A Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

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When I picked this up, I was expecting a horror novel. And that makes sense, because it does have a lot of ghosts in it. But the ghosts are more a part of the setting than the plot; while they’re literally present in the town, their significance in the story is on the metaphorical side. I think “Gothic” is more fitting as a genre categorization.

We’re following Jericka, who has been bouncing from place to place her whole life as her mom kept uprooting the two of them. Now, she’s spending the summer helping to take care of her grandmother as she dies of cancer. What makes this a lot more complicated is that Gram walked out on Jericka’s mother and uncle when they were children — leaving them alone with their abusive father.

One thing I appreciated about Jericka is that she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. When she meets her Gram, she asks her directly why she left her kids and why she reached out when she got sick. This is not one of those books where you wish the characters would just talk to each other — if anything, there are times when it would benefit Jericka to stop and think about what she’s going to say for a minute before lashing out.

This is a quick read, and the writing can feel a little… sparse at times. Like Jericka, the author gets directly to the point in a way that can feel abrupt. But the strength of this story is in its characterization and relationships. The three generations of women in that house all have complicated relationships to each other—Jericka soon finds out some secrets about her own childhood that are hard to grapple with. There are no easy answers here. Jericka begins to build a relationship with her grandmother even knowing that there is no way for Gram to make up for the damage she’s done to her children. She also starts to see her father and his wife, who she’s only communicated with through the occasional phone call and birthday card.

Then there’s Jericka’s complicated romantic life. She has a boyfriend back home, James, and their relationship is… comfortable. She loves him, but she doesn’t know if she wants to try to continue their relationship long distance when they go to university. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a girl in Clearwater: Kat. Kat is the only one who talks about the ghosts in town. She’s not popular, but she has a fiercely loyal best friend who will defend her at all costs. She talks a mile a minute and makes a terrible iced hot chocolate. I appreciated that Kat was multifaceted and flawed, not just a perfect love interest. Jericka has been out as bisexual for years, so her struggle choosing between James and Kat has more to do with her fears about the future than any worry about what it means for her identity.

I suppose I should actually talk about the ghosts, but it doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to get to them. The characters and their complex relationships — especially family relationships — are the stars here. The ghosts, usually called echoes, are the manifestation of a central tension in Jericka’s story: the choice between putting down roots and always being on the run. The people in Coldwater seem unable to leave this town, but Jericka is tired of constantly moving. The echoes are the ghosts of the women who died when the old schoolhouse burned down, and they implore residents to never leave.

Of course, this is also a story about grief and loss. Jericka is building a relationship with her grandmother knowing that soon Gram will be dead. Jericka decides that although this is extremely painful, and although she can’t forgive Gram for what she did, she doesn’t want to continue the family tradition of silence and disconnection. She’d rather reach out even with all of that history between them.

I wouldn’t recommend this for readers looking for a terrifying horror read, but if you are a fan of family sagas and coming of age stories set against a gothic backdrop—with a few creepy scenes—I think you’ll enjoy this one.

A Lesbian Road Trip Romcom About Death: Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun

Here We Go Again cover

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I read Alison Cochrun’s previous book, Kiss Her Once for Me, and liked it, but I was not expecting to love this one quite as much as I did. Some of that is for reasons that will translate to many other readers, and some of my enjoyment comes from it combining my own random interests. Either way, I highly recommend this one, even if you have no experience teaching high school English and aren’t also contemplating getting assessed for ADHD.

Just as high school is such a pivotal time of life despite being only four years, my three years teaching and learning to teach had a permanent impact on me. I may not have been a high school English teacher for long, but I think some part of me always will be—and it’s still my back-up career. During those years, it completely consumed me. I would lay awake at night trying to figure out how to be a better teacher. My practicums were the most stressful times of my life. So it won’t come as a shock that I deeply related to this story about three high school English teachers. Unsurprisingly, Cochrun used to be a high school English teacher herself. (It’s also dedicated to teachers: “For all the queer educators out there. You save lives simply by showing up. Thank you. And for every queer teenager who became a little too attached to their English teacher. I see you. I love you.”)

Logan and Rosemary are rival English teachers at the same high school, but once, they were best friends. Then one kiss ruined their relationship, and now they can’t stand each other. It doesn’t help that they are classic Type A (Rosemary) and Type B (Logan) teachers, each judging the other for their opposing styles. How did they end up in the same profession? When they were teens, the only person who saw and accepted these two struggling queer and neurodivergent teachers was Joe, their Mexican American, openly gay English teacher. In their conservative small town, Joe was a life-saving presence for them, and they both followed in his footsteps.

