Danika reviews The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw

the cover of The All-Consuming World

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Fun fact: the first Cassandra Khaw book I read was a paranormal romance called Bearly a Lady, about a bisexual werebear fatshionista. I really enjoyed it! But I found out later that this is very much not Khaw’s usual genre.  They usually write horror and sci fi, and pretty brutal horror and sci fi at that. Although those aren’t my usual genres, I decided to take a chance on this one.

The All-Consuming World is a little bit heist novel, a little bit noir narration, a hint of Lovecraftian, and a whole lot of gritty sci fi. Maya is a rabid dog of a mercenary clone who is ready to fist fight with god. She is entirely, illogically, wholeheartedly devoted to Rita, a mad scientist type. Rita is cold, withholds affection, and is always pulling the strings in an elaborate scheme. She’s manipulative, even cruel, and always five steps ahead of anyone else.

They both used to be part of the dirty dozen (at least, that was the most polite name for them), a group of criminal women. It’s been 40 years, though, since a job went bad and left two of them dead — permanently. Maya is used to waking up in a vat of goo, newly regenerated from her most recent grisly demise, but there are some deaths you can’t come back from. Now, they’ve got to try to get the band back together for one last job.

The universe is ruled by AIs, and Maya and her fellow clones are the last dregs of what passes for humanity. Rita says that the AIs are ready to wipe the last of them out and start fresh — but who knows if you can trust anything she says.

This is a fairly short book at 275 pages, but it packs a ton in. The narration style is distinct. Maya’s POV chapters — which are most of them — use the word fuck about once a paragraph. Throughout the book, Khaw uses really distinct metaphors and similes — sort of like a noir detective story, but with a bloodthirsty futuristic perspective. For example, “the sound unspooled between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White.”

Also, either keep a dictionary on hand or just bask in Khaw’s superior vocabulary. I kept rediscovering words I haven’t encountered in years, and then bumping into a good chunk I’ve never seen before.

This is definitely a story that throws you right into the world, trusting you’ll pick it up as you go. There are factions of AIs, each with their own values. AI Minds interconnect in a grand conversation. AI have elaborate rules for communication, sampling lines and voices from all of recorded human history: a laugh from Audrey Hepburn, a line from Leonard Cohen. Ageships are sentient ships of unfathomable size and power, capable of swallowing stars.

It’s also got some… unique visuals. Needless to say, the Butcher of Eight’s appearance is just as intimidating as the name. Also, we get a lot of detail of being awake during eyeball surgery, so definite content warnings for gore.

Most of the book is spent in the “getting the band back together” plot, which is good, because it lets us get slowly introduced to a big cast. They are all queer women and non-binary people, with very different personalities. There’s an ethereal, worshipped pop star that literally glows and has multiple mouths trailing down her neck, and a disembodied woman in code corrupting the conversation from within — just to name a few.

But the relationship between Maya and Rita is at the core of the story: Maya can’t seem to control her loyalty to her, even when Rita hurts her and everyone else in her life. It’s also just fun to be in Maya’s head, because she is so out of control: the only time she feels comfortable is when she’s in a deadly fight.

It’s a story about the defiance and audacity of humans, of never knowing when to give up.

This isn’t one every reader is going to love, because it is very gritty and sometimes stomach-turning, but I really enjoyed it, despite it not being a genre I usually gravitate towards. If you can handle nonstop profanity and gore with your existential heist stories, definitely give this a try.

Danika reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Lesson in Vengeance

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I feel a little “dead dove, do not eat” about this reading experience. I went into it looking for a creepy, unsettling read and then finished feeling unnerved and unhappy about feeling that way. So while I didn’t enjoy this read as a whole, that’s down to my own choices. I also started listening to this in October, when I love reading horror and thrillers, but it expired when I was halfway through and I finished in about a month later. Likely if I hadn’t have had that gap in between, I would have enjoyed it more.

