first book: a ragtag group of new friends help to renovate a small fantasy business in a cozy, low-stakes setting. Just swap the coffee shop for a bookstore. In some ways, that’s true—this might have a little more plot and one higher-stakes chapter, but it’s still very cozy and has many of the same elements as the first book. I don’t know what to say other than that it works. Like a cozy mystery series, the repeating elements are a feature, not a drawback. It had exactly the cozy, comforting feeling I was looking for, and I’d honestly read ten more books in the series just like it.

Besides, Bookshops & Bonedust has a big advantage over Legends & Lattes: Potroast the gryphet. (He’s the pug/owl little guy on the cover.) Also, I love that Fern and Viv end up accidentally adopting an animated skeleton.

If you’re a cozy fantasy fan, you have to pick up this series. I think you can read them in either order. In fact, I’m not sure I know which one would be better to start with. Either way, I will be eagerly awaiting the next book set in this world, and I’ll keep these two ready for whenever I need a comforting reread.

A Fantasy of Community: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Legends & Lattes has been reviewed at the Lesbrary before, and it’s certainly gotten a lot of praise online in general, so why do I feel the need to add my own positive review to the mix? I think it’s because the reason I loved it isn’t one I’ve seen touched on much, and it’s also why I think cozy fantasy has a particular appeal to queer readers—I adored it when I first encountered it in The Tea Dragon Society, and this series has only cemented that love.

I’m here to argue that queer cozy fantasy isn’t just about low stakes. It’s about building community, and that’s why it—like the found family trope—is so popular with queer readers.

To be clear, this series is cozy on several levels. The chapters are short and easy to read. It’s fairly low-stakes, it has a cozy setting—a coffee shop—and even the plot mirrors the home renovation TV shows so many people put on for something comforting. The romance is a gentle slow burn built on establishing trust and mutual respect. There’s a ratkin baker who invents cinnamon rolls. There’s a lot of coziness to go around.

But what I found the most cozy, comforting, and heartwarming about this book was the building of community. Viv sets out to start a coffee shop, and that’s inherently something you can’t do alone. She needs help to build and design the physical space as well as to staff it when it’s done. Because she’s starting this in a new town, she needs to build relationships in order to complete this goal.

Viv isn’t exactly the poster child for extroversion and teambuilding. She’s an orc, and that means many people are intimidated by her and associate her with violence. It doesn’t help that she was a fighter, and this is her attempt to retire from the adventuring life. She can be a little gruff, but she’s also kind. She reaches out to people, and almost despite herself, she build a community around the shop, allowing space for everyone’s talents and interests.

This is a story about finding your people. It’s found family, sure, but it’s also not just that. This is a community. Even if they’re not over for dinner every night, they have each other’s back when needed. Family is important, but I think focusing on found family can ignore the many ways we form connections with each other. A handful of essential relationships—family—in our lives is necessary, but so are the network of connections we make in other types of community. The friends who you only see a few times a year, but will always show up in an emergency. The ex-coworker who lets you know when a job possibility perfect for you opens up. The coffee shop owner who lets you host open mic nights there.

This community also allows for reinvention. Almost everyone associated with the coffee shop is exploring a role outside of what’s been assigned to them by society. Can an orc leave violence behind? Can a succubus be respected for her people skills without being reduced to “seductress”? Can a ratkin be a baker? Of course they can. Together, they’re able to support each other as they defy the expectations that have restrained them for so long.

It’s also a story about resilience and hope. The kind of hope that can have you build a business from the ground up, (spoilers, highlight to read) and run into the flames of it burning down to rescue the cappuccino machine so you can do it all over again. That hope blooms from the reciprocal generosity of true community. Being part of a network of people, all supporting each other in their own ways, allows you to have the confidence to begin again.

Human beings are meant to live in community with each other. We’re a social species. We depend on each other to survive. But consciously building these connections is something queer people are more likely to do, because we know that the family we’re born with could very well be conditional. Coming out tests all the relationships in our lives, and even if they survive, it’s hard not to be aware of how precarious they can be. I think that’s why cozy fantasy like this speaks to us so much: it reminds us that we can find family and community by reaching out to other people seeking connection. It can be messy and unconventional, but beautiful both in spite and because of that.

I did not think this cute fantasy book would have me thinking about the nature of human connection as it relates to queerness, but here we are! Whether you’re looking for a comforting read or inspiration to build community in your own life, pick this one up.

