Grief in Utopia: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

This review contains spoilers.

The Seep might be one of the most refreshing takes on alien invasion I’ve ever read. This novel follows Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka, a middle-aged trans woman, as she and her wife Deeba, along with almost everyone else in the world, are forced to live with something called the Seep. The Seep is an alien unattached to concepts like linear time and physicality that invades humanity and simply… makes life perfect. People can alter their appearances at will, ingesting the Seep feels like getting high, and there are restaurants that only give you good-tasting food that will help your body out, along with a bunch of other seemingly-awesome changes. After a few years of living under its power, Trina doesn’t love the Seep as much as her friends do anymore—and then her wife Deeba decides she wants to be turned back into a baby and give up the life they’ve built together.

Trina does what I think any of us would be tempted to do in that situation: she drinks herself half to death. Living under the Seep, though, means that her actions don’t go unnoticed, and what really kicks the story off is someone coming to Trina’s place and telling her that she’s hurting the entire community by not taking care of herself or her house. This sends her on a mission to hunt down an old friend of hers and to save a boy she meets along the way who comes from the Compound, one of the only places untouched by the Seep.

What I really liked about this story is how deep Trina is in her grief. It’s been about five years since Deeba left, but the way Porter writes Trina is like it happened yesterday. Deeba isn’t dead, not really; she is a small child being raised by a lovely couple far away from Trina. However, to Trina, it’s like she is, and that comes through spectacularly through Porter’s writing. Trina hasn’t moved on at all in those years after Deeba’s departure. She could move on: she could let the Seep erase her memory of Deeba, or she could let it change her feelings into something more manageable. But Trina is all about the old days and the old ways. She misses what art was back when humans still routinely felt things like pain and sadness, and she doesn’t get the appeal of having an all-knowing alien rooting around in her skull and changing her brain chemistry every second of every day of every week.

So when she meets this kid from the Compound who wants to know about the world outside and wants to join with the Seep, it’s like her brain finally has something to focus on that isn’t Deeba. It’s never really about the kid; in the end, Trina doesn’t really care about him, not like she tries to convince herself that she does. It’s a distraction from the pain she has carried with her since Deeba’s departure. All of it leads her to a friend (ex-friend) who goes around wearing his dead boyfriend’s face and pretending that he is a different race than he actually is. It takes Trina finding him again and confronting him for any real change to happen within her, and Porter goes exactly where you want her to go when Trina is shoved back into the past for a little while. She watches her wife from the same place she watches her in a scene from the beginning, caught in a memory, and the pain of losing that part of her wife hits Trina all over again. She’s been lost in her grief, and she has been for a while now. This is simply when she finally realizes it.

Trina’s conversations with the Seep are also a high point of the book. The Seep talks to Trina by changing the writing on a pamphlet she is given, then by changing the writing on a pamphlet that the boy drops, and then it actually speaks to her from the pamphlet cover and heats up in her hands when it wants to tell her something. Trina tries to get the Seep to understand that sometimes humans need to be able to choose bad things or things that hurt, but it takes the Seep a long time to grasp that point. If the Seep isn’t there to make life perfect and wonderful, then what is it for? The relationship between Trina and the entity known as the Seep is the thing that drives the story onward when Trina’s previous excuses and distractions run a little thin. In one of the most moving scenes of the book, Trina and the Seep talk to each other in a sort of talk show style set-up where every person in the audience is a different iteration of Deeba. Deeba left her because of the Seep; we know that, the story literally begins with that. Seeing it laid out so viscerally, though, with the Seep wearing somebody’s face and talking to Trina while every version of Deeba she ever knew laughs out at her from the background really made it hit home. That’s what this sort of grief is like, and Porter captures it so perfectly. I’ve been thinking about that scene for days since I put the book down. It takes having this conversation with the Seep for Trina to decide to try to move past everything with Deeba, and the story ends optimistically with Trina beginning to take care of herself and the house she used to share.

I know I’m a little late at finding this story (it was published in 2020), but I’m just glad I found it when I did. It’s moving, thought-provoking, and exactly the sort of thing I’m into. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is because there are a couple plot issues it took me a minute to get past (she’s on a Do Not Admit list to her ex-friend’s shows, but she’s able to go in anyway?), but other than that, I really liked it. The way that the novel is bookended by “Tips for Throwing a Dinner Party at the End of the World” is really cool too and ties the story together. I would absolutely recommend this.

