Falling in Love at the Food Packing Convention: Lavash at First Sight by Taleen Voskuni

Lavash at First Sight cover

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I enjoyed Sorry, Bro, Taleen Voskuni’s first novel: the main character breaks up with a non-Armenian tech bro, falls in love with an Armenian woman, and struggles with her identity as a bisexual woman. What’s not to like? I also appreciated the opportunity to learn about Armenian culture and the Bay Area Armenian diaspora.

Unfortunately, Lavash at First Sight is not as good as Sorry, Bro for one simple reason: it is too short. I am actually not bothered by the fact that the plot follows the same sequence described in the previous paragraph. What I don’t think works is that the novel reads like an extended Before Sunrise/Roman Holiday situation in which the girl has to leave home to find love on vacation. 

Of course, it isn’t really a vacation–Nazeli works for a Bay Area tech company, after all. (Yes, using PTO, but still having to do work is gross, and no one should do it.) The bulk of the novel takes place at PakCon, a food packaging convention for vendors and distributors. If that doesn’t sound very Jesse and Celine, that’s because it isn’t. In between scenes at PakCon, which features an old family rivalry (yes, there’s also some Montague and Capulet action in Lavash), Nazeli and Vanya tour some of Chicago’s sights while they get to know each other. To review, there are the plot beats of Sorry, Bro, PakCon and the reality-esque competition that occurs there, family rivalry, and a Roman Chicago holiday. As I said, Lavash at First Sight needs to be longer in order to support everything Voskuni wants to include.

Two quick asides:

1) If you like your novels on the shorter side, I understand; however, you’re not often going to see me suggest than an author cut/edit. Just write more stuff for me to read!

2) It is actually kind of a Roman holiday because there is a scene set in a Roman bath. No, really, there is.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that Before Sunrise and Roman Holiday don’t have HEAs. (They don’t, and I will not be taking questions.) The plot structure of those films won’t work in a romance novel if the expectation is an HEA. It seems like Voskuni knows this and inserts the family rivalry and the competition at the food convention to give the story a place to go, but those elements belie the breeziness of Nazeli and Vanya’s budding relationship. And while we’re on the subject of too much going in too little of a page count, here seems like a good point to bring up the fact that Lavash at First Sight is a fade to black romance. 

To me, none of these elements go together. Again, I think more time was needed to knit everything together in the most successful way. I liked the story, and I would have liked it better if it had time to breathe.

One thing that I really appreciated about Lavash, however, is the way that Voskuni deals with cell phones. There are text message conversations in almost every book that I’ve read this year, so my reaction to what Voskuni does definitely merits notice. Okay, now I know how this is going to sound, but hear me out: I miss long phone calls. I’m talking about the phone calls that go on for so long that you actually run out of things to say and someone falls asleep. It’s not like cell phones and texting replaced those—if anything, emails and instant messaging did. Plus, you can still call someone on a cell phone, and you don’t even have to worry about phone cords anymore.

What I’m trying to say is that I learned what “dry texting” was a couple of months ago. I mean, I already knew what it was; I just didn’t know that there was a name for it. This will come as a surprise to no one, but I don’t usually write short texts. If I send a short text, I can guarantee that something has been edited out (probably either an aside that begins with the word “also” or has parentheses around it). And, sure, in terms of texting, some people can do a lot with a little. Within the first few chapters of Lavash, we’ve seen multiple exchanges between Nazeli and the tech bro. Not a spoiler alert: he’s not one of those people. Nazeli’s first text to Vanya, on the other hand: quality flirt. 

The cell phone thing is a relatively small detail, but that small detail drew me in. In a genre that is well-known for its conventions and tropes, the small details are often what make us remember a novel or an author. If it isn’t completely clear by now, I wanted more from Lavash at First Sight. That said, I still recommend it, and I will happily read whatever Voskuni writes next.

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Sweet and Steamy Polyamorous Romance: Triple Sec by T.J. Alexander

Triple Sec cover

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Before this book had even come out (happy release day, Triple Sec!), I’d already been recommending it nonstop on Our Queerest Shelves. Ever since I finished it, I haven’t been able to stop talking about. It’s definitely one of my favourite books of the year so far, and in my top five favourite romance novels I’ve ever read.

