A Wacky Adventure Through Working Retail and the Multiverse: Finna by Nino Cipri

the cover of Finna

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Ava just broke up with her partner, Jules. They both work at an Ikea-like furniture store, but they’ve been managing to work different shifts after the breakup… until today. That’s already awkward enough before they discover a portal and are tasked with going through it together to retrieve a customer’s grandmother who wandered into it and is now lost in the multiverse. Don’t worry: in exchange for risking their lives, they will receive a gift card from corporate.

This was exactly what I was hoping it would be. Finna is a novella, and it feels almost like a montage as they run through different multiverses, including ones with carnivorous armchairs and hivemind employees. It’s a zany adventure that reminded me a bit of Doctor Who, especially the episodes that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Grounding the wackiness of the setting is the dynamic between Ava and Jules. You can see how much they care about each other and why they were together for so long—and why they broke up. Ava has anxiety and depression, and Jules is neurodivergent. Often their different ways of thinking end up with them clashing: Jules rushes into things and can be a bit erratic, which is hard for Ava to plan for and stresses her out. This isn’t really a second-chance romance story: there’s good reason they broke up, and because it’s so fresh, they have a lot of anger and hurt around it still. It’s more like a second-chance friendship, trying to recover any sort of friendship from the rubble of their breakup.

I thought the balance between the over-the-top adventure story and the very human main characters worked well. Jules is nonbinary and Black, and we also see how they have difficulty being accepted and fitting in, especially in combination with their neurodivergence. It creates layers of conflict: the life-or-death, sci-fi, world-jumping stakes of the plot with the complicated, painful complexities of their relationship as they’re forced to work together to survive. As you’d expect from the premise, it’s also an anti-capitalist story that explores the horrors of working retail.

If you’re a fan of books that use an out-there premise to explore characterization and relationship dynamics, I highly recommend this one. It was the perfect book to read in one sitting during a readathon.

Ghosts or Post-Partum Depression? Graveyard of Lost Children by Katrina Monroe

Graveyard of Lost Children cover

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After giving birth to her daughter, Olivia is struggling—not just with being a first-time mother, but mostly from being haunted. She hears voices whispering terrible things to her, a black-haired ghost is following her in her nightmares, and her body is deteriorating rapidly from her child’s never satiated hunger. And, despite her best efforts, she cannot help but notice that history is repeating itself for the worst.

Years before, her own mother tried to kill her. Obsessed with the idea that her child was a changeling—a substitute left by a supernatural being after kidnapping her own daughter—Olivia’s mother tried to make a deal with an evil spirit living at the bottom of a well, which almost cost her her life at only 4 months old. And while everyone always told Olivia that her mother had been a troubled woman with complicated health issues and a fragile state of mind, she is now questioning what really happened all those years ago, and what exactly is happening to her now.

Told from a dual point-of-view, jumping between the past and the present, Graveyard of Lost Children is the haunting story of motherhood and the cycle of fear and violence that gets passed down through generations of mothers trying to reach an unattainable standard of perfection.

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that motherhood is one of the most terrifying experiences I could imagine for myself. From being pregnant to taking care of a baby to raising an actual child, I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Graveyard of Lost Children was, therefore, essentially my biggest fears coming to life on page, right before my eyes, and I loved every second of it. As soon as I finished this book, it dawned on me that I’d just had the privilege of experiencing absolute genius, and I remembered why I so deeply love and appreciate the horror genre.

I would have expected this novel to be so far removed from my own life experiences that it would have too little of an effect on me to be a memorable story. However, having a lesbian take on that bone chilling role of motherhood and being able to see her, from the beginning, struggle with truly loving being a first-time mother, made Olivia extremely relatable to me, and I found it impossible to remove myself from the narrative. I felt so deeply connected to her, and it made the entire reading experience so potent.

The gem that Monroe managed to create with this novel really lies with its ability to convey how terrifying it is to become a mother for the first time. The narrative took its time to explore the anxiety and the feeling that people are looking at you differently or treating you differently or judging you for every little choice that you make. It then shows how an extremely guilt-tripping fear starts to settle in, making you question yourself and forcing you to wonder if you are in fact a bad mother who is making all the wrong decisions.