Triggers warnings for: death, slight suicidal ideation, loss of bodily autonomy, and drug use (kind of).

A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

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 Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

When I picked this up, I was expecting a horror novel. And that makes sense, because it does have a lot of ghosts in it. But the ghosts are more a part of the setting than the plot; while they’re literally present in the town, their significance in the story is on the metaphorical side. I think “Gothic” is more fitting as a genre categorization.

We’re following Jericka, who has been bouncing from place to place her whole life as her mom kept uprooting the two of them. Now, she’s spending the summer helping to take care of her grandmother as she dies of cancer. What makes this a lot more complicated is that Gram walked out on Jericka’s mother and uncle when they were children — leaving them alone with their abusive father.

One thing I appreciated about Jericka is that she doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations. When she meets her Gram, she asks her directly why she left her kids and why she reached out when she got sick. This is not one of those books where you wish the characters would just talk to each other — if anything, there are times when it would benefit Jericka to stop and think about what she’s going to say for a minute before lashing out.

This is a quick read, and the writing can feel a little… sparse at times. Like Jericka, the author gets directly to the point in a way that can feel abrupt. But the strength of this story is in its characterization and relationships. The three generations of women in that house all have complicated relationships to each other—Jericka soon finds out some secrets about her own childhood that are hard to grapple with. There are no easy answers here. Jericka begins to build a relationship with her grandmother even knowing that there is no way for Gram to make up for the damage she’s done to her children. She also starts to see her father and his wife, who she’s only communicated with through the occasional phone call and birthday card.

Then there’s Jericka’s complicated romantic life. She has a boyfriend back home, James, and their relationship is… comfortable. She loves him, but she doesn’t know if she wants to try to continue their relationship long distance when they go to university. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a girl in Clearwater: Kat. Kat is the only one who talks about the ghosts in town. She’s not popular, but she has a fiercely loyal best friend who will defend her at all costs. She talks a mile a minute and makes a terrible iced hot chocolate. I appreciated that Kat was multifaceted and flawed, not just a perfect love interest. Jericka has been out as bisexual for years, so her struggle choosing between James and Kat has more to do with her fears about the future than any worry about what it means for her identity.

I suppose I should actually talk about the ghosts, but it doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to get to them. The characters and their complex relationships — especially family relationships — are the stars here. The ghosts, usually called echoes, are the manifestation of a central tension in Jericka’s story: the choice between putting down roots and always being on the run. The people in Coldwater seem unable to leave this town, but Jericka is tired of constantly moving. The echoes are the ghosts of the women who died when the old schoolhouse burned down, and they implore residents to never leave.

Of course, this is also a story about grief and loss. Jericka is building a relationship with her grandmother knowing that soon Gram will be dead. Jericka decides that although this is extremely painful, and although she can’t forgive Gram for what she did, she doesn’t want to continue the family tradition of silence and disconnection. She’d rather reach out even with all of that history between them.

I wouldn’t recommend this for readers looking for a terrifying horror read, but if you are a fan of family sagas and coming of age stories set against a gothic backdrop—with a few creepy scenes—I think you’ll enjoy this one.

A Lesbian Road Trip Romcom About Death: Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun

Here We Go Again cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I read Alison Cochrun’s previous book, Kiss Her Once for Me, and liked it, but I was not expecting to love this one quite as much as I did. Some of that is for reasons that will translate to many other readers, and some of my enjoyment comes from it combining my own random interests. Either way, I highly recommend this one, even if you have no experience teaching high school English and aren’t also contemplating getting assessed for ADHD.

Just as high school is such a pivotal time of life despite being only four years, my three years teaching and learning to teach had a permanent impact on me. I may not have been a high school English teacher for long, but I think some part of me always will be—and it’s still my back-up career. During those years, it completely consumed me. I would lay awake at night trying to figure out how to be a better teacher. My practicums were the most stressful times of my life. So it won’t come as a shock that I deeply related to this story about three high school English teachers. Unsurprisingly, Cochrun used to be a high school English teacher herself. (It’s also dedicated to teachers: “For all the queer educators out there. You save lives simply by showing up. Thank you. And for every queer teenager who became a little too attached to their English teacher. I see you. I love you.”)

