Kayla Bell reviews Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper

Payback’s a Witch cover

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Happy Halloween season, readers! For October, I was looking for something sapphic and spooky. Luckily, I was approved for an ARC of Payback’s A Witch by Lana Harper, which meets those two requirements perfectly. I absolutely loved this fun, feminist story and am excited to share it with you all. 

Our story begins with our protagonist, Emmy Harlow, returning after a long time away to her hometown of Thistle Grove. Thistle Grove might seem like your run-of-the-mill Halloween-themed tourist trap, but it secretly is the home of four powerful witch families: the Harlows, the Thorns, the Avramovs, and the Blackmoores. As Emmy returns, it’s time for the families to compete in a magical competition called the Gauntlet, and it’s Emmy’s turn to be the judge. Before the tournament starts, Emmy meets with her best friend Linden and their other classmate, Talia. It turns out that all three of them have had their hearts broken by golden boy Gareth Blackmoore. The three hatch a witchy plan for Talia, the only one of them actually competing, to take Gareth down and seek sweet revenge. 

The plot is surprisingly intricate, so there are also layers I didn’t mention in my short summary. It’s basically John Tucker Must Die meets The Craft, with an extra serving of queer relationships. The book is as fun as it sounds. I loved the short, page-turning chapters and engaging competition between all of our characters. All of the challenges in the Gauntlet were fun to read about and had compelling stakes. The central romance in the book really worked for me, as well. Tension and surprise happened at every turn without the plot becoming too complicated or dour. I also really liked the ending, especially the final setpiece. To avoid spoilers, I will leave my review at that. I encourage you to read this book for yourself and see how you like it. 

All that being said, my favorite aspect of this novel was the setting. Thistle Grove felt like a real place, and Harper’s vivid descriptions brought the Halloween vibes in a big way. That’s probably why I found the book so comforting to read. I especially loved the cozy feel of the Harlows’ witchy bookstore and the town dive bar, the Shamrock Cauldron. The powerful, scary aura of the town’s lake was similarly striking. The book opens with Emmy almost being bowled over by the magic of her hometown, and I felt the same way reading about it. Thistle Grove was definitely a place I would want to spend time in, and that compelled me to keep reading. 

At times, the characters did feel a little flat, especially the extended family members of our four core competitors. However, that didn’t take away from the story at all for me. At the heart of this story was friendship and forgiveness. Forgiving others, yes, but also forgiving yourself for past mistakes. All of this was wrapped up in a bow of Halloween excellence. Payback’s A Witch comes out on October 5th, 2021. Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group for the Netgalley ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Kayla Bell reviews Strength Check by Katherine McIntyre

Strength Check combines three of my favorite things: board game cafés, roller derby, and WLW romance. Plus, it takes place in San Francisco and uses that setting to the fullest extent it can. Read this one if you want a fun, sweet romance between two very relatable women. The plot is straightforward: Roxie is working at a board game café in San Francisco when cute derby girl Mel answers her request for a new roommate. Mel just moved from Philadelphia and is escaping some pretty complicated dynamics with her family and ex.

The simplistic writing style in this book doesn’t take away from the complex dynamics of relationships between the characters. Mel and Roxie’s friendship is the heart of the story, which makes their romance all the more fun to read about. The cast of characters surrounding them were a little bit tough to keep track of, but also added more depth to the story. I just really enjoy reading about great friendships, and that is really what this book is built on.

Another reason I enjoyed Strength Check so much is because of how authentic the characters felt. I really related to Mel, especially as she navigated moving across the country, dealing with biphobia, and feeling awkward joining a new friend group.

The biggest shortcoming of the book, for me, was that the writing was full of clichés. Now, it actually makes me happy to see romance tropes applied to same sex relationships, but you should know before you read this that you’re in for a lot of “throbbing cores” and “eyes darkening” that might seem overdone to you. Also, the characters were a bit melodramatic and I didn’t feel like the third act conflict had enough buildup. But, again, that comes with the territory and didn’t take me out of the story too much. Overall, I really enjoyed this book.

I couldn’t help but find the romance between the two leads very heartwarming and sweet. This is a book I wish I had read when I was younger, first realizing I wasn’t straight, and scared of what my future would look like. I found this novel to be very comforting. It’s the perfect sapphic romance for the holidays, as many moments of the story take place during Thanksgiving and Christmas. I can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series.

