Danika reviews A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

the cover of A Merry Little Meet Cute

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Note: This a HarperCollins title. The HarperCollins union has been on strike since November 10th, asking for better pay, more diversity initiatives, and union protections. Learn more at their site.

I have never read (or watched) such a horny holiday romance.

This is an M/F bisexual/bisexual romance that follows Bee, a plus-size porn star, and Nolan, a former bad boy boy band member, as they film a Hallmark-esque Christmas movie together while trying to keep their scandals under wraps.

I really enjoyed both Bee and Nolan’s perspectives—it turns out that an easy way to have me like the male love interest in an M/F romance is to make him bisexual. Bee is trying simultaneously to act for the first time, hide her porn career from the squeaky-clean Hope Channel, and fight against sleeping with and/or falling for her costar. If people find out that they’re having sex, that will threaten the image rehabilitation they’re both trying to get from this movie.

Meanwhile, Nolan is also struggling not to fall into bed with his costar. But what he’s hiding from the Hope channel is his family situation. His mom has bipolar disorder, and he’s usually home with her and his teenage sister, helping out. His mom is amazing and capable, but requires some support, especially with her switching medications right now, and he feels incredibly guilty being away from home–but the only way to support the family is with this job.

I thought this aspect of the book is really well done. We see his mom as a three dimensional person who has been an amazing parent to Nolan, and he fights against the ableist ways people can paint her as a victim or helpless. He cares about his family so much, and he has trouble letting go and trusting that they can handle problems on their own–he especially feels guilty that his teenage sister has to be so capable. This subplot adds a lot of depth to an otherwise romp of a romance novel.

In addition to discussions about ableism, we also touch on fatphobia, biphobia, and misogyny. While Nolan has a scandal in his past involving speed skaters and an up-and-coming figure skater at the Olympics, it was the female figure skater whose career was threatened by the media coverage. And if Bee and Nolan’s secret comes out (that they’re sleeping together), Bee will be the one to take the brunt of the fallout. Also, Bee has experienced so much fatphobia on sets that she initially assumes Nolan’s discomfort meeting her is because he’s fatphobic, when really he is just losing his mind because he’s wildly attracted to her.

Nolan already followed Bee’s ClosedDoors account, which I thought might be a weird dynamic, but it is matched by Bee having been a big fan of Nolan’s boy band, with posters in her childhood bedroom and some fanfics written about him then, too. So they both have the same degree of parasocial relationship with each other going into it, and it doesn’t feel unbalanced. They both tease each other some about it when it comes out, and neither seems uncomfortable.

The sex scenes—of which there are many!–were a mixed bag. Some of them were truly steamy, while others had language that made me cringe. But overall, I though it was fun to read a Christmas romance that had so much sex and sexual tension, given that they’re usually so PG-13.

So, if you want a last-minute queer holiday romance read, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Danika reviews A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar

the cover of A Million to One by Adiba Jaigirdar

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This is a YA sapphic heist story set on the Titanic. I’m sure most of you have already stopped reading to go add it to your wishlist, but just in case, I’ll keep going.

This is from the author of The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, but while there is a romantic subplot in A Million To One, it’s not the focus as it was in her previous two books. This follows four point of view characters, all of whom have their own reasons for wanting to pull off a heist that could set them up for life opportunities that have previously been unimaginable.

Josefa is the mastermind and leader of the operation. Thievery is how she gets by day-to-day, and this is the job that’s going to change anything. She wants to steal the Rubaiyat, a jewel-encrusted book being transported that is worth more than any jewelry the first class passengers are wearing. She’s already managed to steal some tickets, but she can’t pull off this heist alone.

The easy choice to join her is Violet, a friend who has helped her out on several other jobs before. Violet is a very convincing actress, making her the perfect choice to be the face of the operation. She can charm almost anyone, which will help get them out of any tight spots. In her real life, though, Violet is closed off and suspicious, especially of the much less seasoned additions to their team.

The next person Josefa recruits is Hinnah, a circus performer and contortionist. In order to steal the Rubaiyat, they need someone who can fit into tight spaces. She’s eager to walk away from her life and pursue something new, even though she’s never done anything like this before.

Emilie is the last addition to the team, and the most unlikely. She’s a painter who is feeling lost after her father died. She lives in a different world than the other three young women, making Violet suspicious of her motives and capabilities. Still, Josefa is adamant that they need someone to forge a convincing copy of the Rubaiyat to buy them time. And it doesn’t hurt that she also has a crush on Emilie and has been looking for an excuse to spend more time with her.