This is about Mel, who is a bartender who’s jaded about love ever since her divorce. But then Bebe walks into the bar, and they have undeniable chemistry. Bebe is interested in dating Mel — she’s also married and polyamorous. Mel has never tried an open relationship, but it seems like a good way to tiptoe back into dating. This will be totally light and casual, right? They mutually agree: no falling in love. And Bebe’s nonbinary wife Kade is so intimidating that Mel can’t imagine actually being a part of their lives. But obviously, feelings don’t obey even the most clearly written out agreements.

I’ve long thought that reality TV shows are missing out by not casting all bisexuals. (Other than that season of Are You the One?) Think of the drama potential! The opportunity for different pairings increases exponentially. Since reading Triple Sec, I feel the same way about romance novels and polyamorous main characters. You can have two falling-in-love scenes in the same romance! Twice the first kisses! Two — or more — completely different relationship (and sexual) dynamics! I feel like I’ve been spoiled and will have trouble going back to two-person romances.

I know romance novels are so specific to each reader, but I loved the relationship dynamics and especially the dialogue. When Mel shows Bebe her tattoo of Pompeii and Bebe replies, “I love a good disaster myself” — look, I also would have fallen in love right then and there. I also liked the friendship between Mel and her roommate, who both agree to follow the good word of Saint Channing Tatum.

It’s also very steamy. I’m not going to get into it, but wow.

I enjoyed the ongoing rewriting of Bebe and Mel’s relationship agreement as they renegotiate things like pet names, catching feelings, and the dynamics between Kade, Mel, and Bebe.

While the central plot is the relationships between Mel, Bebe, and Kade, there’s also a subplot about a cocktail competition. I don’t drink, but I still found it fascinating to read about Mel’s different creations and how she keeps reworking her creations leading up the competition. Winning would mean she could buy her own bar, a dream of hers.

I also liked reading about Mel’s job: Terror & Virtue is a high-end cocktail lounge, and Mel is very skilled and passionate about her work — but it’s also customer service. It means dealing with drunk, rude customers and worrying about your next paycheck. In fact, the only criticism I had with Triple Sec is that I feel like the class difference between Mel and Bebe/Kade wasn’t really explored, other than Mel admiring their apartment and feeling a little out of place. Bebe and Kade are wealthy — Kade is a successful artist and Bebe is a lawyer defending workers’ rights.

That’s a very small complaint, though, especially since the ending didn’t go where I thought it would. If you want a fun, queer, polyamorous romance with lots of kind people learning how to best support each other, I highly recommend Triple Sec.

A Book and Herb Review: Basil and Oregano by Melissa Capriglione

the cover of Basil and Oregano

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Basil and Oregano is a sweet, safe, very cute and inclusive graphic novel about two girls who fall in love while competing to become top student at their magical cooking school. While chock-full of softness and cuteness, the story also includes serious themes that keep the stakes high. I never exactly worried while reading the book—I knew things would turn out well—but I often wondered, because how would they?

Each main of the main girls faces challenges during the story. Basil has attended the same school for years, but must become top student in at least two quarter-finals to keep the scholarship that lets her follow her dream, knowing her dads can’t afford tuition. Oregano is a new student whose famous magic-using chef mom expects only the best. Luckily, between their budding relationship, excellent friends, and adorable plant-puppy, the girls have a strong support network.

The Aesthetics

Biggest warning: do not read this book at the start of a shift when your lunchbreak isn’t until four hours from now, because you will be looking at drool-worthy food!

I don’t have the strongest visual literacy, and often the deeper meanings of artwork are lost on me. Luckily, this graphic novel mixes a literal setting with amplified elements to tell even a reader like me the important pieces of the story. The food, as mentioned above, looks delicious. The familiars—a mix of magical and realistic, like a puppy growing a leaf of a cowlick or a kitten with dragon wings—are beyond adorable. In some ways, the art style cranks up to eleven. But it also stays safe. Even when danger looms, something stylistic assures you: it’ll be okay in the end.

