A Hilarious and Sweet High School Love Triangle: Belle of the Ball by Mari Costa

the cover of Belle of the Ball

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In the graphic novel Belle of the Ball, Brazilian author and illustrator Mari Costa treats us to a charming, sweet, and funny story of a high school love triangle between a nerdy wallflower, a charming jock, and an overly driven cheerleader.

When Belle Hawkins (who goes by her last name), school mascot and super shy wallflower, finally works up the courage to ask her crush, the super beautiful, super smart, and super popular cheerleader Regina Moreno, to the school dance, things don’t go particularly well. For starters, she forgets to take off the big cat head she’s wearing as part of her costume. Even worse, Regina has a girlfriend, the star athlete Chloe Kitigawa, who just so happens to show up right at that moment and threaten Hawkins to never talk to her girlfriend again. While both Hawkins and Chloe hope that that is the last time they see each other, fate has other plans. Later that day, Regina finds out that Chloe is failing English, which does not fit in with her 10 year plan for their lives. Regina decides to get Chloe a tutor. She sees Hawkins’s profile on a tutoring service website and comes up with a devious plan: play nice and ask Hawkins to tutor Chloe for free. 

Initially, Regina’s plans work well. Hawkins jumps at the chance to tutor Chloe to impress Regina. Chloe, despite being stubborn and a bit of a jerk to Hawkins, decides to play along. That all changes, though, when Chloe remembers who Hawkins is. Long before Hawkins decided to start hiding who she was (and going by Hawkins instead of her first name), she and Chloe were close friends, with Hawkins perpetually dressed as a princess and leading Chloe on adventures. As their tutoring sessions continue and they spend more and more time together, old feelings between the two resurface and a romance begins to bloom. However, with Regina still in the picture, things are complicated and they can’t admit their true feelings.

I really liked Mari Costa’s writing. For starters, I love the main characters and the journeys Mari takes them on in the book. While they all start as stereotypical high school archetypes, there is so much more depth to them over time. Hawkins starts as your typical shy nerdy wallflower. She sits the other nerdy kids in school, but never has the courage to join in. She’d rather wear her mascot head than be seen. However, as the story progresses, she begins to have the courage to open up and let people see who she truly is, thanks in no small part to Chloe. Chloe appears at first to be your stereotypical jock, but by the end you see that she has her own nerdy side and is actually very sweet and charming. I loved the interactions between Hawkins and Chloe as their relationship develops. The antagonism between them (mostly coming from Chloe) goes from mean-spirited to playful and sweet. They go from being two people stuck with one another because someone else made them do it to two people who genuinely care for one another and want to be around each other as much as possible.

And then there’s Regina. Initially, I didn’t care for Regina. She comes off as very selfish and full of herself at the beginning of the book. Her conversations are often all about her and how smart, beautiful, and talented she is. When talking about their relationship with Chloe, Regina routinely frames it around her own goals and her own needs, putting Chloe’s second. With Hawkins, most of their dynamic revolves around receiving praise from Hawkins or asking Hawkins to do things for her. However, as the story progresses, she slowly begins to realize her flaws and make small changes for the better. While I still didn’t become her biggest fan by the end of the book and I still see room for her to grow, I did come around on her at least a little. 

Mari’s art in this book is also outstanding. I really appreciated the unique color palette of the book, with Mari choosing to keep everything in black, white, and shades of red and pink. The pacing of her panels is also fluid. Not once did I get confused as my eyes moved from panel to panel. Mari uses her art to full comedic effect, with multiple awkward momsents illustrated hilariously. A special mention needs to be said for how she used Hawkins’ mascot head, this giant cat head, in several scenes. For me, though, the best thing about the art in this book was how Mari illustrated facial expressions, from over the top manga-style illustrations to emphasize character emotions to more subtle illustrations to show the character’s inner thoughts. It all really worked for me and made the character’s emotions and thoughts crystal clear. I really think that this helped the most with Chloe, the quietest of the three protagonists. There are pages in which she says maybe two lines of dialogue, but her eye movements and facial expressions say so much more. 

I only have two minor complaints about this book. First, I would have liked to see more of Regina’s arc. I feel like a lot of it gets left to the last chapter and is fairly short. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work or that it’s sudden: you do see how she goes from selfish and stuck-up to a better friend to Chloe and Hawkins, and it does make sense. I just wish I saw more of it. Second, I wish there had been more about what happened to Hawkins that made her hide herself away so much. It’s hinted that something happened that made her go from Belle, dressed like a princess as much as possible, to Hawkins, hidden away in more androgynous clothes. Still, we get nothing more than “high school happened”, which, granted, is believable. 