Each chapter begins with a countdown (3 DAYS, 7 HOURS, 25 MINUTES), because, of course, this is a Titanic story. While the characters are busy trying to pull off a heist, we know there’s something much bigger and more dangerous approaching. Meanwhile, they have to dodge the Matron suspicious of four young women travelling without an escort as they navigate their tenuous relationships with each other–including a budding romance. And they’re all keeping secrets about what really brought them to this mission.

As with Jaigirdar’s previous books, the main characters all live in Ireland. Josefa is originally from Spain, Emilie is part Haitian and part French, Violet is from Croatia, and Hinnah is from India.

I found it interesting how this diverse group in a very rich, white environment was written. Racism is mentioned in the novel, but it doesn’t play much of a role while they’re on the Titanic, and as far as I remember, homophobia isn’t mentioned at all. I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed a book that realistically describes how queer women of colour would have been treated in this situation, but it feels like this exists somewhere between an alternate history and a realistic depiction, which was a little hard to pin down for me.

If the premise intrigues you, definitely pick this one up, though of course keep in mind that it takes place on the Titanic, so you know how it will end. I sometimes felt like I wanted to spend more time with the characters and their relationships to each other, but that’s a function of the genre, I think: it’s more focused on the plot than the characters, especially with four POVs to juggle in a fairly short book.

… Did I mention this is a sapphic YA heist on the Titanic?

Danika reviews Eat the Rich by Sarah Gailey, Pius Bak, and Roman Titov

the cover of Eat the Rich, showing a skewer with meat, an eyeball, and a finger on it

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It’s Halloween, and I know exactly which book you should read cover to cover today.

Joey is meeting her boyfriend’s family, and it’s understandably stressful. They’re wealthy; she’s not. He’s worried about trying to stay sober back there. She wants to impress them. But she’s on her way to becoming a lawyer, so she’ll be joining the elites soon. She’s up to the challenge of learning how to blend in.

It goes about as well as you’d expect at first. Joey feels judged and out of place. She becomes friends with the family’s nanny, Petal, even as Petal advises her that being seen with the help will not be good for her standing in this society. As she explains this to Joey, the baby picks up what appears to be a human jawbone on the beach and begins playing with it…

This is a short graphic novel, so I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think you can probably guess that this rich community is eating people; it’s revealed pretty quickly. The twist (mid-story spoiler) is that it’s not a secret. It’s in their contracts. You retire, and you get hunted for sport and eaten. But in the meantime, you get paid well, you get good health benefits, etc. For some people, it’s the best option on the table. That’s capitalism for you. (end of spoilers)

This an over-the-top, gruesome, funny, anti-capitalism, queer graphic novel that I enjoyed from beginning to end. In just a few pages, I completely fell for Petal, who wears a “Loud and Queer” t-shirt and assures Joey that yes, she knows how awesome she is. I think I can safely say that if you like the title and cover, you’ll love this book, and it’s such a fun one-sitting Halloween read.

Danika reviews The Restless Dark by Erica Waters

the cover of The Restless Dark

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During October this year, I tried to pack my TBR with seasonal, Halloween-adjacent reads, and The Restless Dark looked like the perfect match. It’s a sapphic YA horror/thriller book set at a true crime podcast event where listeners compete to try to find the unrecovered bones of a serial killer. As the retreat continues, though, it begins to seem like the danger isn’t past…

Lucy only narrowly escaped being one of the Cloudkiss Killer’s victims, and she was the last person to see him alive. She’s gone on this retreat not out a love of true crime — a genre that’s profited off and sensationalized her trauma — but because she hopes to find closure. Carolina, the other point of view character, has come to try to assure herself she’s nothing like the Cloudkiss Killer, even though she may have killed her boyfriend. (Or maybe it was an accident? She can’t remember.)

Lucy and Carolina end up in a group with Maggie, a psychology student writing a paper about all the fascinating characters at this retreat. They almost immediately end up in a tense dynamic with each other: both Caroline and Maggie are interested in Lucy, but Lucy falls for Maggie. She appreciates that Maggie gives her agency, and she’s frustrated that Carolina keeps trying to protect her. She doesn’t want to feel like a victim anymore. Carolina, though, is worried that Lucy is beginning to become violent herself, and she knows how much that can destroy your psyche, because that’s what she’s going through.

