A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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After winning the lottery, Opal Devlin puts all her money in a failing flower farm, only to find an angry (albeit gorgeous) Pepper Boden already living there. Though she’s unable to find her grandmother’s will, Pepper claims she’s the rightful owner of Thistle and Bloom Farms. While they agree to cohabitate, Opal and Pepper clash at every turn. Can something softer blossom between these polar opposites, allowing a new dream to take root and grow?

Oh. My. (Sappho.) Goddess. You may think you know Mazey Eddings’ writing style, but I assure you, you do not. Many of us read The Plus One and/or Tily in Technicolor last year, but Eddings has far exceeded herself with this one. As a neurodivergent author, Eddings’ stories often have some element of neurodiversity/mental health, shining a light on the different ways people’s brains work while embracing those differences through beautiful, realistic characters. Opal and Pepper are no different, both on the spectrum yet unique in their behaviors and view of the world. These women are not predictable, pre-programmed components of a story; they are ever-blooming, learning how to plant roots alongside one another, share sunlight, and rise despite being different species. Both plants, growing and adapting to different elements, yet very much the same. While Opal and Pepper have always struggled to fit in with the world around them, they manage to cultivate a safe, healthy garden for one another.

This is one of those overwhelming, layered, awe-inspiring sapphic stories that will tug at your heartstrings long after you read it. Eddings’ language leaps off the page, making it a little reminiscent of One Last Stop (be still, my little sapphic heart). I’ve beyond annotated Late Bloomer, when I’m usually selective about choosing quotes. You don’t just see love blossom between these two women; you feel it. It made me smile, laugh, get all messy and misty-eyed. As I said, neither woman is predictable. Opal feels directionless at the story’s start, allowing her (fake) best friend and (on/off) ex to step all over her. I expected her to be the wallflower, especially with the BITE we see from Pepper (pun unintended) in her first chapter, but the two balance each other out. When Pepper feels uncertain or anxious, Opal steps forward, bold and unwavering. When Opal begins to crumble, Pepper holds her up. They support each other, never allowing the other to wilt.

Unfortunately, this book relies heavily on miscommunication. Both women are eager to hide their real feelings at the risk of scaring the other. That lack of communication continues until almost the last chapter.

Recommended for fans of One Last Stop and Imogen, Obviously. Side note: please, please read the author’s note. Good goddess.

✨ The Vibes ✨

❀ Neurodivergency/Autism Spectrum
❀ Sapphic Romance
❀ Grief/Healing
❀ Forced Proximity
❀ Spicy/First Time
❀ Cottagecore Vibes
❀ One Bed
❀ Touch Her and You Die
❀ Dual POV
❀ Miscommunication
❀ Flower Competition
❀ Grumpy/Sunshine

 Quotes

❝Slowly, she leans toward me, and my heart pounds so violently in my chest that my head swims. Is she . . . It almost seems like she’s going to press that smile to my mouth. Teach me how it tastes.❞

❝Ah. There’s the you I missed.❞

❝I used to stress over finding a label that fit me. Lesbian. Bisexual. Pan. Demi . . . I’ve filtered through them all many times over, none ever feeling quite right. Just say queer and move on with your life, Diksha finally told me late one night after what was probably my sixth sexual identity crisis of my early twenties. But what does that mean? I’d wailed, draining more boxed wine into my plastic cup. My brain loves order and labels and concise frameworks to understand things, and not knowing where I fit feels unbearable. It means you’re you, and only you get to decide who you like and when you like them, Tal had said from their chair in the corner. The name of your feelings isn’t anyone’s business but yours.❞

❝But instead, she reaches out to me—opening her hand like a flower unfurling its petals to the sun. I stare at it. The ink stains and calluses and chipped nails and bitten cuticles. For a moment, that hand looks like a second chance.❞

❝Her poems spoke softly—as intimately as confessions between lovers—about the terrible, wonderful ache of being in love.❞

A Sapphic, Victorian Parent Trap: Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend by Emma R. Alban

Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend cover

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Pretty much as soon as I discovered Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend, I was excited to read it. From the frothy cover to the Taylor Swift lyric title (admittedly I don’t actually know Taylor Swift’s music well enough to recognize that on my own, but I generally love the vibe of song lyric titles) to the actual book description, it seemed incredibly up my alley. A hijinks-filled sapphic historic romance? Sign me up! To my absolute delight, the actual contents of the book completely delivered on the promises its outside made.

Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend takes the familiar premise of a reluctant young debutante, Beth, who must find a wealthy husband for the sake of her family and adds a dazzling lesbian, Gwen, with an idea—their parents have clear chemistry and a history, and it would really solve all of their problems if Beth and Gwen set their parents up instead. Over the course of the season, the two come up with a variety of schemes, and as their parents grow closer, so do Beth and Gwen.

I had so much fun reading this book! It was exactly the kind of sweet, banter-and-shenanigans-filled romance I hoped it would be. I read most of the book at work, and it still had me smiling and giggling throughout. I loved both Beth and Gwen, and I believed their romance from the beginning, as well as their friendship. I understood immediately why they liked each other, which I think is particularly important in a friends-to-lovers romance like this. They constantly made each other laugh, as well as myself, but there were also plenty of those delightfully agonizing finger brushes one expects to find in a historical romance.

Beth and Gwen’s relationship was not the only important one in this book, of course. Considering the setup of this book hinges on a parent-trap plot, it’s particularly important to manage the balance between making me care about and believe the parents’ romance as well without them taking the spotlight away from the romance I actually came here for. Admittedly, I was a little worried this book wouldn’t manage it, but I actually thought it did a fantastic job of that. It even made me care about an entirely separate background romance, and the epilogue provided a wonderful preview of the next book’s romance, which I am very much looking forward to. I really loved the characters here.

I will note readers looking for historical accuracy may find themselves frustrated. The language in particular tends a bit more casual than I would have expected. However, I personally did not find myself bothered by it at all. As casual as the language was, the many detailed clothing descriptions and the subplot centered around the social politics of the Matrimonial Causes Act made it clear that this was a deliberate choice. And besides, a strong sense of verisimilitude was not my main concern when I picked up a parent-trap-inspired sapphic romcom with a Taylor Swift lyric in the title. I came here simply to be delighted, and I got more than my money’s worth of that.  If that is what you too are looking for, I heartily recommend Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend.

A Slam Dunk Sapphic Romance: Coasting and Crashing by Ana Hartnett

Coasting and Crashing cover

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With March Madness continuing into April, I decided to start my month with Ana Hartnett’s Coasting and Crashing, the third book in her sapphic contemporary romance series set at the fictional Alder University. This time, the story revolved around players on the university’s basketball team. 

Emma Wilson is coasting. She’s one of the star players for the Alder Lions. She’s got a great group of friends. Every queer woman at Adler wants her. She’s going to law school after graduation. On the surface, everything is fine. Below the surface, however, is another story. Despite what she says, she’s still not over her long-time crush, and she’s only interested in law school to satisfy her dad’s demands. So yeah, life isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative. 

Everything changes, however, with the arrival of a new coach, Coach Jordan. Along with Coach Jordan comes the talented, arrogant, and very attractive Lake Palmer. Emma is instantly attracted to Lake, even though she knows Lake is gunning for her starting position. Between Coach Jordan’s tough coaching style and tensions between her and Lake, Emma begins to question everything about herself and her “better than the alternative” life. Soon, everything comes crashing down, and it’s up to Emma to decide how to put it all back together again. 

In Emma Wilson, Ana Hartnett gives the reader the perfect high achieving disaster lesbian. I loved her and related to her so much. Like many young adults who showed early promise in school or sports, she has had an immense amount of pressure piled onto her. Her family, friends, and teachers expect the world of her. Her father has taken these expectations to toxic levels, leading to some very traumatic moments for Emma. To cope with it all, Emma has often taken the path of least resistance because it has the lowest chance of failure and disappointing everyone. Sure, it’s not the best and most fulfilling, but she finds ways that maybe aren’t the healthiest to enjoy it. It’s a story that so many young people, especially young women, face in their lives. That choice of coping mechanism is understandable; we’ve all done it at least once in our lives when faced with overwhelming external pressures. It makes it very easy to very quickly sympathize with Emma and root for her. 