This is a dark academia YA novel about Felicity, who has come back to her exclusive/pretentious boarding school after taking a leave to take care of her mental health. Last year, her girlfriend died in a tragic accident. At the time, she’d been obsessed with Dalloway House’s history, with its murders and rumors of witchcraft. This time, she’s determined to set aside the attraction to witchcraft and concentrate on her studies.

That’s when Ellis shows up: a famous (teen) author who is writing about the Dalloway murders and pulls Felicity in to her research. Soon, she finds herself immersed in a world of magic and murder again, even as Ellis tries to prove the Dalloway “witches” were just ordinary women and that the murders could happen without magic. Felicity has more and more trouble telling reality from fiction, especially as she stops medicating for her psychotic depression (a diagnosis the author shares).

If you’re looking for sapphic dark academia, this definitely fits the brief. Dalloway House is a creepy boarding school, and the students are just the kind of pretentious academics you’d expect from the setting. They recite poetry in rooms lit by candlelight, they write their essays on typewriters and eschew cell phones, and they dress like they’re in a period piece.

Part of the reason I didn’t personally enjoy it was that I have a terrible memory and have a bit of a phobia of it becoming worse, so reading from the perspective of someone who often lost touch with reality was very unsettling. (Again, that’s not a fault of the book, but with what I brought to it.) Ellis and Felicity also have an unhealthy relationship, with Ellis being manipulative and often leading Felicity into dangerous territory for her well being, which was hard to watch, especially as Felicity seems to miss a lot of the red flags.

I don’t want to criticize the depiction of Felicity’s mental illness, because it is own voices, but I will say I was a bit confused comparing the author’s note (and her Goodreads review) with how Felicity is portrayed.

This seems to be a divisive read, but I will say many of the criticisms I’ve read are just of the premise or it being in this subgenre. This is dark academia: of course it has unlikable, pretentious, morally gray (at best) main characters. And no, you should not go to this book expecting a cute F/F romance. That’s not what it’s trying to do.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love it personally, I’d still recommend it to readers looking for a dark academic book. I also recommend reading the Lesbrary reviews from Carolina and Sinclair Sexsmith, who both really enjoyed this one, for some other perspectives!

Danika reviews The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling

the cover of The Luminous Dead

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I read this in one sitting during the October 24 hour readathon, and it was exactly what I was looking for. This is about Gyre, who has taken a job to explore a planet’s cave system. She had to lie a bit on her resume, because she doesn’t actually have the experience required for this kind of job, but she needs the money. Soon after she descends, though, she learns a few new things about this solo expedition: her handler, whose voice she hears in her suit, is the only one guiding her. Usually, there would be a whole team, but instead, she has Em. Also, many cavers before her have died in these tunnels.

Em is obsessive about this mission, and she will stop at nothing to get it done, including overriding Gyre’s suit, locking her out or injecting her with chemicals to make her sleep or make her alert. This is, of course, on top of the already existing horror of this situation. It’s a claustrophobic space, and it includes underwater caving, which is deadly in the best of circumstances. Then there’s the tunnellers: giant tunneling monsters who will hunt down any humans they can. Gyre’s suit should protect her from being detected, but she has limited supplies to keep it functional, especially when things quickly begin to go wrong.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyre begins to suspect she’s not alone down here. She thinks she sees evidence of someone without a suit surviving down here, but that’s impossible. And there’s also a non-zero chance she’s hallucinating after stumbling on some mysterious spores…

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so it’s also queer. Gyre and Em have an… interesting relationship. She’s in the cave system for weeks, dependent on Em’s guidance to keep her safe, while also completely distrusting her. As they spend more and more time together, though, and get to know each other, Gyre finds herself reluctantly becoming attached. This is, to be clear, a toxic relationship, but wow was it compelling. Despite Em’s manipulation, I ended up rooting for the two of them, which just shows how well written their dynamic was. If you like the kind of Killing Eve dynamic in F/F relationships, you’d probably appreciate this one.