The Relationship

“Relationship” is a better descriptor than “romance,” because this isn’t exclusively a romance. This is a story about two competitors with mutual crushes who become friends and how that develops into something more. It’s sweet and gentle. Anyone who does any sort of cooking knows basil and oregano get along, and these two are no exception! They work well together. They help each other through different challenges, such as family stress and educational burnout.

I appreciated the lack of relationship drama. The girls sometimes worry about each other, but resolve matters with communication and kindness. It was just what I like in a story.

At the same time, other relationships shine throughout the story. Basil and her besties, Villy and Addy, are friends and competitors at once. Her dads love her, even if they can be so embarrassing sometimes. Teachers at the magiculinary school are tough, but not without compassion for their students.

The Conflict

If I have a criticism of this book, it’s that its conflicts are resolved too tidily. That might sound both silly and expected—haven’t I been going on about how sweet and cute and gentle this book is? Well, yes, I have. But to me, the mean girl crosses a line that is just not addressed when she eavesdrops and blackmails Oregano. Oregano’s mom is cruel, and it’s sort of shrugged off with a hug. This may be more of a flaw in myself as a reader. In a way, the book does challenge me to consider that: everything has worked out well, so why can’t I be happy with that? But I do wish some of the themes that challenge characters throughout the book were less simply concluded.

That’s my perspective, though. Maybe you want to read a fluffy book with a fluffy ending. Either way, I strongly recommend Basil and Oregano. Is it perfect by the standards of a nitpicky reader? No. Is it still a five-star read? Definitely!

The Herbs

Since I brought it up, both are delightful! Basil has a lovelier taste and oregano is easier to grow.

A Manga About Love of All Kinds: Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon by Shio Usui

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon Vol 1 cover

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Last month, I raved about She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Sakaomi Yuzaki. It was a pretty solid guess that I would also enjoy Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon by Shio Usui, as they’re both slice-of-life manga about adult women who fall in love while eating plenty of food (with less of a focus on cuisine in Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, to be fair). Both titles also explore the characters’ family lives, develop a strong ensemble, and feature asexual characters discovering who they are and who they love. Possibly my favorite shared aspect, however, is how each series presents the theme of acceptance. That isn’t to say the two series are the same—in fact, having some overlap in topics can make contrasts in execution stand out—but nonetheless, I would happily read other slice-of-life manga in this vein.

Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon is a complete four volume series following Uno Hinako, an office worker who fixates on being “normal” in hopes of attaining the acceptance of her coworkers, her mother, and herself. To her, this means maintaining both her makeup and her smile, as well as finding a boyfriend. Despite this, she doesn’t develop feelings for any men, nor does she experience sexual attraction to anyone—but when she grows closer to her seemingly aloof coworker, Sato Asahi, she develops romantic feelings for her. Asahi, however, has been too focused on raising her little sister to foster her own relationships. After the first volume, an additional wrinkle occurs when Asahi’s long-time friend shows up out of the blue.

My favorite part of this series was definitely how the relationships unfolded. Even when the characters don’t understand their own wants, or when their desires conflict, they wade through those murky waters. This series celebrates love of all kinds, demonstrating that no type of love is lesser than any other, while acknowledging the heartache and complexities that love brings. Conflicts between characters are not introduced and drawn out for the sake of pointless drama, but exist to explore these complexities and push the characters to grow more fully into themselves. Without spoiling anything past volume one, I wasn’t initially sure whether I would enjoy the addition of the final character I mentioned, but her arc ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the story. 

As I said, this series focuses on the idea of acceptance. While She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat uses the motif of cookie cutters to represent that people come in all forms, Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon posits that like both doughnuts and phases of the moon, people don’t have to seem whole in order to be worth cherishing. As also stated, both series feature asexual protagonists. In She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat, the words asexual and lesbian are used and defined on the page. While of course there is a place for works that explicitly label and describe sexuality, I appreciated how Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon manages to show the characters working through their feelings without having to break out an infographic. Having words for your identity can be incredibly important, but it can be equally important to show characters simply experiencing these feelings and being able to create their own happiness, regardless of what terminology they have access to. 