Emma’s journey from coasting to thriving in the novel isn’t an easy one, which makes for a highly cringe-worthy yet satisfying read. As the title of the book alludes to, Emma crashes. She crashes hard, and she crashes multiple times. Over and over again, Emma tries to do what she thinks is the right thing. She tries multiple times to romance Lake and be the person Coach Jordan wants, only to fail miserably and have to start over. When she fails, it’s painful to read. It’s like watching a slow-moving car wreck that you are helpless to stop. However, it also makes for a sweeter experience when Emma finally starts putting the pieces together and making positive steps in the right direction. Just like you wanted to die from embarrassment at watching Emma fail, you feel overcome with joy when she succeeds. 

One character I really appreciated seeing in the novel was Coach Jordan. At first, she comes off as overly strict and demanding, because that is how Emma sees her. As Emma and the reader get to know her, however, she is revealed to be a much more nurturing character. She ends up, in some ways, being the catalyst for Emma’s growth. Every romance has that supporting character who helps the main character figure things out. I loved how that ended up being Coach Jordan in this book. This comes from my experience as a student athlete in high school. I had so many great teachers and coaches who helped me see my self-worth during rough times and pushed me to be the best version of myself. While I’m vastly different from who I was then, their lessons still have had a huge impact on me. I loved seeing Emma also get this type of help from Coach Jordan as she tries to figure out how to stop crashing. 

All in all, Coasting and Crashing is a slam dunk for fans of watching loveable disasters slowly figure it all out and find love. It’s especially satisfying if you were one of those high achieving kids who showed early academic or athletic talents and subsequently had a world of pressure placed upon your shoulders. Even if you weren’t or have no idea how basketball works, it’s still a great romance worthy of your time.  

Take a Shot on How You Get the Girl by Anita Kelly

the cover of How You Get the Girl by Anita Kelly

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While coaching East Nashville High’s girl’s basketball teen, Coach Julie Parker expects passionate players and quick springs, not for the star of her fantasies, ex-WNBA baller Elle Cochrane, to show up with the niece she’s fostering. Despite being all heart-eyed and tongue-tied, Julie convinces Elle to become her assistant coach, allowing Elle to keep an eye on her niece. Neither expects sparks to fly along with basketballs shooting across the court, even as Elle helps Julie navigate the unfamiliar terrain of dating. Will they continue sitting on the sidelines of their own lives, or finally take a shot?

Dear Anita Kelly. Thank you. Thank you for a story about two beautifully, vulnerably queer women who are so real and authentic and layered. What easily could have been a trope-filled sapphic sports romance is instead a stunning exploration of identity, mental health, and personal growth. Bear with me, Lesbrary readers, as I try to find my words. This story started with Julie’s megawatt heart-eyed celebrity crush and a little forced proximity, but it became so much more. Between her queer twin and best friend, Julie always thought she was a little behind in defining her queerness, but there’s no timeline, no deadline. She always struggled to find her label, her place (only to realize they’re just… whatever!), and it’s not until Elle steps into her life and throws her out of her comfort zone that Julie gets the chance to grow into herself. I also adored that Jules couldn’t fully pick one label (“15 percent general queer, 10 percent lesbian stereotype. 20 percent ace, 55 percent dumbass.”) because identity is in fact a spectrum. She does mention the possibility of being demisexual at one point, which my girlfriend identifies as, and honestly… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character recognize that as an option before. To say it brought tears to my eyes is an understatement.

In a way, Elle has been stuck in a comfort zone, too, until she starts fostering her niece and coaching alongside Jules. Elle is so patient with Jules, so willing to step back and give Jules the chance to process her own thoughts, recognize her own needs. There’s a give and take to their relationship: when one falters, the other steps in to help them find their balance again. There are so many layers to this story: “There’s this idea embedded into our culture of getting over things,” “Maybe all love is a surprise, followed by practice,” “You can be happy and still feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing.” There’s so much to appreciate in the little lessons these women learned. Together. (If we’re keeping track, I cried three times while reading this book: when seeing “demi,” at the news clipping, and during Jule’s speech. I need more tissues now, thank you.)