Monroe makes multiple fascinating literary choices with this book, one of which is writing a story about motherhood through the eyes of a lesbian main character. It suddenly becomes not just about the experience of motherhood, but specifically the experience of being the person within your couple who gave birth to your child. Olivia is a lesbian who does have a wife, but she is the one who underwent the pregnancy and gave birth to their daughter. This creates an interesting dynamic, because although it is clear that her wife wants to support her and understand what she’s going through, there is inherently a rift that is created between both women. As much as she wants to be there for Olivia, it is very difficult for her to grasp just how difficult it is to be a mother right after pregnancy.

Another indication that Monroe is an incredibly talented author is that she forces her reader into the position of an antagonist, driving the point of her story home in a deeply personal manner. Olivia is undergoing all these seemingly inexplicable horrors that are affecting her physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But, because she is a mother, everyone believes that it is all simply “in her head”; everyone, including you as the reader. Your entire reading experience essentially consists of you trying to figure out what is real, what isn’t, if you can actually trust the narration, and whether or not Olivia is losing her grip on reality through a postpartum psychosis or if there is in fact something supernatural at play. Her biggest issue is that she doesn’t know who to trust, because no one really believes her: her wife, her doctor, her friends. And although you are following her through her journey, Monroe chose to write Olivia’s chapters through a third person point-of-view which, especially in contrast with her own mother’s present-day chapters being told through a first-person narration, creates a distance between Olivia and the reader. By the very format of the book, Monroe forces you to perpetuate the cycle of doubt and pity by which first-time mothers often feel heavily attacked. It is a master class in making specific literary choices that not only make your story more interesting but are inherently tied to the message you are trying to convey.

Of course, aside from the genius that is subtly peppered through Monroe’s craft, she also has an amazing ability to write affective scenes and passages. Olivia spends so much time suffering from bruising and soreness and all kinds of pain that people feel after having undergone pregnancy, and although I have never come close to experiencing even an iota of that pain, I genuinely felt exactly what Olivia was going through. I felt my body aching as I was flipping through the pages, but I could not get myself to stop reading. It was a terrifyingly visceral experience that I would recommend in a heartbeat.

I appreciate that Monroe doesn’t try to sell you this fantasy of motherhood that is all sunshine and rainbows, but at the same time doesn’t villainize or discredit it. It was perfectly nuanced, very well written, and overall, horrifyingly entertaining.

Representation: lesbian MC, lesbian parents

Content warnings: postpartum-depression and psychosis, suicide attempt, attempted murder, thoughts of self harm, thoughts of harm to a baby/child, forced institutionalization, psychiatric hospitalization, paranoia, anxiety, death, graphic description of childbirth, manipulation, emotional abuse, medical trauma

A Cozy Queer Comic of Community: Matchmaker by Cam Marshall

the cover of Matchmaker

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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!

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

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Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

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I couldn’t tell you why I started listening to Why Fish Don’t Exist. I must have heard it recommended somewhere, because it was on my audiobook app favorites list, so I gave it a try as something that looked entertaining, but didn’t seem like it would requite my full attention. Like a podcast! I certainly didn’t realize it was queer, or that it was about mental health and the meaning of life.

I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of this one if you can, because the author is the cohost of Radiolab and cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, so this was a step above most audiobooks I listen to–it feels like it was made for that format. (Plus, there is an adorable audio bonus at the very end.)

This is ostensibly–at first–a biography of David Starr Jordan, a taxonomist who discovered a huge chunk of the world’s known fish species. It begins with a story about Jordan, about how his life work was catalogued in glass containers containing specimens shelved in the hundreds in his office–and the earthquake that sent them tumbling down. Surrounded by hundreds of preserved fish, broken glass, and specimen labels scattered across the floor, Jordan searched the debris, found a fish and a label he recognized, and stitched it directly to the fish itself.

How does someone continue to find meaning even when chaos seems to claim everything, Miller asks. When she was a child, her scientific father told her there is no meaning in life: there’s no creator, no plan, and we are mere specks in an endless universe. As she grew up, she struggled with suicidal thoughts, and went looking for meaning that doesn’t require a belief in God. Perhaps, she reasons, Jordan has that answer. So she sets out to do a deep dive into his life, hoping that it will lead to greater understanding.