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this graphic novel. If you’re looking for a sweet, funny, and light-hearted high school romance, I highly recommend it.       

Jamie Rose is a trans woman living in Florida (so you can imagine how that’s going right now). She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and teaches courses in language learning and teaching. A lover of stories, she enjoys reading both comic books/graphic novels and the ones without pictures. Her favorite genres are contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, superheroes, and comedy. When she’s not reading or working, she’s usually playing table-top games or video games, binging YouTube videos, or spending time with her wife and daughter. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads at @jamiegeeksout. 

A Tender Foodie F/F Manga: She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat by Sakaomi Yuzaki

the cover of She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Yuzaki Sakaomi

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They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in Sakaomi Yuzaki’s latest manga, that proves just as true for women.

She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat is a lovely, heartwarming story about two neighbors who bond over a shared love of food. Nomoto, an office worker with a passion for cooking and no one to finish off the epically-sized dishes she dreams of making, finally meets her match in Kasuga, her very tall, very reserved neighbor with a very, very large appetite—an appetite perfectly suited to dishes containing, say, eight eggs and over three pounds of rice.

The dialogues flow naturally in this excellent translation by Phil Christie, as does the character growth. While the two initially get off on a slightly awkward foot, a series of shared dinners slowly bring them closer together.

But what starts as mutual appreciation is beginning to show signs of developing into something deeper in these first two volumes. Between bashful daydreams, thoughtful gestures, and small steps outside of their respective comfort zones, the two women find themselves wanting to spend more time with each other. And more time looking at each other.

And as their feelings become more and more obvious, it shows clear as day on the page. Blush-lines and all.

a manga panel showing Nomoto and Kasuga eating together. Nomoto is looking at Kasuga and smiling with faint blush lines over her cheek and nose

Tell me this isn’t the face of a woman in love.

The slow simmering of the romance is poised to make it all the more satisfying. This is such a perfect comfort read—clever, funny, sincere and so full of love. The second volume has a bit about the cultural meanings of take-out boxes that had me in stitches.

The focus on food includes some truly delicious descriptions and illustrations, so I’d recommend reading this either on a full stomach or with some savories handy. For example, crab cakes and spicy peanut sauce (which is what I got up to make halfway through volume one!) or popcorn with melted cheese and sun-dried tomato pieces (the accompaniment to volume two).

If you prefer Japanese food inspired by the story, there are also recipes at the back of the books, so you can open to the last page and prepare something ahead of time…

the cover of She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat Vol 2

Fans of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon and that soft, low-stakes romance-with-a-side-of-social-commentary centering two working women will find a similar slow-burn story here, albeit with more overt observations on gender roles and norms in modern Japan. It doesn’t shy away from nuisances like marriage pressure, misogyny and uncalled-for assumptions, but it does not let them take center stage, either. Unless it’s to gently, elegantly skewer them.

Whether portion sizes, passion or paychecks, the women are constantly expected to make do with less. But these diminishing encounters are subtly contrasted with the genuine appreciation, acceptance and admiration that Nomoto and Kasuga’s budding relationship is based on.

a panel showing Kasuga saying, "Speaking up sometimes makes a difference."

They really do care for each other so much and it’s so lovely to read. There are so many warm fuzzies, but it’s the grounded sort of tenderness that comes with age. I was smiling so much at the little kindnesses and considerations they had. It’s such a healthy relationship that never loses its sense of humor.

I mean, no one says that the quickest way to a woman’s heart is through her period cravings, but the author certainly understands!

Chapter 16 was the one that deviates a little from this vibe and delves into some heavier topics. It comes prefaced with an author’s note stating such. But it also has a Frog and Toad reference that proves a well-placed picture can express a thousand words. It’s a reminder of the ways queer youth find and make meaning from media that was never explicitly about them, but which made space for stories like theirs nonetheless. For a manga focused on acceptance, it is a series of fitting visuals.

The manga might also appeal to fans of the older m/m series What Did You Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga. Granted, the plot seems to take precedence over the food so far, while it was the other way around in Yoshinaga’s manga, but I’m excited to see where it goes. Preferably, with a plate of loaded egg-battered fries on the side.