There is one topic I wish received a little more attention, namely because it isn’t discussed often enough. Elle meets with the school’s weights guy, who assumes all the players on the team are girls: “the ingrained hierarchy and immovable binary of most sports.” Elle and Julie made a “space for any player who wanted to put in the work, regardless of their identity.” Kelly mentions fighting for equality in sports within her acknowledgments, but I do wish we’d seen a little of that fight as a source of conflict within the book.

The story is a bit slow at the beginning, but once it finds its momentum, it GOES. I will say I wasn’t aware this was a duology when I grabbed this ARC, but the references to the previous story weren’t so heavy that you can’t enjoy this one as a stand-alone.

Recommended to all readers, whether you’re looking for a sports romance, sapphic romance, or simply a good book with lots of mental health love. This one is going to stay with me for a long while.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Vibes

🌈 Sapphic Ship – Lesbian/Demi
💞 Fake/Practice Dating
🏀 Sports/Workplace/Forced Proximity Romance
🏆 Mental Health Rep
📚 Part of the Nashville Series
🏆 Contemporary Romance
🏀 Dual POV
💞 Smut
🌈 Queer Main & Side Cast

💬 Quotes

❝ Any relationship that’s worthwhile, whether it’s friendship or romantic or sexual, only really works when you try. ❞

❝ But that when it came to identity, when it came to queerness, the whole point was that there were no tryouts. If you were even thinking about it, you were already on the team. That labels weren’t meant to confine, only to bring comfort to those for whom they were useful. That Julie didn’t need to ascribe to any of them, if she didn’t want to. ❞

❝ “There’s nothing wrong with you, Julie,” Elle said in that same half-whisper that was slowly going to kill her. “You’re not behind on anything. There’s nothing for you to be behind on. There’s nothing, and no one, you have to track your own life by.” ❞

❝ Maybe all love was a surprise, followed by practice. A step out of comfort zones, followed by hard work. Lurking in all the places you didn’t expect, places that become a forever part of you. ❞

A Sapphic Spin on You’ve Got Mail: Read Between the Lines by Rachel Lacey

the cover of Read Between the Lines

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❝Her online crush, her real-life crush, and the woman who’d crushed her dreams were all the same person, and her mind was still struggling to snap all the pieces into place.❞

Books have always been a part of Rosie Taft’s life. That happens when your late mother once owned a Manhattan bookstore you’ve now inherited. The only thing missing from Rosie’s life: a romance to rival the ones she reads about. Though she has a flirty online friendship with lesbian romance author “Brie,” they’ve never met, never turned those flirtatious remarks into deep, romantic gazes in reality. Jane Breslin works for her father’s property development business by day, but by night, she lets her hair down and steamy side out as a romance writer. When the business terminates Rosie’s bookstore lease, their worlds collide and online identities are revealed. Can Jane pen her way back into Rosie’s heart for a happy ending?

By some coincidence, I watched You’ve Got Mail for the first time a few months ago. There’s something about the sweet simplicity of 90s rom-coms that can get a heart all warm and cozy. Obviously inspired by the same premise, Read Between the Lines is a modern-day, WLW spin. The enemies-to-lovers, opposites-attract elements fills you with hope as you wait for all the pieces to click into place. Once they do, the romance feels easy, natural… but realistic in the sense that so many problems are ignored in exchange for that bliss. For a moment, Rosie and Jane exist in a comforting, sweet bubble, but as in real life, you can’t ignore reality forever.

I adored Lacey’s Stars Collide (and I’m eagerly trying to get my hands on her upcoming release Cover Story), but it’s obvious this was one of Lacey’s first lesbian romances. So much of the chemistry between Rosie and Jane was built off-screen, through the texts they exchanged long before the story started. Unfortunately, that makes it seem like there’s not a great deal of chemistry between Rosie and Jane once their true identities are revealed.