This plays out at Cloudkiss Canyon, which the locals all avoid. It’s coated with an ever-present, unexplained fog, and the legend is that the fog will show you your true self, the one you fear and avoid, if you let it. There’s a dreamlike quality to their time here, and it’s unclear if something supernatural is happening or not. Carolina, especially, seems to be losing time, which is all the more worrying when it becomes obvious someone is hurting people at the retreat.

The setting and danger contribute to a tense, claustrophobic environment where everyone starts to turn on each other. They seem to be acting out of character — is it the fog affecting them, or is this who they really are?

This isn’t a mystery; I found it pretty easy to predict who was responsible for everything going wrong, but in a way, that just contributed to the tension, and I found myself compelled to keep reading just to get to the point where it all came to a head.

The Restless Dark is a moody, atmospheric story perfect for fall reading. I was completely absorbed while reading it, even if it’s not a book I found especially memorable. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s chilling without being gory, this is a great choice — and I always appreciate an F/F/F love triangle.

Danika reviews House of Hunger by Alexis Henderson

the cover of House of Hunger

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On paper, this should have been the perfect book for me to read Halloween month. I’m fascinated by the historical figure of Elizabeth Bathory, I love a (fictional) obsessive and unhealthy sapphic relationship, and this sounds like it would be a blood-soaked, sexy Gothic in the vein of A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson. Unfortunately, although I liked House of Hunger, I ended up feeling like it pulled its punches a bit, not quite living up to my expectations.

I find this a difficult book to categorize. At first, I thought it was YA: we have a 19-year-old protagonist, and the cover seemed like a YA style to me. It wasn’t until a scene mentioned snorting lines of cocaine that I realized… this definitely isn’t YA, though it does have a very readable writing style.

This is set in a fictional world that reminded me of Victorian England. Marion lives in the South, where she is barely scraping by working as a maid and caring for her angry, addicted, ill older brother. Her employer and her brother are cruel to her, she has no real friends, and she feel like she has no options. So when the opportunity arises for her to apply to be a blood maid, she takes it. She would live in the North in luxury, with enough money to pay for her brother’s treatment. Sure, it means her employers drink her blood for its health benefits, but that doesn’t seem much worse than the job she has now.

Her blood is deemed to be particularly high quality, and she is taken to the home of Countess Lisavet (the Elizabeth Bathory stand-in). There, she joins a harem of blood maids, all desperately in love with Lisavet, craving her attention. Marion falls hard, even as she struggles in this cut-throat world of wealth that’s so different than what she’s known. This is where I have some difficulties with the book: it sounds like it would be a scandalous story of orgies, drugs, and blood, but while there is the occasional unsettling and gory scene as well as brief mentions of sex, it isn’t nearly as dark as I expected. On the other hand, there are enough mentions and occasional scenes that I wouldn’t recommend this to teen readers or people sensitive to horror, which puts it in a tricky in-between spot to me.

The setting and plot were just what I wanted from it: the claustrophobia and helplessness as the blood maids slowly waste away, the passion and sudden cruelty of Lisavet, the dangerous devotion Marion has for her, the slowly-dawning realization that staying will eventually destroy her — but I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected. I felt a bit of distance from the story. This is one that I would love to see on the big screen, because I think it would be beautiful and haunting. But the audiobook didn’t really grab me.

Those are pretty minor complaints, though, so if the premise appeals to you, I still recommend picking it up. And of course, I love a good capitalism and racism commentary: the rich are literally feeding on the poor (especially poor Black women) and draining the life out of them. I think I just came in with such high expectations that even a good book fell a little bit short for me.

Danika reviews The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

the cover of The Book Eaters

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This dark fairy tale dances on the line between fantasy and horror. It follows Devon, a book eater, who is part of one of the aristocratic houses of book eaters (think vampires, but they eat books instead of drinking blood). She is one of very few women book eaters, which means she is primarily valued for her ability to get pregnant. (We only are introduced to cis book eaters.) She’s raised on a strict diet of fairy tales and is expected to be married to two successive houses, producing an heir for each and then leaving the child with them.

When we meet her, though, she’s on the run with a mind eater child. Instead of being born with a craving for ink, Cai craves human minds. She should have left him to be controlled by the house, weaponized and dehumanized, but she refuses. She’ll stop at nothing to keep Cai safe–including finding people for him to feed on, leaving them either dead or robbed of their memories and senses. Her only hope is to find the secretive house creating a drug that stops mind eaters from having to feed on minds to stay alive.

This book rotates between current day and how Devon ended up here, starting from her childhood. Despite having a rough idea of Devon’s past before getting those chapters, I was just as absorbed in her backstory as in the present day perspective.