Logan and Rosemary are rival English teachers at the same high school, but once, they were best friends. Then one kiss ruined their relationship, and now they can’t stand each other. It doesn’t help that they are classic Type A (Rosemary) and Type B (Logan) teachers, each judging the other for their opposing styles. How did they end up in the same profession? When they were teens, the only person who saw and accepted these two struggling queer and neurodivergent teachers was Joe, their Mexican American, openly gay English teacher. In their conservative small town, Joe was a life-saving presence for them, and they both followed in his footsteps.

Joe isn’t teaching anymore, though. He’s only 64, but years battling pancreatic cancer has ended with him being recommended hospice care. Both Rosemary and Logan have been helping take care of him, but he has a deathbed request that will be a lot more challenging to fulfill. He wants to die in his cabin in Maine, and he wants Logan and Rosemary to drive him there. Together.

Because the two of them can hardly be in the same room together, the idea of being in the same car for almost a week seems impossible, but they can’t ignore Joe’s pleas for them to make up and help go out the way he wants to. Besides, Rosemary has—unbelievably—just been laid off and doesn’t have a guaranteed job to go back to after the summer, so she needs something to keep her anxious brain occupied. So, she makes a giant binder of travel plans and convinces Logan to get on board, and off they set: a dying man, two mortal enemies, and a dog, all crammed in a van together.

I love a road trip story, and just as you’d expect, being in a confined space together forces Logan and Rosemary to communicate. There has been a lot of miscommunication between the two of them over the years, including Logan believing that Rosemary is a tight-laced, high-achieving, heterosexual neurotypical person with everything under control. In reality, they’re both neurodivergent lesbians, and Rosemary manages her anxiety with a desperate need to try to be in control, with a plan for everything.

The two of them haven’t been friend since they were 14, but neither of them moved on in the nearly two decades since. Rosemary keeps so busy with teaching that it allows no time in her life for dating, while Logan keeps her relationships to casual hookups only.

Logan planned to graduate and travel the world, having big adventures. But when her mother left her dad, she was determined not to do the same thing, so she’s been living with him ever since. This road trip is the first time she’s really left their small town.

As they travel, the two of them continue to butt heads, but they also reluctantly reconnect as adults—and finally address what actually happened the day they kissed. Logan’s instincts to run away from conflict mean that it’s not so easy to repair their relationship, though, especially when Logan refuses to grapple with Joe’s imminent death.

In the acknowledgements, Cochrun calls this a romcom about death, and that is accurate. I appreciated that it doesn’t have a particularly romantic view of death. Rosemary and Logan have to change Joe’s diapers as he howls at the indignity. Death is not a quiet, noble affair. It’s prolonged and painful—both for the person dying and their loved ones. There is a little bit of “Tuesdays with Morrie shit,” as Joe refers to it, but it’s not cloying.

(Spoilers, highlight to read) I also thought the first sex scene—Rosemary’s first time having sex—was especially well done. They both go very slowly, with clear consent at all times. It’s sweet, and since I’ve had some sex scenes completely turn me off of the book recently, I was glad to see it treated with such care.(End of spoilers)

A lesbian road trip romance + ruminating on death + both characters having ADHD + all the main characters being high school English teachers made this a home run for me, but you don’t have to have my exact configuration of interests to enjoy this friends to almost lovers to enemies to lovers romance. And yes, I cried.

Official content warnings: This book contains references to an off-page death of a parent due to overdose, and it includes the on-page death of a parental figure.

A Muffin Baking- and Hijinx-Filled Romantic Comedy: Vengeance Planning for Amateurs by Lee Winter

Vengeance Planning for Amateurs cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Vengeance Planning for Amateurs by Lee Winter was published February 2024 and is Lee’s first intentional romantic comedy. The book follows muffin baker Olivia Roberts, her beloved stuffed penguin Trip, and her band of book club misfits that meet at the local crime bookstore. When one of her exes steals Trip, Olivia sees red and has decided enough is enough. She has had a terrible string of relationships with people who have been varying levels of awful, and she decides it’s time to take her life back in the form of revenge against every ex that has hurt her. She posts an ad for a henchperson at the bookstore, and she is truly shocked when the person who sits across from her is none other than the owner of said bookstore: Margaret Blackwood. Margaret keeps to herself and is rarely seen. Olivia’s only real interaction with Margaret has been Margaret’s commentary from her office during Olivia’s book club. When the stoic and beautiful Margaret signs up to be her henchperson, Oliva isn’t sure why this brilliant, mysterious, woman would want to help her. However, Olivia’s other candidates are less than stellar, so Margaret gets the job. What ensues is an absolutely beautiful, chaotic, and laugh-out-loud story about two people that offer the other a chance to start over. 