An Inclusive Magical Boarding School Story: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

the cover of Basil and Oregano

Buy this through Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Since reviewing Grand Slam Romance, a heartwarming, sexy, and inspiring graphic novel set in the world of a magical queer softball league, I’ve been searching for another graphic novel to scratch that very specific itch. To my delight, Melissa Capriglione’s Basil and Oregano did just that. Though intended for a slightly younger audience, the book offers a similarly high-stakes competition setting, complete with tireless preparation, hostile rivalries, and underdog determination.

Porta Bella Magiculinary Academy is home to the world’s most gifted magical chefs-in-training, and Basil Eyres is among the school’s star students—because she has to be. If Basil doesn’t maintain the status of “top student” for at least two quarters of her senior year, her tuition reimbursement will be denied. Determined not to disappoint herself and her supportive dads, Basil toils away at her schoolwork, sometimes at the cost of hanging with her best friends, with whom she originally bonded because of their shared financial woes (those magic culinary schools aren’t cheap!). Basil is so laser-focused that nothing can distract her… until a cute transfer student, Arabella Oregano, walks into her life. Arabella seems to have it all—money, fame, looks—but it turns out Arabella is hiding some secrets of her own.

According to the author, Basil and Oregano is “a book about finding the true source of your passion and nurturing that which brings us joy.” This rings true, as Basil and her friends exude enthusiasm and curiosity about cooking, the passion that binds them. Instead of giggling about boys, they’re busy brainstorming recipes and raving about a delicious slice of cake. In fact, cishet boys are seemingly absent from this book. Something I love about both Grand Slam Romance and Basil and Oregano is that the authors have taken queer artistic license to fill their stories with queer, nonbinary, and trans characters, without those being controversial markers of their identities.

This book conjures a lot of the cozy feelings that we wish (ahem!) all magical boarding school novels could evoke. From the cathedral-like dining hall to the sun-drenched dorm rooms to the quirky professors, the pages just ooze magical charm. And don’t let the cover’s muted hues fool you—the book bursts with a huge range of colors, big poofs of magic, and delectable food illustrations. As fun and easy as it is to read, Basil and Oregano also explores themes of belonging, class, even mental health and burnout, concepts that I wish I had been introduced to as a teen.

A Cozy Queer Witches Comic: Mamo by Sas Milledge

the cover of Mamo by Sas Milledge

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I checked out Sas Milledge’s Mamo because I had some extra hoopla borrows and I thought the cover art was cute, to be honest. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I was quickly drawn into the quiet town of Haresden and its not so quiet problems. Jo Manalo goes looking for the witch of Haresden because her mother has been cursed.  Magic is, in fact, out of whack all over town, and they need a witch to set it right.  But their previous witch, Mamo, had died, and so Jo goes looking for her replacement. She finds Orla, a young witch who seems both drawn to Haresden and unwilling to be there. It turns out that the titular Mamo was her grandmother, and the town’s problems are her attempt to bring Orla back to the fold. Together, the girls go on a quest to set the balance of magic and their burgeoning feelings for each other on the right track. But Mamo is determined to influence things from beyond the grave, and setting things right isn’t as easy as performing a few magical tasks.

Jo and Orla are delightful characters, and the easy way Milledge fleshs out their characters with the magic and world-building pulled me right in.  Jo is so earnest and kind and loves so deeply, while Orla is prickly and flighty but has deep wells of feelings hidden within her. They set each other off at first, but then they end up working together so well. And their realization that they could be the ones to really help each other out was so satisfying to read.  I found the buildup of their partnership over the course of their quest was really well done, and the ending was everything I hoped for. I really loved how patient Orla was with explaining what she was doing to Jo, and how she built Jo’s confidence up that she could help.  On the flip side, I love that Jo really understood the differences between herself and Orla, and had no interest in trying to change Orla, just in getting to know her. Their compromise at the end was perfect, because it let each be true to herself while setting up a great future for them both.

I also really enjoyed the artwork on this one. It was flowy and cute, full of fun creatures and magical effects.  Orla and Jo were really expressive, and the story telling focused on their reactions to things. I think a lot of comics and graphic novels struggle to balance showing action versus showing character moments, and I thought Mamo really prioritized the characters but not at the expense of the quest or the magic. It was really a cozy and fun book to read.