Strength Check comes out on September 21st and is the first book in the Dungeons and Dating series. Thank you to the author for providing this ARC to review.

Readers should know that this book contains instances of homophobia, biphobia, and alcoholism, as well as a graphic sex scene.

Kayla Bell reviews The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

The Fallen cover

Remember last month, when I said that I love the publisher Angry Robot and the book that made me fall in love with them was Ada Hoffman’s The Outside? Well, manifesting works, because this month, I get to review The Fallen, The Outside’s sequel. This review will include some spoilers for The Outside, so I recommend reading that before reading this review! 

The novel picks up where the last book left off, with Yasira recovering from her trip to the Outside while her girlfriend, Tiv,  takes care of her and leads the rebellion against the Gods. We also see the return of the vengeful AI Gods and their legion of warriors, out for revenge against Yasira. I don’t want to include spoilers for the plot, so I will just say that another space opera adventure ensues. I loved returning to the world of the Chaos Zone because of the truly unique worldbuilding. The combination of spirituality and artificial intelligence is such a fascinating premise. It makes the more technology-focused parts of the novel still interesting to read about. In this novel, we see the angels struggle with balancing their emotions, their roles in the divine system, and their technological nature. We also see the toll taken on the resistance fighters, and their desire to press on despite it all. This story is engaging and fast-paced.

The only part of the novel that I didn’t love as much were the constant time skips. It was interesting to see the characters at different points in the narrative, but, especially combined with all of the new information presented about the world, it did feel overwhelming to me at times. I could still easily follow the story, it just felt a bit all over the place. Despite that, I really liked the interludes between chapters, where we get to see the diary of Yasira’s old mentor Evianna Talirr. These streams of consciousness really underpin the themes of the novel and breaks up the story nicely. 

Once again, just like in The Outside, we see representation of autism and mental illness. As a neurodivergent person myself, I love seeing this experience valued and centered in a science fiction story. Neurodiversity is explored not just in Yasira, but in different cultures throughout the world, which was amazing to see. Moreover, I love that there are emotional consequences to the events that happen in this world. Yasira is truly changed and impacted by the scary, traumatizing things she’s seen and been through, both mentally and physically. Tiv is also impacted by the things she’s seen, and carries the weight of the primary caretaker role in the relationship. This is all while the couple is still in danger, facing the ire of some of the most powerful beings in their universe. In general, I am always impressed by the exploration of mental and emotional health in this series.

Another part of the book I really liked was learning more about what happened to Old Earth, our world, in this series’ universe. There is a scene where Tiv visits a museum detailing everything that happened on Earth, focused mostly on the people’s suffering. This part felt very prescient and also made me truly understand why people in this universe relied so heavily on the Gods despite their destructive, controlling natures. It built upon the worldbuilding of the last book in a detailed way. The Fallen is another adventurous foray into the technotheocratic world that Ada Hoffmann has created. It definitely lives up to its predecessor and represents characters that are usually not included in science fiction, much less space opera. This book was released on July 13th, so you can pick up a copy now. Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC.

Kayla Bell reviews The Offset by Calder Szewczak

The Offset by Calder Szewczak cover

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Cards on the table, Angry Robot is one of my favorite publishers. Ever since I started getting into science fiction and fantasy, they’ve consistently published some of my favorite books. The Outside by Ada Hoffman, The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu, and Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng are all some of the best books I’ve read in the genre. So when I had the chance to read an ARC of The Offset, I jumped at the chance. Luckily, this book continued the streak of being extremely entertaining!

In the future, as climate change ravages the earth, survivors are hyper-aware of their impact on their environment. Because of this, they’ve created the ceremony of the Offset, where, to counteract new birth, one parent is selected to die. While this is happening, scientist Jac is working on using genetically engineered trees to make Greenland habitable and protected. Meanwhile, her wife Alix is dealing with their daughter Miri, who is extremely depressed and angry about being born into a dying world. Things get worse when Miri is selected to choose who dies for the Offset. She must decide between one parent, who is emotionally distant and saving the world, or her other parent, with whom she loves and has a close relationship.