I am a huge fan of Lee Winter. I have read every book she has written, some multiple times. I was excited to see how she would handle a romantic comedy, a different flavor from her usual books (though almost every one of her others also made me laugh out loud at times). I was not disappointed. Nor was I surprised that even though it had that romantic comedy feel throughout, it still packed an emotional punch. There is a cleverness that is always present in Lee’s books, and this book was no different. While the baking puns are plentiful (and I enjoyed every one), there is also not a wasted word or character. Every plot point is well thought out, every person has a purpose. A romantic comedy follows a certain formulaic path, but even so there needs to be something new, and Olivia hiring a henchperson certainly adds something fresh. Every visit upon one of Olivia’s exes provides not only an opportunity for hijinks, but a moment for Olivia and Margaret to learn more about each other and grow as individuals.

As I said, there is an emotional component to this story that I felt was incredibly well written. While I won’t give spoilers, Lee handled Margaret’s backstory in a beautiful way that was written with immense care. The way she chose to give us insight into Margaret, through diary entries, offers an intimate look at her thoughts and emotions. Without those entries, I think it would have been difficult to understand someone that keeps her cards so incredibly close to her chest. But it allows you to see who Margaret truly is, and it provides context to her other actions throughout the book. (Some of those entries made me cry, but we are going to forgive Lee for that.) In a scene towards the end, I Lee captures an emotion in the best way I have seen in a novel dealing with this particular topic. It is a sentiment I will be thinking about for a long time. 

Margaret and Olivia are two very different people, but I loved them together. In any pairing, there needs to be a balance, and as a reader you want to be able to understand why these people are drawn to each other. Margaret and Olivia each offer the other something that has been missing in their lives. Olivia has only ever been treated as expendable, as someone people use to get what they want and leave when they don’t find her useful any more. She has never been put first and has been with some truly terrible people. She has rarely experienced loyalty or someone asking: what do you want? What can I do for you? Other than her sister, she has never had someone who had her best interest in mind. With Margaret, she has found someone loyal and who not only has her best interest in mind, but that actively goes out of her comfort zone to help her. Margaret’s life in many ways has been closed off and has been dark for many years. Olivia is the opposite of that, and offers Margaret light in a way she has been desperately needing. Even more, despite all the things that have been thrown at her, Olivia continues to shine that light, and I do think that is part of why Margaret is so drawn to her. I loved these two together. I loved how they each showed through actions how they felt about the other, even before any words of that nature had been uttered. 

I will also always go a little feral for a character that goes into protective mode, and this story has that in spades. I think Lee is one of the best at writing that dynamic, and I adored those scenes. I also happen to think that she is the best at writing two oblivious people who clearly like each other, but are so lesbian that the thought never occurs to them that the other might like them back. That scenario is top tier in this novel, and I loved every moment. 

If you’re in the mood for a romance with unhinged chaos, laugh out loud moments, character growth, a cast of hilarious side characters, and beautiful moments of communication and vulnerability, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

Traumatized, Angsty Bisexuals: 6 Times We Almost Kissed (and One Time We Did) by Tess Sharpe

6 Times We Almost Kissed cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Penny and Tate’s mothers have always been best friends—but the same cannot be said about the daughters’ relationship. Having clashed their entire lives, they must now put aside their bickering when Penny’s mom agrees to become a liver donor to Tate’s mother, as both parents have decided to combine households for the summer. Although this will help the families get through this physically, emotionally, and financially difficult period, it will certainly not help Penny and Tate’s ever-confusing dynamic. Because, for some reason, they keep almost kissing. And even though they made a pact to keep the shared home drama-free, living across the hall from each other makes it increasingly more difficult to continue pretending that nothing ever (almost) happened between them.

As a fan of Sharpe’s writing, I can confidently say this is her best work. I’d read The Girls I’ve Been and Far From You in the past and really enjoyed them, but neither of those books got close to packing the same kind of emotional punch that I experienced while reading 6 Times We Almost Kissed.

Now, granted, it may be unfair to compare two thriller/mysteries to an angsty romance, and, granted, I am a very emotional reader. But this book… This book had me sobbing the entire way through. I know this is usually said (often by me) in a hyperbolic way. But it is a factually accurate assessment of my reading experience to say that tears were streaming down my face, non-stop, throughout the entirety of this story. I refused to read this book out in public because it was a guarantee that I would embarrassingly start crying in front of unassuming strangers on their daily morning commute.