This is an impossible book to summarize, and I don’t want to spoil it for you–which isn’t something I thought I would say about a nonfiction book about fish taxonomy. It takes some twists and turns, and it is simultaneously: a biography of Jordan, a memoir of Miller’s search for meaning, a collection of trivia, and an exploration of chaos and order. Miller realizes that perhaps the urge to have neat categories for all things (and people) is something that should be pushed back on.

Miller’s queer identity isn’t the focus of most of this book, but it is an important undercurrent. This is a book about imagining the world–and your place in it–complexly, and realizing that it’s a much more weird, unpredictable, and beautiful place than you could have predicted. This is definitely one of my favourite audiobooks I’ve ever listened to.

Content warning: David Starr Jordan was a white supremacist. This is discussed later in the book.

Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Landice interviews Anna Burke about her book Spindrift

Spindrift by Anna Burke

Anna Burke is not just one of my favorite lesfic authors—she’s one of my all time favorite authors, period. I love her dystopian lesbian pirate debut novel so much that I’ve convinced 6+ different friends to read it, essentially turning my Sapphic Bookstagram group chat into the unofficial Compass Rose fan club, and I credit Burke’s 2019 Goldie Award winning book, Thorn (an F/F Beauty & the Beast re-imagining), with reigniting my long dormant love for reading.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Burke about her newest book, Spindrift. A contemporary romance, Spindrift is definitely a departure from her previous work, but I found it to be equally delightful!

Landice: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me, Anna! Would you like to introduce yourself to readers not yet familiar with you or your work?

Anna Burke: Sure! I am predominately a speculative fiction writer. My first book, Compass Rose, is a dystopian high-seas lesbian pirate novel, and my next two books, Thorn and Nottingham, are retold fairytales (Beauty and the Beast and the legend of Robin Hood, respectively). But most people know me as Artemis’s dog mom.

Landice: That’s certainly how I know you! [laughs] But, speaking of dogs, Spindrift is a romance between two dog moms, which I loved. I mean, there’s a lot more to Emilia and Morgan than their dogs, but Nell and Kraken do play an important part in the novel! Is Kraken (a German Shepherd) based off of your own pup? These are the sort of hard-hitting questions Lesbrary readers are here for, obviously.

Anna: Kraken is absolutely based on my GSD, and another dog, who will appear in later books, is inspired by my Cocker Spaniel. I couldn’t resist! I love writing animals into my work–and not just because I love animals, though that admittedly might have a lot to do with it. From a craft perspective, how characters interact with their pets can reveal a great deal about them, and they can also serve as a humanizing influence on characters who might otherwise be irredeemable. And, let’s face it—us queers love our pets.

Landice: Very true! Emilia is definitely a bit of an ice queen at first—or, we can tell that’s how she wants to be seen, at least, because she’s still very fragile and sort of cagey post-breakdown. But her interactions with Nell and with other animals in the first part of the novel really help us glimpse past the emotional walls she puts up! And as someone who also struggles with anxiety and other mental illnesses, I really appreciated the care you took in writing Emilia’s own mental health issues. What, if any, were some of the challenges you faced in writing that aspect of the novel?

Anna: This is a great question. Mental health is a topic that is close to my heart, and is something that I–as well as most of the people I know—struggle with. Not only is it a major issue in the veterinary profession, but it also is something that the queer community faces disproportionately. I’m queer and married to a veterinarian (laughs). By far the biggest challenge I faced in writing Emilia’s character was figuring out how to faithfully portray her struggles while also conveying a sense of hope. She’s faced some tough shit, and will continue to deal with that, but she’s also learning how to live with it, and that’s where I wanted to put the focus of the novel. Sometimes surviving is the bravest thing we can do. Emilia is brave, and because I write fiction, her reward is new friends, old love, lots of dogs, and, well… a few boat scenes, let’s just say.

Landice: And what excellent boat scenes they are! The steamier sections of Spindrift are stellar, some of the best I’ve read in a long time, but honestly, the mental health aspects were what really stood out to me. You know that meme that’s gone around lately, “Sure sex is great, but…”? Spindrift reminds me of that. “Sure, sex is great, but have you ever read a romance novel that also has phenomenal mental health rep?” [laughs]

Anna: Omg, that’s amazing. And then there’s Morgan, who is in total denial about her own issues… As a reader (and a writer and a human), I really do think that the deeper the emotional connection, the better the sex/the bigger the payoff. For these characters, an emotional connection isn’t possible without navigating the emotional depths they’ve both sunk to, which also offers such good potential for conflict. And, you know. Some good flannel ripping.