Joe isn’t teaching anymore, though. He’s only 64, but years battling pancreatic cancer has ended with him being recommended hospice care. Both Rosemary and Logan have been helping take care of him, but he has a deathbed request that will be a lot more challenging to fulfill. He wants to die in his cabin in Maine, and he wants Logan and Rosemary to drive him there. Together.

Because the two of them can hardly be in the same room together, the idea of being in the same car for almost a week seems impossible, but they can’t ignore Joe’s pleas for them to make up and help go out the way he wants to. Besides, Rosemary has—unbelievably—just been laid off and doesn’t have a guaranteed job to go back to after the summer, so she needs something to keep her anxious brain occupied. So, she makes a giant binder of travel plans and convinces Logan to get on board, and off they set: a dying man, two mortal enemies, and a dog, all crammed in a van together.

I love a road trip story, and just as you’d expect, being in a confined space together forces Logan and Rosemary to communicate. There has been a lot of miscommunication between the two of them over the years, including Logan believing that Rosemary is a tight-laced, high-achieving, heterosexual neurotypical person with everything under control. In reality, they’re both neurodivergent lesbians, and Rosemary manages her anxiety with a desperate need to try to be in control, with a plan for everything.

The two of them haven’t been friend since they were 14, but neither of them moved on in the nearly two decades since. Rosemary keeps so busy with teaching that it allows no time in her life for dating, while Logan keeps her relationships to casual hookups only.

Logan planned to graduate and travel the world, having big adventures. But when her mother left her dad, she was determined not to do the same thing, so she’s been living with him ever since. This road trip is the first time she’s really left their small town.

As they travel, the two of them continue to butt heads, but they also reluctantly reconnect as adults—and finally address what actually happened the day they kissed. Logan’s instincts to run away from conflict mean that it’s not so easy to repair their relationship, though, especially when Logan refuses to grapple with Joe’s imminent death.

In the acknowledgements, Cochrun calls this a romcom about death, and that is accurate. I appreciated that it doesn’t have a particularly romantic view of death. Rosemary and Logan have to change Joe’s diapers as he howls at the indignity. Death is not a quiet, noble affair. It’s prolonged and painful—both for the person dying and their loved ones. There is a little bit of “Tuesdays with Morrie shit,” as Joe refers to it, but it’s not cloying.

(Spoilers, highlight to read) I also thought the first sex scene—Rosemary’s first time having sex—was especially well done. They both go very slowly, with clear consent at all times. It’s sweet, and since I’ve had some sex scenes completely turn me off of the book recently, I was glad to see it treated with such care.(End of spoilers)

A lesbian road trip romance + ruminating on death + both characters having ADHD + all the main characters being high school English teachers made this a home run for me, but you don’t have to have my exact configuration of interests to enjoy this friends to almost lovers to enemies to lovers romance. And yes, I cried.

Official content warnings: This book contains references to an off-page death of a parent due to overdose, and it includes the on-page death of a parental figure.

A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

A Comforting Queer Cozy Fantasy Comic: The Baker and the Bard by Fern Haught

the cover of The Baker and the Bard

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One of my favourite micro niches is queer cozy fantasy middle grade comics—which mostly just means I adore the Tea Dragon series by K. O’Neill. I have a print from that series on my wall. I have the box set. I have the card game! And since I read it, I’ve been looking for something else that is just as sweet, comforting, kind, and magical. When I heard about The Baker and the Bard, it rose to the top of my most-anticipated queer books of 2024. I’m happy to say that it lived up to those expectations.

Juniper and Hadley are friends in Larkspur: Juniper is a baker’s apprentice, while Hadley is trying to make it as a bard. When the bakery receives a very expensive rush order for galettes, the two of them set out to try to gather the rare mushrooms the recipe requires. Along the way, they discover that a nearby town has been dealing with something coming out of the woods and devouring their crops at night—a mystery Hadley is determined to solve.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot, because this is a short comic and would be easy to spoil. I’ll instead say that while they do go on a little adventure, it’s fairly low-stakes, just as I’d expect from a cozy fantasy. They make some new friends, including encountering fantasy creatures, which is a huge plus for me. I never really got past the Pokemon stage of wanting to collect and care for a variety of beautiful fantasy animals (though I never wanted them to fight).

Hadley is nonbinary, and there’s a little romance subplot between these two friends. It’s very cute.