I’d know from her other novels that Sharpe was particularly skilled at writing teenage characters who have suffered through unimaginable trauma. Therefore, it should have been no surprise that the cast of characters in this story were equally well-written, if not more so. The complexities of their family dynamics felt extremely raw and realistic, and I couldn’t help but deeply root for each of them to grow and heal. It is in fact quite a heavy story, but it felt almost therapeutic to read through, to the point that even though I knew it was going to cause me irreparable emotional damage, I could not put it down.

Sharpe does an excellent job of showing how a parent’s illness, a parent’s death and/or a parent’s grief will affect their child in the short- and long-term. The book really is an in-depth look into the ways our reactions to collective trauma impact those who were also affected by it, and the ways in which their own coping mechanisms can bend and mold the person that we become after the fact.

I do have a soft spot for sapphic main characters with complex mother-daughter dynamics, which ultimately are at the core of this novel. Yes, it is about romance and love and allowing yourself to believe that people can care deeply for you even after witnessing you at your lowest. But it is also about how difficult it is to be a mother after facing life-altering events; how painful it is to be the child of a parent who struggles to recover from pain, suffering, and loss; how limited rural medical access can force people to put themselves at risk for the sake of those they care about; how you can hurt those around you, but it does not necessarily make you a bad person unworthy of forgiveness and love.

If you’ve read some of Sharpe’s other novels and appreciated either the character analysis or her iconic non-chronological style of storytelling, you will love this book. She definitely included much less mystery than in her other YA novels, but she makes up for it tenfold in angst, love, and tears.

Representation: bisexual main characters

Content warnings [as listed by the author]: emotional abuse, neglect of a daughter by a mother, PTSD, accidental death of a father, ovarian cancer, remission, oophorectomy, liver donation, mentions of suicidal ideation and pain medication being monitored, mentions of a past interrupted assault, anti-therapy and anti-medication attitudes

A Standing Ovation for Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

“There is another girl / on this planet / who is my kin. / My father / lied to me / every day of my life. / [ . . . ] I want to put my fingers / against my sister’s cheek. / I want to put my face / in her neck & ask / if she hurts the way I do.”

And so begins Clap When You Land, a gorgeous dual narrative novel in verse about grief, loss, and the healing power of family written by acclaimed Dominican-American poet and writer Elizabeth Acevedo (she/her).

Camino and Yahaira (Yaya) are 16-year-old young women living in the Dominican Republic and New York City, respectively. Neither knows the other exists until the tragic death of their beloved Papi upends each of their lives and reveals that they are sisters. As Camino and Yahaira grieve and desperately try to make sense of a world without Papi, they must also navigate their complex feelings about each other and figure out what it means to be sisters.

Acevedo is a masterful storyteller. Her use of dual narrative and verse made for an enjoyable and accessible reading experience. The alternating perspectives kept me engaged, and there were never too many words on a page, which allowed me to really savor what I was reading. As a Latina, I felt a swell of pride every time I saw Acevedo describe a quintessential visual from our shared experience: curious neighborhood women in batas and chancletas; a mother with rollers stacked high atop her head; a community coming together to solemnly mourn a loved one with a rosario. I also really appreciated how Acevedo highlighted the range of Afro-Latine beauty through not only her descriptions of the different characters, but also the affirmations and terms of endearment Papi used with each of his daughters.

The representation in Clap When You Land goes beyond race and color. Although all the characters have a connection to Papi, it is the strong female relationships that are the novel’s throughline. Camino refers to Tia, the curandera (healer) that raised her, as “the single love of [her] life”. Tia has showed up for Camino in ways her parents could not. Camino’s belief that “curing is in [her] blood” and her aspirations of being a doctor are borne of her deep respect and admiration for Tia. Yahaira “likes girls” and has a girlfriend named Andrea (Dre). Although Yahaira’s sexuality is a core aspect of her identity, it is free-flowing and doesn’t require exposition. Dre is Yaya’s rock. Acevedo paints a beautiful picture of how a healthy and steady love can ground you in your darkest times.

I loved this book. It was my first experience reading Acevedo’s writing, but it definitely will not be my last. If you’re looking for a quick read with lots of great Latine representation that packs an emotional punch, you should pick up this book. Acevedo has also authored Poet X, With the Fire on High, and Family Lore. You can find her on Instagram @AcevedoWrites or on AcevedoWrites.com.