The source of conflict feels a bit exhausting. Rosie remains hung up about the fact that Jane’s family’s company is the reason she’s losing her bookstore, but Jane herself isn’t the reason. Rosie struggles to disassociate losing her bookstore from Jane the entire time. Deciding to leave the family business, while a point of character development for Jane, shouldn’t have been a solution solely for Rosie’s benefit. None of the problems (internal and external) either woman faced built enough tension to give the story momentum.

The smut scenes are…not great. Some of the word choice is repetitive (“swirled and plunged” included, which is just… please don’t), and there’s more of a focus on logistics over emotion. Fade to black paired with a little post-coital pillow talk would have worked just as well (and perhaps felt less rushed, distance, and awkward). Again, it feels like this was Lacey’s first WLW romance, in which case, you can see the growth in later novels.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

 Recommended for fans of You’ve Got Mail, Cleat Cute, and Fly With Me.

✨ The Vibes ✨

❤️ Enemies to Lovers
❤️ Sapphic Romance
❤️ Books About Books
❤️ Lesbian MCs
❤️ Contemporary Queer Romance
❤️ Book 1 in a Series
❤️ Opposites Attract

An Enemies-to-Lovers Miami Romance: Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias

the cover of Fighting for Control

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Fighting for Control by J.J. Arias was published on November 11, 2023 and is the second book in the Dominion series. While I highly recommend reading the first in the series, Losing Control, because it’s a truly amazing book, it is not absolutely necessary to read before this one. It does, however, introduce one of the main characters, and several recurring characters. Fighting for Control follows Lola Barros and Carmen Vargas on a deeply rich and satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance. Lola is a talent agent trying to make a name for herself in an agency run by someone that deals in no nonsense. Carmen is an attorney working for her family’s firm and trying to forge her own path while honoring and carrying the legacy of those who have come before her. The two women work in the same building and cross paths occasionally… and sparks usually fly in one way or another. After a particularly intense encounter, involving a race to the parking garage and a nearly injured janitor, the owner of the building gives Lola and Carmen an ultimatum: attend anger management counseling with her “spiritual guide” or risk eviction. What follows is a journey for two strong women to explore feelings that, for better or worse, are incredibly intense and unlike anything they have experienced before. 

In the last year I have come to the conclusion that I love an enemies-to-lovers trope. Especially when it is done well. I don’t like cruelty, and I don’t think that can be easily forgiven, but a good old fashion feud that is largely propelled by ideas one person has of the other, and vice versa? A feud that is also propelled by a confusion at how you could find someone so hot it makes you do absolutely irrational things?? That is what I like to see. And in Fighting for Control, J.J. Arias absolutely nails it. Both Lola and Carmen are three dimensional characters who each have such strong backstories and development. What could be a surface level enemies to lovers based on physical attraction is instead a story about two people with different backgrounds each fighting their own internal battles and trying to find the bravery to trust. 

I adored Lola and Carmen, both individually and as a pair. Everything in Lola’s life has been transactional. She has never been given anything without the expectation of something in return. She searches for an angle in everything because there have only ever been angles. Lola’s backstory and home life leave you both heartbroken and exhausted on her behalf. You fully understand why she acts the way she does, and J.J. is truly one of the best at character development. The way Lola starts to open up to Carmen, and the way Carmen receives that, is a beautiful thing to watch unfold. Carmen walks around with the weight of the world on her shoulders, made even heavier with a family legacy her mother insists she upholds. There is a gentleness to her, and I think that is what Lola is drawn to… in addition to finding her infuriating attractive. Carmen is like no one else Lola has met, and that is both appealing and confusing for her. They both offer each other a safe place, and a protectiveness over the other that was one of my favorite things to watch unfold. 