If you like The Tea Dragon Society, cozy fantasy, or gentle and comforting comics, you have to pick this one up. I want a hundred more just like it.

The Song the World Needs: Thunder Song by Sasha taqwšəblu LaPointe

the cover of Thunder Song

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This was one of my five star predictions for the year, and I’m happy to say it lived up to that expectation.

Thunder Song is a collection of essays about being a queer Indigenous women in the U.S. today. It begins with LaPointe talking about her 83-year-old great-grandmother calling the Seattle symphony to commission a symphony. They politely turned her down, and she called back every week to ask how her symphony was going until they finally agreed. The making of this orchestral work also became a documentary, The Healing Heart of Lushootseed.

From this first essay, I was hooked. LaPointe weaved together the past and present, drawing on the stories of her family and community as well as the political movements of the moment, like Black Lives Matter. She discusses both traditional stories and pop culture. As the title suggests, music plays a big role in the collection, including her days as one of the only Indigenous people in the punk scene of Seattle: “Eventually this idea that I was a punk first and a Native person second became unbearable.”

I took so many notes while reading this that I don’t know where to start, because I want to tell you about all the essays. LaPointe talks about growing up being treated differently by white people than her siblings were, because she has lighter skin, despite the fact that they all grew up together. She talks about her struggles as a teenager, running away at thirteen, ending up in the psych ward, and then being emancipated at fifteen, living with six friends in an apartment together.

She also addresses the many ways colonization impacts Indigenous people today, from generational trauma to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls: “[when] one of us goes missing, we don’t get the front page or the five o’clock news. We get red dresses… I want my niece to know she’s worth more than a dress waving in the breeze. I never want her to question that the whole world would stop if she ever went missing.”

One image that really stuck with me was LaPointe describing the tulip festival that takes place on her culture’s land, and how it is a “petal-made flag of settler colonial triumph, a reminder that we have lost something.” Once marsh, this land was changed by settlers to be more “productive,” making it unrecognizable for the people who have lived off of it for thousands of years. Once a year, tourists make the roads impassible, celebrating this display of non-native flowers.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so Thunder Song also touches on the author’s queer identity. LaPointe says, “The first time I ever heard the term Two Spirit I felt a sense of relief wash over me.” She discusses how Two Spirit people were often sacred in many Indigenous cultures, and how the “shame [she] learned to carry is the work of generations of colonization.” She also mentions being in a throuple at some point:

“My partner wanted to know, Are you polyamorous? Meaning, Do you require multiple partners at once? The answer is no. But I do need the freedom to embrace my queer heart, to accept and celebrate it and let it run wild through the relationship.”

There is so much more that I want to talk about, like LaPointe’s journey to decolonizing her diet, or her complicated relationship with her mother, or the story about The Little Mermaid jacket, or her feelings about questioning motherhood, or the experience of going through Covid-19 as a culture where disease was part of an attempted genocide against them.

These essays are compelling and thought-provoking. All I can say is you should read them yourself! While they touch on heavy, difficult topics, this is fundamentally a story about healing and survivance: “There is something to learn from indigenous ways of thinking that has to do with courage and resilience, because even in the face of attempted genocide, of erasure, we descendants are still here.”

This is LaPointe’s second book, and I’ll definitely be reading her memoir Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk next.

“All over the world, indigenous communities are fighting for their survival, the survival of their sacred lands, their languages, and stories. Communities are fighting for their land back, for the salmon to return, for a stop to the desecration of sacred sites. They are protecting tribal lands in South Africa. They are protecting Mauna Kea. They are water protectors and knowledge keepers, storytellers and healers. They are the song the world needs right now.”

Content warnings for missing and murdered Indigenous women, miscarriage, racism, rape, addiction, generational trauma, and abusive relationships.

The Joy of Demolishing Your Life: Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail

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I read Delilah Green Doesn’t Care almost two years ago and loved it—especially the dynamic between Delilah and Astrid—so I couldn’t tell you why I took this long to read the next book in the series. I still find Astrid to be a fascinating character, the sex scenes were just as steamy, and I still really enjoy this group of characters… but it didn’t have quite the same magic for me this time around. There were elements I really enjoyed, but I felt some distance from the story.