Volumes one and two are currently available in English, and Volume three is available for pre-order!

Nat reviews Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

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I must confess that I’d seen the cover of Legends and Lattes pop up a number of times and thought to myself, eh, too much of a high fantasy book for my tastes. Well, I should know better by now than write off a book based on genre, and I finally gave it a shot after my wife enthusiastically recommended it. If I could leave only a single comment it would be that this book is PRECIOUS. Is there anything more wholesome than a bone crushing, mercenary orc with a heart of gold just looking to get on the straight and narrow and live a quiet, simple life? How about that misunderstood orc finding a new group of loyal, steadfast friends and maybe even love along the way? Did you love Brian Jacques’s Mattimeo when you were a kid? How do you feel about cinnamon rolls? This is the book equivalent of a fresh-from-the oven baked good. 

After years of life on the road, Viv decides to cash out on her wandering, mercenary ways and settle down. Her dream is to open a coffee shop, a risky endeavor considering no one outside of her chosen city of Thune has even heard of coffee. We follow Viv as she embarks on a new adventure, literally hanging up her sword as she takes a different sort of risk. While this is generally considered a low stakes book, I would argue these are at least medium stakes, as the coffee shop is Viv’s dream. While that may not be life or death, it means the world to her. 

In some ways reading this novel feels a bit like playing a RPG in a magical realm with an epic storyline. Watching Viv gradually build her dream cafe, acquiring a motley cast of friends along the way, all while encountering enemies and perhaps stumbling on a surprising ally –  there is a video game-like quality to the way the story unfolds and it’s not surprising that Baldree has a background in game development. 

We are on a journey that feels almost as rewarding to the reader as it does to our book’s hero. 

Of course, Viv can’t live out her dream on big ideas alone – she needs a carpenter, a barista, and perhaps a baker. And most importantly, she needs customers. Viv’s first hire is Tandri, a succubus who’s saddled with an unjust reputation for “manipulating” people, especially men. I love the dynamic between Viv and Tandri as they remind each other not to give into prejudice and assumption. As their business relationship strengthens, so does their personal bond. While there’s a very strong romantic element to this book, most of the conflict is centered around Viv working to attain her goals and becoming a new version of herself. The momentum comes from her personal development and internal struggles, rather than solely on her budding relationship with Tandri. 

A fun fact about this book is that Travis Baldree started writing it for NANOWRIMO in 2021 and self published it in 2022. This is his debut novel, and it met with enough success that it was picked up by trad publisher Tor only a few months later! The backstory of the book is even warm and fuzzy! 2020 2021 2022 2023 is off to a rough start, so why not read more warm and squishy books to pad those rough edges?

Til reviews Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

the cover of Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

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Séance Tea Party begins with Lora, a lost young person somewhere between girlhood and womanhood. Growing up looms large throughout the graphic novel… as much as anything looms in this gentle, joyful, sometimes heartbreaking story. Lora feels alone with her friends moving on to things like slick magazines and text chains, while she continues to prefer imaginative play. When ghost girl Alexa joins Lora at the titular séance tea party, the two form a friendship—and maybe something more—that will ultimately bring healing to both girls and those important to them.

It’s a quick read and a sweet one. Lora is relatable as someone who doesn’t want to stop having fun but feels like her fun is no longer accepted. I saw a lot of myself in her and remembered going through the same feeling that “growing up” means growing miserable. Lora and Alexa’s friendship is adorably played. This literal ghost of the past gives Lora the confidence to do new things and reach out to others, while holding on to the things she values about her younger self.

This is a story about what we let go of and what we hold onto. The narrative never feels critical of Lora’s desire to keep her childhood joys. It’s not a cruel story. If anything, it’s about an intentional and healthful fusion of the two.

Take my commentary with a grain of salt: my visual literacy is far from the sharpest, and I likely missed a fair helping of nuance. The core story, though, is a delight.

Kelleen reviews The Inconvenient Heiress by Jane Walsh

the cover of The Inconvenient Heiress

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I have elected myself president of the Jane Walsh fan club that does not exist. I am painting us Lavender Menace-style t-shirts with stencils and foam brushes and I’ll order broaches on Etsy. I’ll wear a backwards baseball cap as my crown and shout my allegiance from the roofs of all of the buildings because I LOVE JANE WALSH.