This book kept me reading. In a lot of apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, I get bored by the misery and hopelessness of it all. Not so with The Offset. Don’t get me wrong, the world is extremely dark and upsetting. But the heart of this book was the difficult, complicated relationship between Miri and her mothers. I saw a lot of my climate anxiety-riddled self in Miri. This book was a science fiction version of an argument I have in my head all the time: is it truly ethical to have children knowing the problems that the world will face due to climate change? Will future generations hate us for subjecting them to the worst consequences of our and previous generations’ actions?

[This paragraph contains vague spoilers.] I wish that the book’s ending had kept up this focus on familial relationships rather than going fully into grimdark territory and being, in my opinion, unnecessarily brutal. I also didn’t fully grasp why Miri made the choice that she had made; it felt like she just chose who she did to be dramatic. Other things that bothered me about this book were how one-dimensional the anti-natalists, those who oppose reproduction of any kind, felt and some of the time skips. I found the book to be paced exceptionally well, but I did feel a little confused when the narrative would move into the characters’ memories without warning.

Other than that, as I said, I found the book to be quite entertaining. The world was rich and the authors did a great job of establishing worldbuilding. Even without a full understanding of the science, I definitely felt the importance of Jac’s work. This is a book that I would classify as part of my favorite genre of sci-fi: climate fiction (sci-fi novels that explore climate change and how humans adapt to it). I also loved, and honestly don’t see this often enough in SFF books, how casually the lesbian and nonbinary representation was handled. Queer people were just a normal part of the world. In the future, I would definitely read another book set in this same universe and hope that the two authors collaborate again. If you’re looking for a quick, dark, science fiction exploration of an interesting ethical question, pick up The Offset.

Kayla Bell reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Radiant Days cover

There aren’t many stories that can truly say they’ve done time travel in a unique way. Going back to the past or ahead to the future have already been done dozens of times. A fish out of water, or out of time, is going to make for an interesting story. But Radiant Days does time travel differently, and in a way that felt very compelling to me. 

Radiant Days takes place in two different time periods. The 1870s storyline follows French poet Arthur Rimbaud through the trials and tribulations of his youth. The other storyline takes place in the 1970s, and follows Virginia art student Merle as she develops her craft and explores the street art scene. Merle is exploring her sexuality and Arthur is trying to survive as an artist in an oppressive time. One night, somehow, they meet and connect over their shared love of art. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything too major beyond that. 

Still, I found this book really compelling. Merle’s voice feels very authentic, and I wanted to see her make it out okay despite being in a bit of a toxic relationship. I also appreciated the unique perspective of a queer woman from Appalachia. Merle’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the novel, and I think that was quite refreshing. She was also trying to deal with her complex family dynamics, recovering from the abuse she grew up around, and trying to make it in the art world. At the same time, the storyline following Arthur was also entertaining and kept me reading. Hand mixes historical events with humor and fun in a way that clearly showed how much respect and admiration she had for Arthur Rimbaud. As a Young Adult book, I thought this story structure was a clever way to get young readers interested in what from another writer might be a drier historical story. 

That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot in this novel. Merle exploring the graffiti subculture of the 1970s was very interesting, but I think the story could have used a little more of a driver. Similarly, I wish that Arthur had been given a chance to develop more as a character, I found myself wanting to read more of his inner thoughts and feelings and connecting more with Merle than Arthur. It was clear that both protagonists were impacted by their meeting out of time, but I think the story could have benefitted from spending a bit more time describing the impacts on both of them. With that being said, I thought that this was an excellently paced novel that is fantastic for younger readers. 

If you know a young person that is looking for a book about the power of art and what it means to break the rules, and is interested in historical fiction, this is a great option. I found myself feeling genuinely connected to both characters by the end of the book, and I can only imagine that it would be even more powerful for a younger reader. More queer historical fiction, especially about artists, is something I definitely want to see. 

Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Kayla Bell reviews “Create My Own Perfection” by E.H. Timms

"Create My Own Perfection" by E.H. Timms

“Create My Own Perfection” is a short story by E. H. Timms that comes out at the beginning of next month. It’s a retelling of the Medusa myth that centers the wronged, titular woman and incorporates elements from other mythologies. I really enjoyed it, and I think anyone who is interested in a unique, refreshing look on the myth would too.