We start this story with a meet-disaster between Astrid and Jordan. Astrid’s business is failing—which is even more stressful with her hyper-critical mother always looking over her shoulder—and this opportunity to renovate the Everwood Inn for the popular TV show Innside America could be her last chance to turn things around. Since she left her fiancé last year, she needs a win. Jordan is also in a tumultuous time in her life, trying to come back from a low point where she may have almost started a fire out of rage at her worksite. Whoops. Now she’s back in her hometown to help with the reno of her grandmother’s inn. Astrid and Jordan both need this to go well. But instead, their first encounter is Jordan accidentally running into Astrid, spilling coffee all over her very expensive white dress, and Astrid cursing her out in a cutting speech that could have come straight from her mother’s mouth. When they meet again at the inn and realize they’re working together, they immediately square off—which makes for great TV. But then that spark turns into a different kind of heat.

The most interesting part of this book for me was Astrid, who I was also intrigued by in the first book of the series. She is a case study in upholding expectations, designing her whole life to be the kind of person her mother wants her to be. Even after she walks away from the prospective of a perfect-on-paper (and awful in real life) marriage, she just turns her attention into trying to have a perfect career in interior design, without ever considering whether this is even something she wants to be doing.

I feel a kind of sociological fascination in this because it’s so different from my own experiences. I’m the kind of person who’s much more likely to reflexively refuse to do something when I’ve been told to, even when it makes sense and would benefit me, versus reflexively going along with what I’ve been told. I always like getting the chance to be in the head of someone who thinks differently than I do, and I appreciated seeing Astrid’s hard-won journey to living for herself instead of her mother.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, for some reason I just couldn’t get into this book like I did Delilah Green. It also had a couple of tropes that irritate me, even though they’re very minor. (Spoilers, highlight to read.) The first one is when a woman says “I haven’t orgasmed from sex before” and their partner immediately says they will make them orgasm. I could go on a whole rant about this, but I’ll just say that you’re placing way too much pressure on your partner to orgasm just to make you happy, which is more likely to backfire. The other minor trope I bristled against was Jordan mourning her relationship for so long and then suddenly realizing that actually that relationship was terrible the whole time and it was good that it ended. I’m not saying that can’t happen, but I see it more than I’d like in romance novels. I don’t know that I’ve read any romances where a previous relationship actually was good unless that previous partner died. In real life, relationships end for all kinds of valid reasons that aren’t “this was always bad and never should have happened”! (End of spoilers.)

Those are minor points I probably wouldn’t have thought of for more than a few seconds if I had otherwise been absorbed in the story, though. I can’t say what it is that didn’t work for me here, so I’m going to chalk it up to being a problem with me, not the book. I’m still going to read book three, because it follows my favourite character of the friend group. Hopefully, I’ll like it as much as I did Delilah Green!

A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.

A Sapphic Asexual Manga Romance: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Series by Shio Usui

the cover of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vol. 1

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I’m always looking for more sapphic manga with adult main characters: until recently, yuri stories between schoolgirls was about all I could find available in English. While some of those are great, I am excited to see more queer manga coming out now with other kinds of representation, including some fantastic F/F love stories between adults.

This four-volume series is a quiet love story between two coworkers. In volume one, Hinako is self-loathing. She feels defective for failing to fall in love (with men) and spends spends her time and energy trying to be normal through makeup, fashion, and unsuccessful dating. Meanwhile, Asahi is isolated because she had to raise her little sister when their parents died, which meant she had to grow up fast.

As the two of them begin to bond over lunch breaks, sharing donuts together, they struggle to define what they are to each other. Heteronormativity and allonormativity make it difficult for them to understand how they can be so important to each other without wanting a sexual aspect to their relationship.

This has a melancholic tone, but it’s also gentle and comforting. I liked the slow build of their relationship, and I was happily surprised that this has asexual representation. (The terms aren’t used, but both characters are probably lesbians on the asexual spectrum.) I also appreciated the side characters, like Asahi’s best friend Fuuka and her little sister Subaru. They added some levity and excitement to a more slow-paced love story between Asahi and Hinako.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon isn’t my favourite sapphic manga: it’s a little sadder than I’d prefer, I wish the representation was a bit clearer, and the conclusion is a bit abrupt, but I still really enjoyed it, and I’m happy to see more adult sapphic manga available in English now!

A Steamy Lesbian Historical Romance in France: An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

the cover of An Island Princess Starts a Scandal

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“A person could live a lifetime in six weeks, Your Grace. Entire lives have been changed in less.”