From the premise, I thought of this as a horror novel, but despite the bloodiness and, well, the idea of a mother hunting and sacrificing people to her mind eating son, it reads more as a fantasy to me — a fantasy novel with teeth.

This is a fascinating look into the horrors we can do for love, especially maternal love. At several points, Devon reiterates that love isn’t necessarily a good thing. Her love for her son has left a trail of bodies in its wake. And to be clear, Cai isn’t just a monster. He is a sweet, intelligent boy who doesn’t want to feed on people. Despite her love for him, though, Devon knows her life would be better without him. Maybe the world would be, too. She’s daydreamed about his death even while stopping at nothing to keep him alive. Maybe that’s the horror, more than the deaths.

This narrative is also concerned with the gendered ways people are raised, and the limited set of expectations and imagination we have because of them. Book eaters are said to be without imagination; they can’t actually write any stories themselves. They can only conceive of what’s been fed to them, and with Devon and the other book eater women, those stories are carefully selected to encourage them to be passive and obedient.

Because this is the Lesbrary, of course Devon is sapphic, and she also has a minor romantic subplot with another woman. This is a small part of the book, but it was interesting.

I will say that this felt a little distanced, like watching the story unfold from above instead of being right in the thick of it. I’m not sure how to describe that or why it gave me that impression, but I know lots of readers balk at that sort of story. For me, it matched the generally thoughtful and even philosophical tone of the story, but your miles may vary.

This was a thought-provoking and unsettling read that is perfect for fall.

Content warnings: body horror, gore, violence, domestic abuse, and violence against children

Danika reviews The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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“She had never been brave–but she’d always been angry. It would have to be enough.

I picked up this Welsh dark fantasy heist novel because I was promised two things: a corgi and bisexuality. I’m happy to say that it delivered on both. And now I need more corgis in fantasy novels.

Surprisingly, it’s the corgi who makes an appearance first; Mer’s bisexuality isn’t mentioned in the text until about 100 pages in. This book is separated into three sections and has three point of view characters. Mer is a water diviner, and she’s long been on the run from the prince. She once was a weapon of his, and after her escape, she can’t stay anywhere for long. Then, a solution appears: her old handler, who was simultaneously a father figure and her captor, has left the prince (cutting off his own finger to be free of his signet) and has a plan to overthrow him. There’s a magical well that is the source of the prince’s power, and with Mer’s magic, she can stop it—along with a team of other people with specific skills. Thus begins the heist.

Their team will need muscle/an assassin, and that’s where they find Fane, the second POV character–who is also the one with a corgi. Fane made a deal with the fae as a young man to get revenge on the people who killed his family. As these deals often go, though, it turned out to be more of a curse. Now, he constantly fears accidentally killing the people around him, and he’s determined not to use his deadly power for his own gain.

Then (spoilers?), about 100 pages in, Mer’s ex-girlfriend Ifanna joins the team. She’s a thief, the daughter of two women who run the thieves’ guild. Her and Mer’s relationship ended when she turned her in to the prince’s guard. Unsurprisingly, though there’s a bit of a romantic subplot with Fane and Mer, I felt like she had more chemistry with Ifanna–or, to be more precise, I just didn’t buy the romance between Mer and Fane, even before Ifanna shows up. Sidenote: I believe this is a queernorm world, because no one comments on Mer’s bisexuality or Ifanna’s two moms.

I definitely think this will appeal to fans of Six of Crows and other heist novels, though this story is really concentrated on these three characters, not the rest of the team. I liked the twists and felt like it was well-paced, between building the team/planning and the actual heist aspect, which includes a tense sequence through caves that will soon be flooded by the incoming tide.

The mildest of spoilers, but important information for many: the dog is okay! In fact, I really feel like this book was written with the pet-lovers in mind. The corgi is just a fun, adorable companion during this fairly dark fantasy story, and he ducks out when things get dicey. (More unimportant spoilers:) Mer is mentioned feeding an abandoned dog in the first chapter. At the end, after all of the epic events that have taken place, this dog has not been forgotten. He’s rescued. This trope always gets me.

Speaking of spoilers (actual, for real spoilers, highlight to read): One weird note is that the text on the cover is actually a giant spoiler. It’s literally the twist in the climax of the story. So that’s a puzzling decision. Also, my only real complaint, other than not really buying Thane and Mer as a couple, is that Ifanna just drops off in the epilogue. Even if they didn’t end up as a throuple (always an option, authors!), I thought they’d at least stay in touch. (end of spoilers)

Though fantasy heist novels are not usually the first subgenre I gravitate towards, I really enjoyed this. The dark fairy tale tone felt like a perfect fall read, and who can resist a bisexual fantasy novel with a corgi prancing through it? Not I.