Landice: Flannel ripper! Oh, my god. That is the best possible way to describe this novel, honestly. Why aren’t flannel rippers a thing in the lesfic community, yet? Can we make them a thing? Anyway, I know you’re currently working on the second Seal Cove romance, Night Tide. What are the biggest differences, you’ve found, between writing both speculative fiction and contemporary romance?

Anna: I feel like #flannelripper has to already be a thing, but it clearly needs to be a BIGGER thing. Let’s make it happen. Honestly, I love hopping genres. It’s like solving different puzzles, and it lets me explore different storylines and settings. It also keeps me from getting stuck—I work on multiple projects simultaneously, and working in different genres often gets me out of writer’s block.

It’s funny—I thought there would be larger differences. I did enjoy not having to create entire worlds and societies, and there was less research involved (though again, being married to a vet made the veterinary research component easy). But characterization and world-building are the same regardless of genre. [laughs] Probably the biggest difference is that I wanted the characters in these stories to be happy. Anyone who follows me on social media knows this is a big departure from the norm!

Landice: It’s a nice change from your other books, I must say. I love the others, but they definitely hurt. [laughs] I’d love to have you back once Sea Wolf (Compass Rose sequel) is out in the world, that’d be a very different conversation. But to wrap up, how would you describe Spindrift to a potential reader in a couple sentences or so? Aside from #FlannelRipper, what’s your elevator pitch?

Anna: [laughs] Okay. Butch bottom falls for femme top/flex, plus dogs.

Landice: Yeah, I’d say that pretty much sums things up! [laughs] Thank you so much for speaking with me!

Spindrift’s official release date is August 25th, but you can snag your copy now, exclusively through the Bywater Books website!

Spindrift Description:

Can a hot summer fling mend the hearts of two broken women?

Morgan Donovan had everything she ever wanted: a dream job as a large animal veterinarian, awesome friends, and a loving and supportive fiancée. But it all comes crashing down when her fiancée dumps her after realizing that Morgan’s job will always come first. And, while Morgan still has the job and friends, her heart is broken into a million tiny pieces.

Emilia Russo is a burned-out shelter vet. When the unexpected death of her father triggers a mental breakdown that hastens the end of her relationship, she retreats to his house in Seal Cove, Maine. She plans on spending the summer renovating it while she figures out how to pull the pieces of her life back together. But when she runs into Morgan at the dock where her father’s sailboat is moored, her plans for a quiet summer of healing and reflection sink like a stone—the attraction is immediate and obvious, and Emilia finds herself slipping seamlessly into Morgan’s world.

Each woman knows this fling will end when Emilia returns to Boston at the end of the summer, but they’re unprepared for the intensity and depth of their attraction. And, as the gales of fall begin to drive leaves like spindrift upon Seal Cove, Morgan and Emilia must each come to terms with how much they’re willing to give up to stay together.

Content Warnings: past suicidality, death of a parent (off page), mentions of animal euthanasia

Anna Burke with her dog!Anna Burke was the inaugural recipient of the Sandra Moran Scholarship from the GCLS Writing Academy and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. Her queer feminist novel, Thorn, was named 2019 LGBTQ+ book of the year by Foreword Reviews. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can usually be found drinking tea or playing with her dogs.

You can find her as annaburkeauthor on Patreon, Instagram, Twitter, or on her website, annahburke.com.

Landice is an autistic lesbian graphic design student who lives on a tiny farm outside of a tiny town in rural Texas. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, fantasy & speculative fiction, and her favorite tropes are enemies-to-lovers, thawing the ice queen, & age gap romances. Landice drinks way too much caffeine, buys more books than she’ll ever be able to read, and dreams of starting her own queer book cover design studio one day.

You can find her as manicfemme on Bookstagram & Goodreads, and as manic_femme on Twitter. Her personal book blog is Manic Femme Reviews.

Danika reviews Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Because this is the Lesbrary, I’ll start by saying that this is a f/m romance with a bi+ main character (and love interest).