Whether you’re looking for queer witches, cozy magic, something for yourself, or for something cute to rec to a teen, Mamo is a good entry for any to-read list. Come for the queer witches, stay for the heartwarming magical quest and fantastic art. I had no expectations going into this, and I was honestly so delighted I started thinking about who I could get to read it. It made my whole day better reading it.

A Cozy Sapphic Sci-Fi Mystery: The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older

the cover of The Mimicking of Known Successes

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

In The Mimicking of Known Successes, Malka Older creates a cozy murder mystery in humanity’s distant future on Jupiter. I found this novella to be a delightful, satisfying read. The action clicked along nicely, the world-building was intriguing, and Mossa and Pleiti were great characters.

Mossa, an Investigator, is summoned to the furthest reaches of the network of floating platforms humanity has created to settle Jupiter in order to investigate a disappearance. The victim is a university man, and Mossa’s initial cursory investigation can find no supporting evidence of a supposed suicide, nor why the man would come to such a distant platform in the first place.  Seeking more insight into his politics and motivations, Mossa enlists the help of Pleiti, her ex-girlfriend.  Pleiti is part of a team of Classical scholars who study ecosystems and environments as part of a larger movement to eventually rehabilitate and return to Earth. Together they explore university politics, Jupiter’s largest tourist attraction, and their re-kindling romantic tension with each other.

I found The Mimicking of Known Successes to be an excellent cozy mystery and perfectly novella-paced. It was balanced between intriguing glimpses of world-building and the rising action. I adored how it had traditional mystery elements – a man has vanished! People are acting mysterious! Inter-departmental friction! – and at the same time, a lot of great sci-fi details. I was in love with the rail system and the descriptions of little businesses and industries that came about on Jupiter. But nothing overwhelmed the length of the novella, which is, in my opinion, a problem a lot of novellas have. I would love to read half a dozen more novellas set on this same world, but I don’t necessarily wish this one had been longer. It felt perfectly self-contained.

Mossa and Pleiti were also great characters. Mossa is intensely focused and not great with her interpersonal skills, but I liked how she was aware of her faults, and made efforts to correct them, even if she didn’t always succeed. I loved that Pleiti understood her though, and that Mossa valued and sought out Pleiti’s contributions to the case, even though Pleiti is trained as a scholar not an investigator. The tension of their past feelings for each other and the slow re-kindling of their relationship was great. I felt like there was a lot of romantic tension here for a novella but that it was well established and grounded, which was excellent.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a quick but engaging read, The Mimicking of Known Successes is a great choice. Whether you’re a sci-fi fan who thinks you could use a little mystery or a mystery fan who thinks you could possibly branch into sci-fi, I think you could come into this book from either angle and be satisfied.

Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?

Kelleen reviews Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

At the risk of being profoundly cliche (and profoundly redundant as I reviewed a graphic novel last month), I’ve decided to review Mooncakes.

I am not a spooky season gal. I’m a curl up with a cozy blanket and a hot cup of tea, watching Gilmore Girls by the light of a sandalwood scented candle while orange and yellow leaves fall outside my window kind of gal.

But somehow, I think this YA graphic novel is perfect for both kinds of autumnal gals. It tells the story of Nova Huang, a hard-of-hearing witch working at her aunt’s magical bookshop as she navigates mysterious mystical forces, rabid demons, and the sudden reappearance of her childhood crush Tam Lang, a nonbinary werewolf who needs Nova’s help.

This graphic novel is an absolute delight. The artwork is beautiful and cheeky, with expressive, evocative coloring and atmospheric detail. And the story is so heartwarming and entertaining! Part mystery, part romance, whole paranormal romp, Mooncakes is a captivating story that practically turns its own pages. The characters are empathetic and hilarious, and the relationships between them are so sweet. In fact, the whole thing is cozy. It’s the perfect quick autumnal read. It’s bite-sized, but it packs a punch of queer paranormal joy.

The writing is fast and witty, and the representation is off the charts. The world that Xu and Walker create is adorable, but also incredibly powerful: queer disabled witches, nonbinary werewolves, and a world with no homophobia or ableism that still manages to honor the complexities of these identities. They explore the nuances of what it means to have a queer sense of home; the powerful, nurturing friendships between young women; and even present an allusion to the epidemic of queer homelessness that is treated with tenderness and care.

It is such a comfortable, loving book. It’s a book about transformation and safety, and finding home in the people who love you. In my most humble opinion, it is the perfect read for any time of year, but especially for spooky season.

In fact, writing this review (while drinking tea and watching Gilmore Girls) is making me want to reread it all over again.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.