Danika reviews The Dawnhounds (Against the Quiet #1) by Sascha Stronach

the cover of The Dawnhounds

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This is a queer, Maori-inspired, pirate, biopunk fantasy with worldbuilding so intense that I will be honest, I often was not following it all. It takes place mid-war, during a tense stalemate, in a city that’s bio-engineered plants to be buildings, weapons, and almost everything else. Metal is practically outlawed. As punishment for crimes (or perhaps just for being poor), people have their minds wiped for a certain number of years (theoretically) to act as mindless workers for the government.

Between the intricate worldbuilding and the references to Maori culture, stories, and landmarks that I’m sure I missed, this felt like a dense book to begin. But the story of the main character had me invested enough to let the rest of the story just wash over me.

Yat was once a street kid who scaled the roofs of buildings, lurking in the shadows and stealing to get by. Now she’s a cop, and she is busily convincing herself that she’s doing good in the world. It’s not exactly a leap up in respectability, though, partly because she recently got caught at a gay bar, which goes against the religious government’s orders. (Yat is bisexual.) Now she’s stuck working the night shift, trying to prove herself trustworthy.

Instead, she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets shot in the face, and dies in the harbor… and then she wakes up. A god has resurrected her, and now she has strange powers. She’s a weaver, able to pull the life force from people and plants and direct it in different ways. She falls in with/is kidnapped by (depending on who you ask) a found family of pirates, led by a sapphic married couple that Yat can’t help but envy for their freedom to have this relationship outside of the shadows. Now, obviously, queer pirate found family is an excellent selling point, but I do have to let you know that doesn’t come in until halfway through the book. In fact, the description on the back covers more than half the plot of the entire novel.

Because this is the first book in a series and it has such ambitious worldbuilding, much of this book seems to be setting up for the rest of the series, explaining how the world works: who is at war with whom, how the magic system operates, the status of the gods, etc. The heart of the story shines through, though, and I am definitely invested. I’m looking forward to seeing where this story goes next.

This is being pitched as Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun, so if you’re looking for a queer fantasy with a fascinating and expansive setting, I highly recommend this one. Just be prepared to dive in and let the details flow past you, because The Dawnhounds is not interested in holding your hand through it all.

Content warnings: f slur, homophobia and biphobia, body horror

Danika reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

the cover of Our Wives Under the Sea

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I am a scaredy cat and avoid horror most of the year. But when September and October come around, I find myself being pulled towards all things creepy, witchy, and thriller-y. Of course, queer horror goes on the top of my TBR in those months. Fun fact: I’ve also been obsessed with the deep sea ever since I went on a ride at the museum about it. (Okay, so it was an elevator, but it was very memorable.) Needless to say, when I saw the premise of Our Wives Under the Sea, it seemed like the ideal fall read for me.

The novel alternates between two points of view and times. In one, Miri finds that her wife Leah has come back from an extended submarine mission changed. In the other, we see from Leah’s perspective just what happened on that trip that was supposed to be a few weeks but turned into six months trapped underwater. The short chapters make this a tense, suspenseful read, and I was equally invested in both points of view.

As for the horror elements, this is much more on the unsettling side than anything gory or shocking, but it does include body horror. Just the idea of being trapped in a small space underwater for months on end is scary enough, but when the submarine inhabitants begin to hear unexplainable sounds, things get even more tense. Then there’s Leah back at home, who doesn’t seem to be herself anymore. She almost only speaks in ocean facts. She locks herself in the bathroom for hours with the faucets running and a sound machine on. She begins to bleed from her pores, apparently a long-term effect from the pressure change.

While there are certainly unsettling scenes, this is also a story about love and grief. Miri’s experience with Leah is tangled up with her grieving her mother. The story unfolds in a distant, dreamlike way, and that grief suffuses everything. The only part I got tripped up on was Miri and Leah’s relationship. We get explanations of what it was like before, and they mention how much they love each other, but I felt distant from them. That may have had to do with the tone of the whole book, though, which feels like I’m viewing it from a remove, which I thought usually worked well for both Miri and Leah’s emotional states, who are struggling to accept their surreal situations.

If you need your plots to have clearly explained answers, this may not be the story for you. But if you appreciate an atmospheric, gothic queer novel that is more about emotion than plot points, I definitely recommend picking this up. It was exactly the moody, engrossing, unsettling story I was hoping for.