I picked this up firstly because I really enjoyed Dugan’s previous queer YA title, Hot Dog Girl. I was also interested in the premise: two teenagers whose parents own competing comic book shops fall for each other. As the title suggests, these are ~star-crossed lovers~, but it isn’t a Romeo & Juliet retelling beyond that (at least, not as far as I could tell). It ended up being a thought-provoking read for me, one I’m still turning over in my head days after finishing it. It definitely wasn’t what I expected.

Jubilee is a cellist prodigy whose life is consumed by her music, and is currently frantically rehearsing to get a spot (and scholarship) for the summer program at Carnegie. Her music teacher and friends both demand that she takes a break and lives a little, so when she attends a comic convention, she decides to pursue a “con crush” with a guy in a Batman mask. Ridley is there to help out at his father’s booth–except that his dad usually wants nothing to do with him. Ridley is suffering from serious anxiety and depression, and is caught completely off guard when Jubillee flirts with him.

Their romance continues in text form, until Ridley tells his dad he’ll scope out the competition and report back to him in order to not get sent back to his mother’s house–and in order to live in the same town as Jubilee, who is oblivious that Ridley is also the mysterious Batman cosplayer and that he’s supposed to be spying on her for his frankly villainous father.

So that’s the premise! But what struck me about this story isn’t the machinations of the plot, but the details. Ridley is a character that I have not seen in a novel before. Top Ten by Katie Cotugno (another bi f/m romance) has a socially anxious main character, but Ridley’s thought spirals are disturbing, especially if you have any anxiety or depression yourself. He catastrophizes. He picks apart and criticizes every one of his own words and actions. It’s unnerving to be inside of his head. He also has suicide ideations, including a previous attempt. His family is abusive, from an emotionally absent mother to an openly insulting and even frightening father. He makes bad choices, but they are understandable because of how much we see into his reality. At the same time, I would warn anyone with anxiety or depression to approach this cautiously, especially because he sometimes feels like a burden to his loved ones because of his mental health struggles.

The beginning of Jubilee and Ridley’s relationship was cute: I could see how they both hit it off, with their similar senses of humour and love of fandom. (Ridley is a huge fan of Jubilee’s stepmother’s comics.) [Minor spoiler:] I was also surprised at how early on in the story Ridley came clean about his deception. I’m used to stories like this dragging on the deception, and I much prefer that Jubilee and Ridley get on the same page at a reasonable point. [end spoilers] Unfortunately, even after that, it isn’t exactly a healthy relationship. They are both good people, and I see why they’re attracted to each other, but it doesn’t work. Jubilee begins to spend much of her time trying to take care of Ridley, neglecting her own life. Ridley is dependent on her, and also feels guilty about keeping their relationship (and his family) a secret from her parents. They love each other, but it’s not making either of them very happy.

Of course, check the title again: did we really expect a riff on Romeo and Juliet to be a happy story? It’s the ending that left me thinking the most, however. [Major spoilers, highlight to read:] They don’t end up dead, but this R&J-inspired couple do have a suitable tragic and dramatic ending to their relationship. As shocking as it first felt to have Ridley steal his sister’s car (without a license) and try to drive them both out of town, it did follow from the rest of the story. Ridley is completely panicked, and feels like there’s no way out. He can’t give up Jubilee, the only good thing in his life. He can’t go back to his mother, and his father kicked him out. He is spiraling. And although Jubilee knows this is a bad idea, she loves Ridley and is afraid for him. She worries that he’ll try to kill himself if she leaves him alone during this crisis. She feels like if she can only say the right thing, go along with it just for now, she can buy enough time to save him. I understand this impulse, and I’ve been in relationships where I felt responsible for my partner’s safety, so it felt discomfiting and realistic.

The car crash also felt surprising, but makes sense. He doesn’t know how to drive! And maybe this is what needed to happen to make them both understand how serious the problem was. Surprisingly, the happy ending for this Romeo and Juliet is not being together. It’s in getting therapy. Ridley realizes that he needs help, and reaches out to his sister, who is eager to do anything that will keep him safe. He ends up going into inpatient care in a centre specializing in anxiety and depression in teens. Surprisingly, Jubilee also begins attending a support group for codependency. [End spoilers] It’s interesting to think about this in conversation with Romeo and Juliet retellings, which usually glorify an all-consuming, doomed love. Why do we keep coming back to these stories? What do we want from them? And what do they look like in the present day?