Picture this: it’s summer, your sunscreen is applied, and you’ve taken the day off to spend solo on the beach. You’ve already taken a dip in the ocean. You lay out your towel and get all your fun drinks and snacks ready, and you pull out An Island Princess Starts a Scandal: a steamy F/F romance set in 1889 Paris. Bliss. That’s how I read this title, and it was the perfect setting for this romp of a romance read.

I’m not usually a big romance reader, especially historical romance, but this changed my mind about what a historical romance novel could be. It has such a fun premise. Manuela is a lesbian engaged to a wealthy man, but she has a summer of freedom in Paris with her two best friends before she gets married. She plans to spend this time exploring the sapphic side of Paris in one last debaucherous adventure.

There, she meets Cora, a wealthy businesswoman giving off Anne Lister vibes. Basically the only thing of value to Manuela’s name as a single woman is a small parcel of land she inherited, and Cora needs it to complete a lucrative railway project. Manuela agrees to sell it on one condition: Cora needs to be her guide to the lesbian nightlife of Paris. Oh, and did I mention they already met once before at a queer sex club?

This made for a perfect beach read. I always love seeing the gay side of Paris in the late 1800s/early 1900s, especially the art and literary side. Manuela is a painter, so we see a bit of that: Manuela sees examples of women who have managed to make a living doing their art, something she thought was impossible.

That setting combined with the premise had me hooked from the beginning, and the dynamic between Manuela and Cora kept me reading. Manuela is reckless, indulgent, and clever, while Cora is more tightly wound and ambitious. They clash, but they’re also instantly obsessed with each other. Both are leveraging their power over each other before the land deal goes through for good, and they’re both pretending they’re fine with this being a purely physical, limited time fling.

I can’t leave off that this is perhaps the steamiest romance novel I’ve ever read. There are a lot of sex scenes, everything is described, and everything is described in detail.

I did sometimes get hung up on the writing style, because there are a ton of sentence fragments. They’re a stylistic choice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write that way, but they’re frequent. I did sometimes snag on that and get distracted from the story.

This is part of a trilogy of romance novels, each following one of three friends as their love stories play out simultaneously during this summer. I liked seeing glimpses into those stories, and though the other two are straight romances, I still might pick them up, since I had so much fun with this one. This is the second book in the series, technically, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by starting here.

If you’re looking for an immersive and sexy romance to escape with for a while, I highly recommend this one.

A House Haunted by Fascism: Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

the cover of Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt

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I feel so conflicted about Tell Me I’m Worthless, because it’s one the most thought-provoking and memorable horror books I’ve ever read. The sections I liked were captivating, and in the first chapter, this felt like a new favourite book. But there were also sections of this book I found unreadable.

I have to start by saying that this comes with strong content warnings (listed at the beginning of the book), including for rape, racism, transphobia, fascism, antisemitism, eugenics, and more. These topics aren’t just included: they are the central pillar of the story, and they’re described in detail. Be prepared for that going in.

This is a haunted house story, but it’s more about two people trying to live in a society so soaked in fascism that it’s easy to absorb it unconsciously. Both these main characters are bigoted. They’re deeply flawed. And they’re also compelling.

Alice, a white trans woman, and Ila, who is Jewish and mixed race, entered a haunted house three years ago with their friend Hannah, a cis white woman. Alice and Ila had a complicated relationship with a sexual and romantic element, while Hannah was always a bit removed from the other two. They each experienced their own trauma there that night, and Ila and Alice both believe that other sexually assaulted and scarred them. Hannah never left the house. Though Alice and Ila escaped, they can’t seem to free themselves entirely of its influence, and Ila convinces Alice they have to return to get closure.

While this house drives the plot—and even gets its own point of view—most of the book takes place outside of it, following Alice and Ila separately as they live in a sort of fog, unable to process what happened to them. Ila has made being transphobic practically a full time job, regularly giving talks at different institutions. The focus on these aimless, dissatisfied main characters is common in litfic, but less so in horror. Personally, I was drawn in by it, especially paired with the distinct, often meta writing style.

That writing style is precisely my hang-up with this book. Some of the writing was so effective, like the Hill House motif, but there were several points where it descended into pages and pages of hateful stream of consciousness that did not work for me at all. For example, there would be long tangents describing a dream or pages of a nonsensical auto-translated transphobic screed. At times, I completely zoned out. I understand what it was trying to do, but it really took me out of the story.

Still, it’s hard for me to put much stock in that when overall this was such a thought-provoking and powerful read. It’s a brutal book, but it’s purposeful and effective. If you’re looking for a horror book that will challenge you and leave you thinking about it long after you finish, you need to pick this up.