To be clear, none of these comparisons are meant to undermine either work. I do, however, have to say that after reading Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon, I had renewed appreciation for how the art and storytelling in She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat managed to feel grounded in a way that suited the maturity of its characters, while maintaining those classic shoujo blushes and warm fuzzy feelings. At times, the execution of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon didn’t feel particularly distinguishable from a high school manga. The mangaka even mentions in one author’s note that the characters are almost like teenagers at times, so perhaps it was intentional to bring this youthful feeling to a story about adult characters. 

Ultimately, this series may have based its motifs around the idea of not being whole, but it certainly didn’t leave me feeling empty.

Content warnings: one instance of homophobia from a family member, depictions of pressure for women to conform to femininity and heteronormativity, and an occasional appearance from a boss who is a bit of a creep

A Sapphic Sherlock Series in Space: The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles by Malka Older

the cover of The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles

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The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is Malka Older’s second novella in the Mossa and Pleiti series, set in the far future, when the last of humanity is in a thriving colony on Jupiter amidst an expanding series of platforms and rails. Like the the first novella, The Mimicking of Known Successes, Unnecessary Obstacles is a murder mystery, with the inscrutable but brilliant detective Mossa taking the lead on investigating a series of disappearing persons cases and her girlfriend Pleiti filling in the vital gaps with her academic connections and slightly superior people skills.  

This novella series perfectly fits the cozy mystery niche. While there is a little danger for spice, Mossa and Pleiti spend most of their time hunting down leads and deciphering what they find, letting a reader sit back and enjoy the ride. As a second book, I really enjoyed that Mossa and Pleiti are working to settle into their relationship. I also like that this book fills out their characters a little more. There’s a fun field trip to Jupiter’s moon, where Mossa grew up, which fills out a little of Mossa’s character and a little of Jupiter’s society. It was interesting to see the sentiment towards a shuttle ride and driving their own vehicle versus the ubiquitous rail cars of the planet. And Pleiti, who in her role at the university is attempting to reconstruct an Earth-style garden, is dealing with the political fallout of the first novella. I enjoyed seeing them work together again, more deliberately this time, and I enjoyed that their search led them to different areas than the first book. They also take a long distance railcar trip, which I found a delightful idea and I can’t believe isn’t a romantic novelty trip on Jupiter.

Although I did ultimately enjoy this novella and have a fun time reading it, I did feel like this one was a little slower compared to the first—the mystery didn’t seem as urgent, and although we did get some new environments on the moon and in the student clubs, I found that this book had fewer of the really cozy world-building details from the first one—or maybe it’s that there were more locations but we passed through most of them fairly quickly. I also felt like, while Mossa had taken their new relationship status to heart and was intent on improving upon her own shortcomings, Pleiti felt stuck in her past mindsets. Mossa was strangely the one doing the best communication in this book, which Pleiti should really think about in my opinion. However, I still liked this book and would read several more in this series —hopefully with more world-building and relationship development each time. I think this Jupiter colony is so fascinating, and this is a series that could sustain an whole progression of mysteries without being too repetitive. 

In conclusion, this series is one of my favorite recent sci-fi developments. I love that the recent trend towards really developing novellas has given scope for amazing authors to present us with fun little stories that aren’t doorstops. Sci-fi and mystery is also a pairing of genres that I love. If you enjoyed The Mimicking of Known Successes, this book is a nice treat, and if you’re looking for a short cozy read, you should definitely add this to your list. 

Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

An Emotional Demon Hunter Romance: The Fall That Saved Us by Tamara Jerée

The Fall That Saved Us cover

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Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us centers around Cassiel, a former demon hunter who has left her abusive family behind in favor of a quiet life in a little bookshop she now runs. When a succubus named Avitue shows up one day, the two fall into a dangerous albeit passionate love affair that threatens both of their places in the world.

Despite such high stakes, this is a deeply personal book. In fact, when I think about this book, the word that jumps to mind is affectionate. This book had so much affection for its characters and their journeys, and it made it so easy for me to share that affection. While this book felt really heavy at the beginning, due to all of the religious trauma Cassiel was working through (and boy does this book do religious trauma really well!), by the end I was left feeling lighter. The relationships certainly helped with that, but even more so was the book’s emphasis on being kind, both to yourself and to others.