This is an engrossing blend of psychological horror and survival story. By the time Gyre realizes how deadly this mission is–all caving comes with risks, but this one has more than she was informed of–she’s unable to back out. She is always on the edge of running out of supplies, especially oxygen. As if being trapped underground wasn’t confining enough, the suit becomes claustrophobic after a while, with her desperately wanting to feel anything against her skin, to breathe air freely, or to eat naturally instead of having nutrients injected into her digestive system.

This ticked every box for me, and reading it in one sitting made me feel immersed in this unsettling story. If you’re looking for a creepy, claustrophobic, psychological horror sapphic read, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Danika reviews Murder Most Actual by Alexis Hall

Murder Most Actual cover

Clue is my all-time favourite movie, and I’m a sucker for any kind of snowed in story, so when I heard the premise for Murder Most Actual, I was immediately hooked. It follows Liza and Hanna, who have booked a getaway in a fancy hotel in the Scottish Highlands to try to patch up their marriage. Liza’s true crime podcast has recently taken off, which has left them less time to spend together. Now, they seem to constantly be bickering, especially since Liza feels like Hanna can be overbearing as well as judgmental of her passion for true crime. Hanna booking this trip without asking her didn’t help. But what is supposed to be a romantic getaway quickly turns dark as a guest turns up dead—and that’s just the beginning. Liza dives into trying to solve the mystery, but Hanna would rather lock the two of them in their room until the snow clears and they can escape.

I completely understand the Clue comparison: this is a murder mystery that is more wacky hijinks than serious drama. Many of the characters are over-the-top, including a femme fatale seducing everyone in sight and a private detective who speaks in a thick (fake?) French accent and refers to himself in the third person. There’s also more direct references to the game, including chapter titles that follow the format “[Character] in the [location] with the [object]” and characters being associated with colours (the colonel with mustard yellow, for one).

The writing also reminds me of the wit and weirdness of Clue dialogue. Hanna remarks, “It’s like she’s come to a costume party as the abstract concept of heteronormative sex.” An awkward moment is described as: “the words still hung in the air like really unwelcome snowflakes.” All together, these elements make it feel like a murder mystery party performance.

There’s an interesting contrast between this theatrical setting and characters with the sometimes painfully realistic depiction of a marriage on the rocks. The know each other deeply and care about each other a lot, but every disagreement is connected to every other argument they’ve ever had. There are layers of subtext to conversations. They walk on eggshells and take offence easily with each other–while also being protective of the other to anyone else. I think it worked well to ground the story and it gave it stakes, even when the murders don’t have that same gravity.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, partly because I don’t pick up on the little details that would allow me to piece the mystery together. When I do, I tend to not try to solve it and just allow myself to be immersed. So I can’t really evaluate how well the mystery element worked, but I will say that I didn’t see the ending coming. It isn’t a neat and tidy wrap up at the end: it’s messy and human.

There were lots of elements I loved about Murder Most Actual, but I did feel like the middle dragged a bit. I was expecting to rave about this, but I didn’t connect quite as much as I expected to. That’s an intangible, vague complaint though, and I still liked it overall. It was a fun read during December (even though this is actually set around Easter!), just as the snow started coming down!

Note: this is a Kobo exclusive title, so you won’t find it on other platforms.

Kait reviews When You Least Expect It by Haley Cass

the cover of When You Least Expect It

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is my first review for the Lesbrary, and I know that a review is only as useful inasmuch as you, the reader, agree with (or at least know the tastes of) the reviewer. If I, a total rando with no other qualifications than my sexual preference and gender identity, recommend this book, why should you care? (Answer: Because I have excellent taste. But we’ll get there.) So I chose one of my favorite books of all time to review, to provide you with a little info on what I like, that you might tune your literary senses accordingly.

Also, it’s just a damn good book.

When You Least Expect It is the story of Caroline, a humbug lesbian divorce lawyer cursed by Cupid who in turn curses the Christmas season and all its trappings. After a chance run-in with Hannah, the wife of a detestable former co-worker, she jumps at the chance to help the woman (and her daughter, Abby) navigate the tricky legalities of separation. A friendship and quasi-rainbow family starts to coalesce, with just the one slightly thorny issue of Hannah being entirely straight. Caroline, unable to help herself, falls in love anyway and resolves to just be the best friend she can be… until something starts to shift.

