A Bisexual Disaster Romantasy: Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

Hunt on Dark Waters cover

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I have been slow to jump on board the romantasy bandwagon, partly because I am particular when it comes to romances, and partly because the subgenre has been pretty cis and straight. When I heard that Tiktok favourite Katee Robert had a new fantasy pirate romance with a bisexual woman main character, it seemed like the perfect place to start. Although I ended up with some complaints, I’ll admit that I do see the appeal of this subgenre, and I plan to pick up the sequel.

Evelyn is a witch in a situationship with the vampire Lizzie. She knows it’s a bad idea, because Lizzie is heartless and extremely powerful…but the sex is good. And it’s a nice distraction from her grief over her grandmother. When things go south with their arrangement, she decides to take a parting gift in the form of some jewels, hopping through a portal to escape Lizzie. That’s when she meets Bowen, the captain of a Cŵn Annwn ship, who tells her she has a choice: join the crew or be killed. Evelyn agrees for now, but is looking for an escape route. Meanwhile, the taciturn, “paladin” Bowen and snarky pickpocket Evelyn can’t ignore the heat between them.

So yes, this is primarily an M/F romance, and predictably, I was most interested in the beginning chapters with Lizzie. Still, I had fun reading this. It’s exactly what I would expect from a romantasy book: some fantasy adventure and worldbuilding, but with a focus on the relationship—and plenty of steamy sex scenes. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen a romance heroine described as having a soft stomach, large thighs, and small breasts. And she knows she’s hot. So that’s fun.

A small thing I appreciated was that this is a queernorm world: there doesn’t seem to be any discrimination against queer or trans people in this world. There are also several nonbinary side characters, including ones who use they/them pronouns and ones that use neo pronouns. Since this book takes place in a world where people come through portals from very different worlds and cultures, it makes sense that they’d all be different and come with their own understandings of gender and pronouns.

I will say that the writing style wasn’t this book’s strongest feature. It felt a little too simple, and the dialogue was clunky at times. I also quickly got tired of the main characters spending every page describing how hot the other one is.

The plot was serviceable: Bowen has been fiercely loyal to the Cŵn Annwn and is having to reconsider whether they’re actually the bad guys, which takes a lot of unlearning. He was taken in by them as a kid and has no memory of the time before that—which felt like it would play a bigger part in the plot, but doesn’t really. I wasn’t deeply invested in this world, but I also wasn’t bored with it.

Vague spoilers in this paragraph: as I mentioned, I found Lizzie to be the most interesting part of this book. She’s the protagonist of the sequel, so although she can seem villainous at times, the author is also careful to include some glimpses of her softer side—she might be a powerful, killer vampire, but she can’t be completely irredeemable. That makes her an intriguing figure, especially in the last section of the book. She’s both the big bad that Evelyn is running from and a character that needs to be sympathetic enough to star in her own story. The tension between these two roles was interesting to read.

Overall, this was a fun, sometimes silly read. I feel like it’s worth mentioning that this was my first Katee Robert book, and it has a much lower average rating than her other books, like the Dark Olympus series. Her fans mostly seem to find this one disappointing, so I’m not sure that I should recommend it as a starting point for her books. Still, although I had my issues with it, I am looking forward to reading Lizzie’s story in the sequel (which has a central F/F romance).

A Bittersweet Portrait of Platonic Partnership: Significant Others by Zoe Eisenberg

the cover of Significant Others
by Zoe Eisenberg

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Jess and Ren were college roommates, and they have been inseparable ever since. That’s acceptable in college, but much less common when you’re in your late 30s, have bought a house together, and co-parent a dog. They’re committed to each other, but not dating—Jess is bisexual, and Ren is straight. Jess has always been the responsible one, taking care of Ren. While Jess has a successful career in real estate, Ren is aimless, working at a bar and teaching dance classes at a gym while looking for what to do next. When Ren accidentally gets pregnant after a hookup, she decides to keep the baby, and Jess—as she always does—agrees to help. Then the father of Ren’s unborn baby reappears in their lives, and everything gets a lot more complicated.

College had been full of friendships like ours, when it was natural, normal, to wear each other’s clothes, to do one another’s eyeliner with stoic concentration as warm breath washed over our faces in comforting waves. It was only later that we seemed to mystify people, as if the normalcy of our specific kind of closeness had an expiration date, like milk.

At the beginning of this story, it felt so cozy. I loved the idea of this found family and their unconventional living arrangement. They discuss how romantic relationships are seen as more reliable than their decades-long friendship, and even Ren’s brother, who lives with the two of them, thinks Jess must secretly be in love with Ren.

But despite their closeness, this isn’t an idyllic found family. There is so much under the surface of Jess and Ren’s relationship. Like with many relationships (romantic, familial, friendship) that have gone on for many years, every argument has a dozen other arguments bubbling beneath the surface. A lot of their dynamic with each other has been something they’ve passively let develop instead of actually questioning what they want from this relationship and why. The tension between that cozy, comforting notion of building a life together with a friend and the reality of their flawed relationship really got to me. There’s something so beautiful and sad about this story.