And, of course, to booked this Lesbrary review, I have to talk about the queer content. On tumblr and twitter, people often are looking for m/f romances where both characters are bi+. Jubilee doesn’t identify with a label, but she is attracted to multiple genders. She feels like an impostor because she’s only dated boys, though, so she doesn’t feel like she can say she isn’t straight. Ridley’s last relationship was an “almost boyfriend” who blackmailed him, leading to his non-fatal suicide attempt. Jubilee and Ridley aren’t the only queer characters, though. Jubilee’s best friend, Jayla, is a Black lesbian, and there is a little bit of discussion of how she is treated by the comics fandom because she’s Black, including when cosplaying white characters. Jubilee also has two moms, and her stepmom is Latinx.

Verona Comics was definitely an interesting and unexpected read. It’s one that left me thinking, and I think acts as a good counterpoint to all-consuming, unhealthy teen romances that are often glorified, especially in YA/teen movies. It isn’t one that I would recommend freely, though, because of the intense mental health issues, including a suicidal main character. If you’re able to safely put yourself in that head space, though, this is a compelling read that will definitely stick with me.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Advice I Ignored: Stories and Wisdom From a Formerly Depressed Teenager by Ruby Walker

Ruby Walker’s Advice I Ignored offers exactly that: good advice that so often gets ignored. It didn’t happen only to her. She recognizes it happens to all of us. I’m personally not much of a self-help book type of reader, so I entered this one with some hesitance. But I found I rather enjoyed Walker’s brand of sarcasm, wit, and heartwarming compassion.

There’s nothing revelatory about the advice Walker gives. It’s all practical. It’s all practicable. And it’s all been said before. What makes her approach different is how she makes it relatable and teaches you how to practice it. That latter part is often the missing piece of the formula when well-intentioned people dole out good advice.

She structures the book like this: advice, personal anecdote, tips to get started. The pattern never breaks throughout the chapters. This consistency is part of Walker’s strategy in offering her wisdom. No matter what the advice, a key component is to keep practicing it. Practice is repetition. Structuring her book like this makes it a brilliant example of how to take the advice and run with it.

Walker’s attention to detail stands out when she describes her relationship with her body and her body’s relationship to nature around her. She speaks a great deal about the physical difficulties that depression causes, and how she eventually gets herself out of those slumps. It doesn’t come without its strife, but she ensures the reader they are not alone, and that it’s possible to come out the other side.

Certain lines illustrate with spectacular accuracy the way the mind works, like this on about trying to listen to music while running:

“My mind just felt crowded when I tried playing some aloud.”

This description of the inability to focus on the sounds coming from one’s headphones or earbuds while engaging in exercise speaks to a greater issue: the inability to be alone with one’s thoughts. She addresses this issue in different ways throughout the book, and of course some solid advice on how to deal with it.

Walker delves into the danger of self-deprecating humor. She recognizes this “fatalistic streak” brand of humor is synonymous with certain generations. There’s a fine line between self-deprecating jokes and bullying one’s self. Walker takes the reader through that gray area, as some people often blur the two.

Throughout Advice I Ignored, Walker includes sketches and drawings to coincide with the topic. Sometimes they add a sense of levity and shine a light on her sardonic humor. Other times they illustrate what words alone cannot convey for the heaviest emotions. No matter what, they add another dimension to her voice that compliments the written content.

While as a whole the advice and wisdom in the book are nothing new, at certain points, Walker hits a note so right that it feels like a revelation, like when she talks about how people change:

“Lasting recovery means changing a little bit every moment you’re alive.”

This statement speaks to how change doesn’t happen like in the movies. There isn’t necessarily a dramatic, defining moment that becomes a turning point. Rather, it’s a winding path of quieter moments that turn into gradual change.

Some moments Walker could take the easy way out and write about mental health from a “general” point of view. But she doesn’t. She acknowledges a great deal of what influences mental health stems from systemic issues in society that cause harm to marginalized communities. Walker writes to her experiences as a lesbian woman, but she knows she doesn’t speak for all individuals that come from oppressed communities.

So many different aspects of the book spark a great deal of thought. The biggest message to take away is that change is possible, and it happens one step at a time. Most importantly, showing compassion and patience with yourself is key when you don’t get it right the first time.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.