Now, in any romance novel, no matter how good, clichés will creep in as the story finds its way — the best writers know this, and will use (and, at times, subvert) them consciously, rather than relying on them to support a broken plot. Even a good chunk of the plot description above fairly titters with tropes, from the “pining after a straight girl” to “adorable precocious child befriends woman who only wants to have a family.”

This book does not suffer from those ailments. One person’s archetype is another’s starting point, and none of these characters seemly thinly drawn. They are not two-dimensional playing cards, showing their faces when need be and completely featureless when looked at askew. They are living and breathing in three dimensions, with hopes and fears and worries that complement and play off one another.

They’re just so gosh-darn relatable! Though I’ve never had an unrequited crush on my straight BFF (and yet to find myself in the position to a divorce a philandering millionaire), I still felt deeply connected to these characters, to the point I wanted stop reading about three-quarters of the way through because I knew I’d have to leave them behind at the end. (Spoiler alert: I’ve read it five times since April, so not entirely true!)

I also need to specifically commend Cass for managing to weave tension into the story without resorting to hacky contrivances (looking at you, every story relying on two people not taking two minutes to clear up a clear misunderstanding). Though there’s certainly a fair number of, shall we say, “twists,” they all feel earned and justified by what came before them.

While the book may not have too many explicit sexual scenes (an important thing to note for many readers!), it does contain a lot of downright pleasurable sensual writing. As a very touch-focused person, like Hannah, I very much appreciated the descriptions of touching, stroking and overall tactile interactions.

Here’s the thing:  I am an unabashed fan of romances, specifically lesbian romances. But I definitely did not expect to fall in love with this book as much as I did when I read it.

Which really, just goes to show you how right the title is.

Danika reviews The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I’m very picky when it comes to horror books, mostly because I’m a wimp and get freaked out very easily. When the weather starts to get a little chillier, though, I start to crave creepy, witchy, autumn-y books, and that’s when I start eyeing the horror section. The Girls Are Never Gone was a great choice because a) it’s sapphic b) it’s more atmospheric and creepy than all-out terrifying and c) there’s a water element to the haunting. I love haunted house books, especially The Haunting of Hill House (here’s my review of how it’s absolutely sapphic), and I’ve also been intrigued by underwater horror ever since I took an creepy deep sea museum exhibit ride as a kid. I mean, it was an elevator, but it was unsettling.

But you probably came here to read about the book. The Girls Are Never Gone is an old-fashioned haunted house story, but one with a queer disabled main character.

Dare was cohost of a popular YouTube ghost-hunting show with her boyfriend -but then he broke up with her, and now she has to start over. Her new project is a solo podcast where she investigates one story in longform. She’ll be investigating Arrington Estate, where years ago, a girl drowned in the lake on the property, and it’s been rumoured to be haunted ever since. Dare got an internship to help restore the house into a museum, and she intends to use this access to dig up the history of this place.

Dare is an interesting take on a ghost-hunter, because she’s both skeptical and hopeful about the existence of ghosts. She had to face her own mortality very young, when she realized she was dependent on medical intervention for her Type 1 diabetes (the author also has type 1 diabetes). Now, in addition to the medical equipment she keeps on hand, she also has Waffles: a not quite as useful service dog whose alerts are unreliable. She has had an interest in the afterlife for many years, and she would love to see a real ghost–but despite all of the investigations she’s done for the channel, she’s never found one. Dare looks for scientific explanations first. Still, she brings a whole collection of ghost-hunting equipment with her to the house, and she’s serious about the investigation.

There, she meets a fellow volunteer, Quinn, who also happens to the commenter who alerted her to the possible haunting–oh, and she’s a cute girl. Then there’s the third member of the volunteer team, Holly. All three of them develop an instant, easy rapport that serves as a nice contrast to the creepiness of the house.

Arrington Estate is a decrepit, falling apart house that always seems to be leaking water from the ceilings, regardless of weather. It’s beside a lake that seem more like an ocean: it has mysterious currents that make it unsafe to swim in, and it seems to be getting ominously closer to the house.