As for the relationships, I don’t only mean the romantic relationship between Cassiel and Avitue, though of course that is the main one. Cassiel’s friendship with her neighbor Ana, a witch who runs a nearby cafe and who gently but firmly encourages Cassiel to open up about her past when she’s ready, was a particular light. Likewise, the more complicated relationship with Zuriel, the sister who stayed behind, will likely resonate with many readers who come from difficult family situations.

Something I really appreciated with Cassiel and Avitue’s romance was the honesty. With a setup like this one, I find I expect a lot of secrecy and drama of the “how can I trust you!” variety. To my delight, however, Avitue was clear almost from the beginning about who she was, why she was here, and what each of them was risking by being together. This allowed the focus to remain on the actual building of a relationship, and it also made room for much more interesting conversations about how people deserve to be treated and what kind of future there is for a mostly-mortal and an immortal demon.

The only criticism I had was the pacing felt a bit off at the beginning, almost like things were being skipped over or time was moving weirdly or something I could never quite put my finger on. However, I didn’t notice that as an issue in the second half. While some might say the final conflict wrapped up rather quickly, that’s a feature for me rather than a bug, and honestly, I do think that choice ultimately served the book better as a whole. This is very much a character-driven book, and a drawn-out battle would almost feel like a detraction from a story that should center on Cassiel’s internal journey.

I am certainly planning on checking out Tamara Jerée’s next book, and if they ever wrote another book in this world (maybe about Zuriel and/or Ana), I would read it without hesitation. Though I would suggest  taking care if one struggles with religious themes, I heartily recommend Tamara Jerée’s The Fall That Saved Us.

The Magic of Community: Brooms by Jasmine Walls and Teo DuVall

cover of Brooms

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Brooms is a YA graphic novel created by Jasmine Walls (writer) and Teo DuVall (illustrator) and published in 2023 by Levine Querido. It is set in an alternate 1930s Mississippi where magic flows all around, but is heavily restricted. Only certain people are allowed to learn certain types of magic to be used only in certain situations, with offenders punished by having their magical abilities locked away. Native American children showing magical abilities are rounded up and sent to government schools where they can learn “proper magic”. 

Despite the law’s best efforts, there’s one type of magical activity that continues to thrive: underground broom racing. Every weekend, teams of thrill seekers meetup to see who can take home the prize money for being the best. One such team is the Night Storms. Led by their captain Billie Mae, the team includes her best friend Loretta, Cheng Kwan, Mattie, and Emma. Together, they hope to make enough money to make their dreams come true.     

The greatest strength of Brooms is its worldbuilding. The setting of a magical 1930s Mississippi feels unique as it’s not a setting that has often been explored. By emphasizing history accuracy, Jasmine Walls shines a light on the queer communities that existed at that time but have long been ignored. The diversity of characters is also phenomenal. Mattie and Emma are mixed Black and Choctaw. Luella, their cousin who introduces them to the rest of the team, is mixed Choctaw and Mexican. Cheng Kwan is transgender and Chinese American. Emma is Deaf and speaks Indian Sign Language. Billy Mae and Loretta are Black and suffer from chronic illness and disability. Billie Mae and Luella are in a relationship with one another. Other broom racing teams include characters who are nonbinary, amputees, or come from other cultural backgrounds. Through this diversity, Jasmine Walls succeeds in showcasing people who have long been underrepresented in the media, including fantasy media. It gives every queer, BIPOC, and disabled reader the chance to see themselves as a part of the magical community of Brooms

Brooms also does a great job of developing its main characters and their relationships. The main cast is fairly large, consisting of the five racers and Luella. Through a combination of the main story and flashbacks, we get to see how this small chosen family came to be and how they continue to support each other. Luella and Billie Mae also get these really sweet moments together that show how deep their love for each other is. This made for characters and relationships that felt fully fleshed out. I was able to feel a strong connection with each and every one of them. It also made it harder for me to put the book down. I just had to know how their stories ended! 

I appreciate how Jasmine Walls was able to convey an overall hopeful tone while also clearly conveying the danger the characters are facing. Throughout the novel we are shown the very imminent threat that the girls and their community are under without ever slipping into a darker tone. We see racism and oppression, but never in its full brutality. These scenes are balanced with ones that show that, despite that oppression, the characters’ spirits never falter. They continue to support each other and their community in the face of overwhelming bigotry. To me, this feels like the perfect balance to aim for in a YA graphic novel. The people most likely reading this book may be dealing with real bigotry in their daily lives; they don’t always need to see it in their books too. They need hope and, in that regard, Brooms succeeds in giving them that. 