This is a short story and because it’s so short, I won’t go too much into detail about the plot. Here are the bare bones: our protagonist is a college student and medusa who helps her selkie friend through a tough situation. “Create My Own Perfection” is a very quick read, and I encourage you to go in without any preconceived expectations.

I absolutely love seeing asexual and aromantic representation in fiction, especially in science fiction and fantasy protagonists. Asexuality is really at the center of this narrative. For those of you who are unfamiliar with asexuality, this might be a good story to understand what the experience is like for people that are asexual and aromantic. The author turns asexuality and aromanticism into a beautiful fantasy. Reading that was quite refreshing, especially given how much hatred, exclusion, and invalidation ace and aro people face in the world.

On the other side of that same coin, this story also centered the beauty and importance of friendship. I loved this aspect of it. Why aren’t there more stories in fantasy and science fiction where friendship is treated as just as important as romance? Or every genre, for that matter? That’s another thing that makes this story unique and different. This story’s protagonist is one that would do anything for their friend and it is lovely.

Gods and goddesses reimagined as modern folk is not new, but this story also did that in a fun way. I especially liked the fashion descriptions of the different deities, that really gave me a sense of imagery and brought me into the story. Overall, the description in general is quite vivid. It made the very fast read worth the time for me and helped to reinforce the emotional aspects of the piece.

A queer retelling of Greek mythology with elements of other folklore was exactly what I needed to refresh my reading. Readers should know that the story includes aphobia/amisia, and harassment. “Create My Own Perfection” is available for preorder now.

Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Kayla Bell reviews Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

Mistletoe by Lyn Gardner

After this dumpster fire of a year, I am very much looking forward to the holiday season. Christmas music, holiday movies, and baking are the distractions I need this year. So when I saw Mistletoe on sale on the iBooks store, I jumped at the chance to read what seemed like a sapphic Hallmark movie. The novella I read wasn’t entirely the wholesome love story I was expecting, but it was very festive and fun.

This romantic comedy starts with Santa Claus. Yes, you heard that right, Santa is a real person and so are all his elves in this novella about two grown women. Calamity strikes when one of Santa’s elves realizes that, many years ago, he missed one child’s Christmas wish. It was from a little girl named Diana who recently lost her parents and wants to find her soulmate. Diana’s an adult now, and Santa isn’t about to let anyone’s wish go unanswered. Together with an elf named Percy, the two set out to set Diana up with her soulmate Jamie. Hijinks ensue as the two women meet and fall in love.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the characters. Remember that this is basically a Christmas movie in novella form, so neither of them were super fleshed out, and that’s okay. Both of the two love interests were very distinct from one another. Diana was sweet and kind, while Jamie was bolder. Their dynamic was very interesting and they complemented each other well. It kept me reading to see how each of them would react to different situations. I also love that they actually ended up together long term. It’s always cool to see that in a queer romance. Jamie and Diana’s friends, the side characters, were also interesting in and of themselves. My personal favorite was Diana’s Aunt Brenda, who took her in after her parents passed away. For me, the characters were the strongest part of the novella, although it is worth mentioning that they were not a very diverse ensemble.

The weirdest part of the story were the jarring shifts in tone that happened throughout. It starts with a scene of Santa and his elves, so I settled in for a fantastical, wholesome romance. That’s what it was, for the most part, until the elf gets sauced and Jamie and Diana start picturing each other sexually after their kiss. Then, it’s back to Hallmark territory until a really out of nowhere scene that’s just a graphic description of Jamie masturbating. Back to PG-rated once again until two back to back erotica scenes in the epilogue. I want to make it clear that I have no problem with erotic fiction, I just thought it felt really out of place in what is otherwise a very tame Christmas fantasy romance. With this shortcoming, I also thought that the pacing was pretty off, especially for a story so short. The book goes from being day-by-day to skipping weeks and even decades at a time. I did enjoy where everyone ended up, but wish there was a little more buildup to everything that happened.

Overall, Mistletoe made me very happy because it showed that relationships between two women can be given the holiday movie treatment just like straight relationships can. Some parts did genuinely make me chuckle, and I enjoyed the dynamic between the two main love interests. I would have loved this book a lot more if the erotic scenes were cut out. Still, I would describe this book as escapist, festive, fun.

Kayla Bell reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.

This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.

There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.

Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.

Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.