It’s a slow build, both in terms of the haunting and the slowburn romance. We first really get to know the characters, with a few weird things happening in the background with the house, like a glowing light in the middle of the lake or a glimpse of something in the mirror. It’s atmospheric, and even before anything particularly scary happens, there’s a real sense of Arrington Estate as a character with its own personality and motives.

I really enjoyed the podcast element — it reminded me of Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy (review), which is another queer YA with a bisexual main character who had a project with her ex-boyfriend and had to start over when they broke up! In both of these books, they nail the podcast excerpts: they really “sound” like podcasts–and ones I would listen to! The creepy atmosphere, on the other hand, reminded me of The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould (review), which I also really enjoyed.

I am very happy that sapphic YA horror is beginning to have enough titles to choose from! This is a perfect read for a breezy fall afternoon.

Certain things that will always mark a house’s age, things human hands can’t change or erase: echoes of laughter, late-night secrets shared, wishes made, arguments had, all absorbed into the walls. A house remembers everything it witnessed, down to its very foundation. And Arrington seems to have a particularly long memory— of what, I’m not sure yet.

Mars reviews Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen

Her Name In the Sky cover

It’s her last year of high school and Hannah Eaden is just trying to finish up her senior year with a smile before she and her tight-knit group of friends scatter across the country to go to college. While she’ll miss her little sister and her goofy boyfriend, the shy nerd with the kind smile, and the non-stereotypical quarterback, the one she’ll miss most of all is her best friend Baker, senior class president and the apple of everyone’s eye. Baker understands her; knows her quirks, has a secret dedicated playlist for her on her phone, and gets the kind of milkshake she knows Hannah likes because that’s just the kind of friend she is. With Baker being as sweet as a button, how could Hannah help but fall for her?

If I’ve made you think this story is all sunshine and rainbows and Catholic school without all of the intense moral discourse, think again. Desire versus faith, fear versus love, this story does not shy away from the dark edges of what happens when a lifetime of internalized dogma grapples with feelings that ache with honesty. While there are moments of levity as readers get to know Hannah, Baker, and their close friends (the self-declared Six-Pack), be warned that there are many moments when Quindlen goes for the jugular with your feelings.  

Late at night, after her parents and Joanie have already gone to sleep, she drives to City Park and sits in her car beneath the canopy of trees. She looks up at these trees and marvels at their existence, at how they just are what they were created to be, how they tower proudly on their wooden trunks, how they sway in the breeze and move their leaves like piano keys, and she prays that she can be like them, that she can innately grasp her existence and live it out without questioning.

Am I wrong? she asks. Just tell me if I am.

She never receives an answer.

The story is told from Hannah’s perspective, and we follow with clutched pearls as her year goes from good to worse to awful to actually surprisingly okay. There are moments when the author has your eyes racing across the page, and the characters themselves are as believable as they are compelling. Kids do reckless things, and characters act out of fear in ways that make you want to shake them (as they are wont to). The story of a deep love for a best friend slipping seamlessly into something more is as natural and timeless as gay ladies themselves.

At its essence, this story is a familiar one (my running notes were filled with #relatable) so I feel like it’s really important to state this part outright: it’s going to be okay. This is not going to be another one of Those Stories, and while the adults in this story are as flawed as grown-ups in real life, they are also just as redeeming.

Her Name in the Sky deals with a lot of fear and what I’ve been told is a lot of Catholic Guilt. This book isn’t necessarily for the light-hearted. While the author does a good job of starting us out with a playful and loving friend group, there are some really heavy moments as senior year marches on and the specter of prom draws closer. We are dealing with homosexuality in a very religious context, and the author never lets us lose sight of the fact that these characters are desperate as they grapple with reconciling their earnest faith with their desires.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you’re in the mood for a cry with a happy ending. The author also has an active tumblr which includes links to HNITS fanfiction, fan art, adorable original one-shots, and a free preview of the first three chapters.