I, like so many of us, have been feeling increasingly as though my world is crumbling around me, so imagine my utter elation when I received an email from Bold Strokes that contained the gift of Jane Walsh’s new historical romance novel, The Inconvenient Heiress. There is nothing in the wide world that brightens my day faster than a Jane Walsh novel and this book brightened my world.

This book—the start of a new series for her—has impeccable vibes. Let me paint you a picture (this is a clever joke because one of the heroines is a painter): Two poor women on the regency coast, friends to lovers, all the pining, an unexpected (and rather inconvenient) arrival of an unknown family fortune, the much more expected threat of losing the fortune, determined suitressing, a curvy heroine, a rockstar community of proud lesbian spinsters, two loving families, finding literally any excuse to kiss your best friend even though you’re just gals being pals, and the most stunning cover I have ever seen.

This book is so tender. It’s soft and aching and delicate while at the same time being all the things I ever want in a historical romance novel—dramatic and lush and dynamic. Each word is so steeped in culture and convention and then with some magic flick of her wrist she’s flipped it all upside down onto its head. Jane Walsh writes with such a reverence for women and womanhood while embracing a vast and wondrous queerness.

Reading a Jane Walsh novel is a dream with every page. It’s a reminder that we have always been here, that we have always been finding community and finding love, that we have always risked it all and been rewarded for our bravery, that queer love is about the quiet moments as well as the loud ones, that we deserve to wear flowy gowns and make our art and find our future, that we deserve to have our love and care returned to us in spades, that we deserve and deserve and deserve.

Pick up a Jane Walsh romance novel. You won’t regret it. And there’s always room in our fan club.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bold Strokes Books for this ARC. Out August 16th, 2022.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Maggie reviews Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky

the cover of Coming Back

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Coming Back by Jessi Zabarsky is a rather lovely fantasy graphic novel about two women, Preet and Valissa, trying to come to terms with themselves and each other and the world they live in. It comes out on January 18th, and I’d like to thank Random House for providing The Lesbrary with an ARC for review. Preet and Valissa live in a small community where Preet uses her powerful magic to help everyone in the village. Her partner, Valissa, has no magic and runs the town library. One day, a mysterious mist enters the library from the depths, leading to town panic. They decide to send someone to investigate, and Valissa volunteers because the village needs Preet’s gift too much to lose her. Their separation leads both of them to actions they never would have taken had their lives not been disrupted, and forces them to examine themselves, their relationship, and their very view of the world.

I thought this was a very charming graphic novel with lots of interesting worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is more in the art than in the dialogue, so a slow and careful reading to really appreciate the art is rewarding as the detail unfolds. The way the characters interact with the world around them is interesting. It leads to many questions that do not always get answered, but it’s more fun to imagine the answers than if the story had been loaded down with heavy description boxes, which would disrupt the flow of the artwork. Why is the library built around a hole in the ground? We don’t know but I’m fascinated by the idea. I also always appreciate a story where the diversity and queerness is baked in. Valissa and Preet are clearly accepted as a couple within their village, and none of their conflict revolves around the fact that they’re both women. The village they come from is diverse and accepting, and they’re only concerned when Preet stops performing her duties. The wider world outside the village is also magical, full of people of different shapes and talents. It’s a soft, interesting world, drawn with care and whimsical detail.

Which is the other high point of this book. Jessi Zabarsky’s artwork is gorgeous, full of graceful movements and colorful accents. Personally, I found everyone’s outfits the most charming. Everyone looked soft and very cute. The movements around the magical talents were also well conveyed. The book relies more heavily on art than on dialogue boxes, and Zabarsky’s style holds up well. It’s a very restful read, and a sharp contrast from the busy action so popular in a lot of graphic novels and comic books now.

In conclusion Coming Back was a soft, delightful read. I greatly enjoyed both the artwork and the story. Valissa’s journey shows a lot of strength and courage, and Preet’s big emotions grabbed my heart. If you’re looking for a YA graphic novel for yourself or for a gift, this would be a great choice. Coming Back comes out on January 18, and it would make for a perfect cozy winter afternoon read. 

Shana reviews Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could Be is a fluffy, heartwarming romance about supposedly straight best friends who fall in love with each other. The story loosely reimagines two of my favorite characters, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables. I sometimes find coming out stories too predictable and trite. I loved this gooey, angst free story anyway, and recommend it for when you need an inclusive, low-conflict read.