Trigger warnings for descriptions of a plane crash, death, sexual assault, and colorism.

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.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane

the cover of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself follows Kris, a recent widow, as she navigates the world of Shadester and NoShad while raising the child that her wife, Beau, died giving birth to. She has to deal with her own two shadows and with the baby’s two shadows as the kid grows up. Along the way, we get to see what a speculative dystopia where any sort of crime, even accidental, is met with an additional shadow being tacked onto your person would be like.

What initially drew me in is the novel’s point of view. It is told in first person, but a lot of the time, Kris is addressing Beau directly using the “you” pronoun. There are also sections that aren’t really a point of view at all. Formatted as quizzes and impossible crosswords, Crane paints a picture of grief and its aftereffects. The child Kris and Beau have together is simply referred to as “the kid” in most instances; the reader doesn’t find out her actual name until close to the very end of the novel. At first, I was wary of this choice to not name her, but Crane wound up pulling it off spectacularly, coinciding the reveal of the name with Kris’s personal growth from “person who is taking care of this child” to “person who accepts their role as mother to this child.” It really drove the point of Kris’s grief home, and the reveal happened at the perfect time, both for Kris and for the reader.

The world being split into Shads and NoShads was also really interesting. Championed by a president who mirrors a particular former president of ours, the system of shadows is just a way to punish people publicly. Make one mistake—like Kris, who won’t tell us how she got her extra shadow until she’s practically forced to—and you’re marked forever, gifted another shadow in front of everyone who comes to watch the ceremony. Shads are looked down on in society. They only have one day a week where they can grocery shop; Kris is told multiple times that homeschooling the kid is the better option to keep her away from everyone else; and it is all too easy to gain more shadows after you’ve been given your first. The kid receives her second shadow nearly the moment she is born due to Beau’s death, and the world is made so much harder for her to navigate due to something she wasn’t even consciously aware of doing. The government installs cameras in every house and every business, watching twenty four/seven for anyone to make a mistake worthy of an extra shadow. Kris is pretty anxious even before she gets hers. She struggles with her desire for sex that involves BDSM, but that’s the only real issue anyone faces in the sexual identity department. Another thing I liked: everyone in this book is just unapologetically queer. Despite being made of Shads and NoShads, the universe here is a reflection of our own, so it was nice to read about gay and queer folks finding ways to be happy in crappy situations. Honestly, it felt sort of refreshing.

This world is so full and detailed, and I loved getting to explore it with Kris and her rebellious kid who refuses to listen to the rules. However, there was one particular part of the writing that tore me out of the story time after time after time, and it’s how the story is told. In the beginning of the book, we bounce from paragraph to paragraph. There is hardly a single page without some kind of section break for the first one hundred pages; for most of those pages, there’s multiple section breaks, seemingly for no reason. A lot of the story is told through one paragraph at a time. It was disorienting as a reader to bounce from place to place like that so often. I get why Crane did it. They wanted to write in a way that mimicked Kris’s grief. Kris goes back and forth between addressing Beau, along with her past with Beau, and telling the story of her growing child. Maybe, for that reason, it’s meant to be disorienting. Kris can’t tell a cohesive narrative yet because she doesn’t know how to without Beau next to her. However, I had to continuously take breaks from reading in order to digest everything and to get to a point where I wanted to read it again. As the story progresses, the formatting becomes more standard, and we eventually transition almost entirely to regular paragraph and section breaks. Again, this is a reflection of Kris’s grieving process. The easier it gets for her to live in a world post-Beau, the easier it is to read. I just wish I had known about it before I started reading. I don’t think it would have kept me from picking up the book; it just would have been nice to know what to expect.

Spoilers for ending:

The ending of this book was also pretty lackluster to me and felt super rushed, but someone who likes endings where everything turns out great and perfect all of a sudden would be a big fan. I am simply not the person who likes those. Everything just fell in place too perfectly for me. We go through all of these specific trials and tribulations with the world that Crane has built, and then some of the problems just…disappear. However, it’s a happy ending; I can’t be mad about that.

Trigger warnings for: death, bodily harm, drug abuse, homophobia, and BDSM. There is also a chunk of the book dedicated to the kid’s attempt to find out who her biological father is with some tense family dynamics related to her wants.

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

the cover of Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)