With any J.J. book, you are going to get heat and passion, and you are going to feel those things deeply as you read. I think she is one of the best at writing love scenes that are layered, and so beautifully written they leave you a little breathless. But with J.J. it is never just those scenes that get you. She writes love stories that make you need a glass of water one minute and a tissue the next. Her range is incredible, and I believe her to be one of the best at portraying a myriad of emotions, sometimes all at once. There is one scene in this story that was truly so powerful and well written, I get teary eyed just thinking about it. That only happens when an author has written characters you truly care about, and J.J. has done that with this book. 

The premise of this book leads to some truly hilarious (and steamy) set-ups, and I am anxiously awaiting the third in the Dominion series—the focus of which will be Lola’s icy and incredibly successful boss, Natalia. Fighting for Control is J.J. Arias at her best, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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

the cover of Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

You Need to Read Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

the cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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I’m embarrassed to admit I only just read this for the first time. I’ve read every other Malinda Lo book. I’ve had a copy since it first came out—in fact, I’ve owned two copies, because I also spent $100 on a signed hardcover (it was for charity, in my defense). In 2018, I read All Out, which contained a short story by Malinda Lo that would later be adapted into this book, and I said, “I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version“! I have no good reason for waiting three years to finally pick this up, but I’m happy to say that I loved it just as much as I knew I would.

If you somehow missed this bestselling, award-winning YA novel, it’s the story of a Chinese American lesbian teenager growing up in 1950s San Francisco. When she discovers the existence of a male impersonator performing at the Telegraph Club, she can’t resist the temptation, especially when a classmate says she has been there before and offers to accompany her. What follows is a bittersweet first love and coming out story that weaves in the political and social realities of the time period.

This is such an atmospheric, absorbing story. Lo does a great job of situating us in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown, and the inclusion of timeline pages show how Lily’s story plays out against bigger political events as well as her family’s history. Lily and her classmates do duck-and-cover drills in preparation of a nuclear attack. Her father is questioned for treating a supposedly communist patient. Her aunt works on technology that brings the U.S. one step closer to landing on the moon.

I couldn’t help feeling for Lily. She’s a very sympathetic main character, initially being pushed towards a prescribed path by her family and best friend. When she discovers the Telegraph Club—as well as a lesbian pulp fiction book, which she reads furtively in a corner of the drug store, she eventually is forced to choose between the future laid out for her and risking it all for a life of her own design.

Lily is some ways is naive: she starts the novel not knowing about the existence of queer people, and she questions throughout how you know that you’re in love. On the other hand, she also faces constant prejudice. As she discovers her own sexuality, she knows her family and community would judge her harshly for it. At the Telegraph Club, she’s the only Asian person—and often the only person of colour—there, and she’s tokenized by the other white queer patrons.

At one point, Lily mentions feeling split in two, like only the “good Chinese girl” is allowed through the door at her family’s house, while the queer half of her has to stay outside. This was such a powerful way to express being multiply marginalized, so rarely finding a space or community where you can be your entire authentic self. It’s heartbreaking, since Lily can’t walk away from either side of her identity.

The relationship between Kath and Lily felt realistic to first love: they’re both hesitant at first, even after it’s pretty obvious they’re both queer. They don’t know how to find the words to ask if the other person feels the same way about them. When they can’t contain their feelings anymore, it’s the kind of intense, overwhelming connection (both romantically and sexually) that you’d expect of a teen first love, but complicated by being mixed up with coming out.

Their relationship, while central to the narrative, isn’t the dynamic that stood out to me the most, though. There’s more complication and layers to Lily’s relationship with Shirley, her childhood best friend that she’s beginning to grow apart from. The two of them struggling to understand who they are to each other now, and whether they can still be friends at this point.

I appreciated the inclusion of several chapters from other points of view in previous years, including from her mother, father, and aunt. We get to see a broader look at the events that led up to Lily’s current life, including how her parents got together, how their plans to return to China were derailed, and Lily’s childhood growing up with her best friend. These chapters make the story feel bigger, almost like a family saga, even though the vast majority of the chapters are focused on Lily. They also make these side characters feel more well-rounded, which is crucial to how we interpret the ending.