Tessa is a quiet, nurturing, librarian who falls asleep most nights while giggling over the phone with her best friend Monty. She’s engaged to be married to a guy no one much likes, especially outspoken Monty. The two friends are fiercely and unapologetically each other’s most important person.

Monty works at a bookstore owned by her lesbian trans aunts, and is also engaged to her sweet friend Gilbert Gus, who she adores, but is more likely to play games with than kiss. When Tessa’s lackluster fiance cheats on her, Monty takes her on an alternate honeymoon. This leads to the two going on practice dates to help Tessa ease into dating again. Along the way these two figure out what everyone around them already knows: they’re perfect for one another.

Tessa and Monty have an intensely loving friendship, and watching them discover their romantic side left me squealing with joy. Their dynamic is a balm for every fan who sighed over two straight characters who clearly should be dating each other, whether that’s Rizzoli and Isles, or Diana and Anne.

Who We Could Be has an idyllic, fairy tale quality. It’s set in a progressive small New England town, and cocoons the characters within this supportive atmosphere. Instead of leaning into the drama of ended engagements and newfound sexuality, the story resolves potentially obstacles easily, letting Tessa and Monty’s playful relationship take center stage. I appreciated that the characters come to recognize their queer sexuality before falling in love with one another, and the role Monty’s aunts play in their drama-free coming out process.

Cameron specializes in stories about BFFs who fall in love, and after reading Who We Could Be, I devoured her backlist. This remains my favorite version of this trope. Highly recommended for fans of quiet romances.

Maggie reviews The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin

The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin cover

Obviously, there has been a lot going on recently. In light of the new stresses in my, and everyone else’s, lives, what I wanted to read was some light romance as an escape. I turned to The Queen of Ieflaria by Effie Calvin, because it had been recommended to me a while ago as a very cute fantasy f/f romance. I liked it immensely. The twin influences of fantasy and romance combined for some highly enjoyable, wish-fulfilling world-building, bulldozing all potential problems to create a fantasy realm where queer romance can reign and the problems are mostly fantasy-plot related.

Princess Esofi of Rhodia has journeyed for months to get to the kingdom of Ieflaria and marry her long-time betrothed, Prince Albion. Although the betrothal was born out of political necessity – Ieflaria needs the battlemages that Rhodia trains in order to fend off escalating dragon attacks – she believes her union with Albion will be a good one based upon the long series of letters they’ve exchanged. However, upon arrival she finds out that Albion is dead. Esofi is left to marry another in the line of succession to keep her and her resources in Ieflaria. Albion’s sister, the Princess Adale, is the logical choice, but Adale never thought she would rule and rejects the violent upheaval of her life. Esofi and Adale have to build their relationship in the midst of dragon attacks, culture shock, rival heirs, and Adale’s own personal crisis.

What I enjoyed about this book was that there was a lot of traditional fantasy elements – magic, dragons, elaborate regency setups – but a strong romance sensibility made it all very soft. Princess Adale has strong feelings about being forced into the position of Crown Princess, a common enough fantasy element, but she starts to reconsider when she becomes enamored of how nice and soft Princess Esofi looks, a common romance element. Watching her become tongue-tied over her feelings is a delight. Court politics and arranged marriages are standard fare in both fantasy and romance, but this book wanted them to be a backdrop, not a real obstacle. Princess Esofi is both incredibly politically savvy and sensible about her position and also more than willing to have an emotional relationship. It was just so nice to take a break from everything happening in real life and watch a disaster princess trip and fall head over heels for a soft but extremely capable princess while also reading about dragons and magic.

What was also very nice about this book was that it was set squarely on Queer Romance and no problem was too real life to get explained away. How can they expect Princess Esofia to switch from marrying a guy to marrying a girl? Obviously Everyone is Pansexual. What about the line of succession? There’s some magic for that. A 400 page fantasy novel would explain and justify all of these things, but this is a romance first and foremost, so you don’t have to worry about it. Neither do the characters – it’s all built into their society from the ground up so they can immediately get to the romancing and the magic. A queer reader can sit back, read some inept wooing and dragon fighting, and feel warm and fuzzy for a while without any of the conflict having anything to do with queerness, which is always an experience I don’t realize I’m missing until I get into a story like this.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Queen of Ieflaria. It’s just the sort of fast-paced but incredibly soft romance I was looking for right now. If you’re at all into fantasy elements, this is a fun and feel-good read, and I’m excited to continue on to the rest of the series.