I found the story’s focus on the power of community incredibly resonant. Brooms isn’t a story about a group of people coming together to overthrow racist and bigoted power structures. Instead, it’s a story of how finding and building a supportive community can help people survive and thrive in spite of the dangers that surround them. It shows the reader that there is hope in community as long as its members stick together and look out for each other. It’s a message that we need more than ever. 

Brooms is also a really pretty graphic novel. The contrast between the earthy tones of the daytime scenes and the vibrant colors of the magical night races give these events a wondrous quality. It provides a nice contrast between a world that shuns non-White magic and one in which everyone is welcome and loved. The broom races also have this dynamic quality in their rendering that helps convey a sense of speed and danger, making for a thrilling read.

In the end, I enjoyed my time with Brooms. It is a well written and beautifully illustrated story that showcases the power of hope and strength of community. Through its historical setting and diverse cast, it highlights the simple fact that queer communities have always existed and will continue to exist into the future. It’s a message that every queer person, no matter their age, needs to hear.

A Belated Bi Awakening: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Imogen Scott has endless experience as a straight queer ally. Her friends are pan and bi, her sister is out, and she never misses a Pride Alliance meeting. While visiting her best friend Lili at college, who has her own little queer community, Imogen takes “supportive” a step further. She pretends to be Lili’s ex-girlfriend and bi. The longer she wears the label, the more she wonders if it fits… especially when she’s in the company of Lili’s new friend, Tessa. Can Imogen keep her story straight, or is she finally starting to see who’s staring at her in the mirror?

This recent streak of bi/sapphic YA books (One Last Stop, Perfect on Paper, and now this) has left me slain. It’s all too much. I am FEELING too much. Be still, thy bi heart.

In all seriousness, this is the exact story little baby bi me needed back in high school, and I’m so glad it’s on shelves for adolescent readers now. There’s SO MUCH to discuss: the themes of self-identity, friendship, and coming-of-age so perfectly layered to make Imogen so obviously (I had to) exactly who she is. Imogen’s “bunny” brain is a realistic mental chaos of self-doubt and queer questioning. Everyone assumes straight is the default, when really, it should be bi until proven otherwise. Most people aren’t given the chance to question their sexuality, to explore who they are, instead establishing themselves in a pre-determined box. I’ve been there, and Imogen’s constant questioning and confusion make her emotions all the more real. She questions if queerness looks a certain way, or if we’re supposed to have our queer awakenings by a certain time, or if we’re supposed to be certain, but how could we with the constant DISCOURSE over everything? Imogen’s voice leaps off the page, making her easy to like; a character you want to follow to the end. Lili is everything as a best friend (and queer mentor), while Gretchen so perfectly straddles the line between well-meaning and toxic. We’ve all had that friend we realized (almost too little, too late) wasn’t looking out for our best interests, the one in the back of your head spinning every worst fear until it became a play-it-on repeat thought. Though she could have felt too extreme, we see why Imogen hears Gretchen out, why Imogen gives her a second chance, allowing her to become the cranked-up monster of self-doubt in Imogen’s head. Also, The Owl House, One Last Stop, and Sailor Moon mentions were everything.

This had an awkward start for me, namely because of all the names and identities we’re given in the first few chapters. It felt like Imogen’s younger, queer sister was less of a character and more of a plot piece (both to prove that Imogen was surrounded by self-aware queers and to show what queerness looked like in Imogen’s eyes). She doesn’t have some cute scenes with Imogen until the end, and by that point, I wanted more.

Recommended for fans of Perfect on Paper and One Last Stop.