(Spoilers in this paragraph) I’ve read a few different queer YA stories where teens are sent off to other family members to separate them from their partner/crush, and it’s always a traumatic experience for them. (For example, The Stars and the Darkness Between Them.) It makes sense that this is what Lily’s family would do to her, especially given the time period, but I appreciated Lo’s choice to skip over this part of her life. It allows us to end on a hopeful note, with Kath and Lily reuniting and Lily having more independence. (End of spoilers)

Maybe I put this aside for long because the hype was intense. Last Night at the Telegraph club has won some of the biggest awards YA books are eligible for, and it’s by far Lo’s most popular book—both in terms of readership and ratings. Any fears that this would fail to live up to this reception were misplaced, though: I honestly can’t think of any real flaws in this story. It is such a rich narrative that kept me immersed from beginning to end. This is a five star read and a new favourite. Whether or not you usually pick up historical fiction or YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Content warnings: homophobia, racism, miscarriage, underage drinking

Medieval Queer Chaos: Gwen & Art Are Not in Love by Lex Croucher

the cover of Gwen and Art Are Not In Love

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Gwendoline and Arthur have been betrothed to one another since birth. Too bad they absolutely hate each other. When forced to spend a summer in Camelot together, Gwen and Arthur discover tantalizing secrets about one another: Gwen witnesses Arthur kissing a boy, while Arthur learns that Gwen has a crush on the kingdom’s lone lady knight, Lady Bridget Leclair. Stuck at a stalemate, they make a reluctant pact to cover for one another. While Gwen and Bridget finally connect, Arthur finds himself enamored by Gwen’s brother. Can they navigate their messy feelings to find their own places in history?

Oh my goddess, the queer chaos in this is everything. Lex Croucher has spun Arthurian legends of old into a queer medieval YA rom-com that could easily alter history as we know it. Gwen is a bi baby, newly navigating her feelings for a badass lady knight, while Arthur is a gay, sassy messy shooting heart-eyes at Gwen’s brother (the one-day king). The dialogue is EVERYTHING: sassy, quick-witted, and all too entertaining. There’s somewhat sexy sword-fighting (come on, sword-fighting is always sexy, but when your queer crush is schooling you, it’s all the better), fake dating (does it count as fake dating when you’ve been betrothed since childhood?), and heart-warming found family vibes. The queer panic and nervous humor were all too relatable, even though the story is set in medieval times. That’s a true feat; you can connect with the queer chaos, even if you’re shooting heart-eyes in the 21st century.

That being said, let’s talk about Gwen and her lady knight. I mean, get ready to absolutely SWOON alongside Gwen. Lady Bridget Lechlair is all fierce confidence—a necessity, when everyone has an unpopular opinion of you simply because you’re a woman, regardless of your badass abilities—but she’s also an enigma with a gooey interior. I loved seeing Gwen find her confidence through Bridget, discovering her voice and standing up for them both when necessary. Though Gwen is a royal, she’s questioned her inner power and authority, as everyone around her has made it clear her only worth is in her marriage to Arthur as a political move. Spending time with Bridget gives Gwen the chance to realize she’s worth so much more. Though the story’s quick wit and banter stand out, I think this character development is the story’s real strength. Sometimes, you need someone who believes in your potential before you can see it yourself.

The only real hang-up for me was the pacing. The ending felt especially rushed, which was a disappointment after the queer chaos dragged a bit. I wonder if the writer paused for a moment, then returned to finish the latter half of the story. I also found the relationship between Arthur and Gabriel (Gwen’s brother) a little underwhelming when it had so much potential at the start. Regardless, I appreciated all the queer hijinks and humor.

Recommended for fans of Heartstopper, Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow trilogy, Red, White, & Royal Blue, and the TV show Merlin. Get ready for a swoon-worthy, medieval mess of pining and romance!

The Vibes
⚔️ All the Queer Ships (w/ Serious Queer Panic)
⚔️ Fake Dating
⚔️ YA Debut
⚔️ Found Family
⚔️ Medieval/Historical Fiction/Rom-Com
⚔️ Enemies to Allies

What classic story would you love to read a queer retelling of?