The Vibes

❤️ Young Adult
❤️ Queer Cast
❤️ Bisexual FMC
❤️ College/Coming-of-Age
❤️ Identity
❤️ Romance & Friendship

💬 Quotes

❝ The only way to let someone into your reality is to retell it. ❞

❝ One girl can’t topple your entire sexuality, right? ❞

❝ All these moments, scattered and separate. All these disconnected dots. ❞

❝ Then she buries her face in the crook of my neck, and every breath she breathes feels like a love letter. ❞

❝ How I felt. Dizzy, off- balance, unsteady. Like my bones were too big for my body. Like I couldn’t zip myself closed. Like I’d colored outside my own outline, stepped out of frame, made myself three- dimensional. ❞

Grumpy/Sunshine Behind the Bar: In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins

In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins cover

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In Walked Trouble, Dana Hawkins’s newest novel, takes us away from the coffee shop of Not in the Plan and into Nueve’s, a Puerto Rican bar and restaurant that should totally exist. (Has anyone else noticed just how many great concepts for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, films, TV series, etc. that exist in romance novels?) Remi James is briefly introduced in Not in the Plan, but all anyone really needs to know about this character becomes clear in the first chapter of In Walked Trouble—Remi is definitely on the surly side of the personality spectrum. 

A grump, if you will.

Despite her grumpy nature, everything seems to be coming up Remi: her boss has called her in to discuss what must be the promotion that she so rightly deserves. Having grown up in the foster system, Remi is obsessed with the idea that a house will make a home for her, but she needs more money for a downpayment. Money she will earn when she finally gets that promotion to head bartender. Which is why she’s so angry when she discovers that her boss has brought in Maya to co-bartend with Remi. No promotion, no raise. Remi’s attraction to Maya is immediately replaced with anger. (“Replaced” is a strong word—let’s say “supplemented by” instead.) To make matters worse, the money that would have gone into that raise is now being offered as a bonus. May the best bartender win.

Remi thinks that this will be no problem because of how fast and efficient she is. What she doesn’t know is that Maya tosses bottles, which tends to make a bartender very popular very quickly. Maya, according to Remi, is “ready for a runway.” And she smiles too much.

Is there a better trope than grumpy/sunshine? Don’t bother answering that question—there isn’t.

Maya also needs that bonus to afford her master’s in nursing, a degree she’s pursuing in part because of her sister, who has type 1 diabetes. She is also grieving her father’s sudden death nine years earlier. As I’ve written many times before, I appreciate when a romance novel focuses on the trauma of the main character (or, in this case, both main characters). While two characters can’t fix the trauma that the other faces, they can listen, be supportive, and offer help when appropriate. Sure, the other stuff is pretty good as well, but I really enjoy this element of Remi and Maya’s relationship.  

What other stuff? Well, if asked, I would point to a scene that involves mop water, ice cubes, a lemon slice, and dueling soda guns.

I could probably end this review here, right?

Back to trauma for a moment. If you’re the kind of romance reader who prefers the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” approach, In Walked Trouble is probably not for you. Yes, there is instant chemistry between Remi and Maya, but the movement on that attraction only occurs after they actually get to know each other. Fine… there is also a lot of alcohol. But even that isn’t what you think it is. Hawkins puts together a narrative where it is not entirely clear whether the physical intimacy came before the emotional intimacy or vice versa. That sentence felt cringey as I wrote, but I’m sticking with it because of how strongly I value the whole “talking about feelings” thing. We know that it isn’t exactly easy to open up to other people in a genuine way, and I can’t help but think stories like this one model a better approach.

Hawkins does reinforce a few other concepts in In Walked Trouble, including one of my favorites: coming up with really bad excuses to be somewhere or to do something for someone. Because sometimes you’re not ready to talk about your feelings with someone, but you still want that someone to know that eventually you might want to. The really bad excuse approach to getting to know someone never gets old.

Neither does grumpy/sunshine.

(One more thing: I had no intention of comparing In Walked Trouble to a film like I did last month in my review of Cover Story… but then I read someone comparing In Walked Trouble to the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. You know, the movie they show clips of during the “Kokomo” music video? And, okay, yes, Maya does toss bottles like Tom Cruise’s character. That is, and I cannot stress this enough, the only connection between this book and that movie. Seriously, don’t watch Cocktail thinking it’s a romcom. Watch it because a) it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Movie and b) it goes way darker than any movie whose soundtrack features “Kokomo” has a right to do.)

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.