In the middle of the afternoon I might receive a snapshot of the remnants of her lunch. The grainy crust of a sandwich. A half-eaten container of yogurt. Killed it, the note would read. We’d had this type of exchange a thousand times. Two thousand. Unexceptional. Ordinary. The way truly intimate things usually are.

Then, of course, there’s the pregnancy—and the father, Quincy. Quincy is…fine. He’s not a terrible person. I can see how people could find him charming. But for me, when you’re getting a story about this complex relationship between two women and then some dude comes stumbling into it and messing everything up, I’m going to resent that guy! I own that as a flaw of mine as a reader. Despite him not at all being a villain, and in fact being similarly flawed and human to Ren and Jess, I never fully got over my irritation with him, even if ultimately he might have been a necessary catalyst.

I watched them for a bit trying to determine whether they were friends or partners, sisters, maybe cousins, before deciding it didn’t really matter, because there they were, enjoying one another.

Despite this not being a plot-driven book—it’s a portrait of these characters and how they interact with each other—I find it difficult to discuss without spoilers. (vague spoilers) I will say that this did make me cry, and that although the ending isn’t what I wanted, on reflection, it’s the one that makes sense. Was the connection between Jess and Ren an inspiring platonic partnership, or a codependent friendship? Both, of course, and maybe neither. This is a bittersweet story that left my heart aching. (end of spoilers)

One aspect I’m not sure how I feel about is that this is set in Hawaii, and protests and politics (about tourism, telescopes, water, colonialism, and more) are often mentioned, but they are playing out in the background, not a focus of the narrative.

If you’re looking for a fluffy story of found family and the power of friendship, this might not be the best choice: it gets into how these relationships are just as fraught as romances. But if you’re looking for a portrait of a complicated relationship between two women, I highly recommend this one.

A Genre-Bending Haunted Bookstore Story: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

the cover of The Sentence

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I kept hearing people rave about this book when it was new. I heard it was a cozy read about someone working in a bookstore haunted by the ghost of a customer. So imagine my surprise when the book begins with the main character remembering a woman she had a crush on convincing her to steal a body that turned out to have cocaine on it, which is how she got a life sentence. That wasn’t what I was expecting.

I hadn’t heard anything about this having queer content, but we know from the first chapter that Tookie is bisexual! It doesn’t use the word bisexual, though, and in the rest of the book, she’s in a long-term relationship with a man, so I suppose most people thought it wasn’t worth mentioning. As someone who’s always on the hunt for more queer books, though—especially by BIPOC authors, and especially especially by Indigenous authors—I wish someone had told me so I could have picked it up sooner!

This is a really difficult book for me to summarize. My overall impression is of a comforting, even cozy read, but as you might imagine from what I said in that first paragraph, that’s misleading. It’s also about death, racism, and Covid-19. It’s mostly set in an Indigenous bookstore; during Tookie’s time in prison, she fell in love with reading, and when she got out, she started working at the bookstore.

One of the regulars of the bookstore is Flora, a white woman who is heavily involved in the Minneapolis Indigenous community, and who hints at having an Indigenous grandparent with little to no evidence. She was annoying enough when she was alive, but after she dies—while reading a possibly deadly book?—she’s even worse. She begins haunting the bookstore and even tries to possess Tookie, in the ultimate form of cultural appropriation.

Meanwhile, the events of 2020 in Minneapolis play out, including loved ones hospitalized from Covid, and protests against the murder of George Floyd raging through the nights. Tookie’s marriage with her husband is complicated and somewhat fraught, and her relationship with her stepdaughter is even more difficult. When her stepdaughter shows up pregnant on their doorstep, looking for support, Tookie has to try to repair their relationship and unearth her nurturing side.

As I describe it, nothing about that sounds cozy—except, maybe, the bookstore setting. But Erdrich is such an incredible writer, especially when it comes to characterization, that I just fell into this novel. I loved Tookie’s voice so much, and all the characters, including Tookie’s family and coworkers, felt real. That network of support around her made this feel comforting even as she dealt with horrific circumstances.

This was my first Louise Erdrich book, and I’ll definitely be reading more. While the sapphic content isn’t the focus of this story, I can’t help but recommend this incredible, genre-bending read in any context I can.

A Queer M/F Romance of Healing and Reconciliation: A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

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This novel is a masterful exploration of various themes, ranging from consent and communication during intimate moments to faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics. The author’s ability to delve into these topics with depth and sensitivity truly impressed me.

The novel shines in its approach to consent and communication during sexual encounters. Lee’s portrayal of characters navigating these conversations felt both authentic and refreshing. The way the characters navigate their desires and boundaries is a testament to the importance of open dialogue in relationships.

Furthermore, the exploration of faith and its impact on one’s identity within the context of the Orthodox community adds another layer of complexity to the story. Lee handles this topic with great care, highlighting the struggles and conflicts faced by Ely as she grapples with her past.

Substance abuse is tackled with a nuanced perspective, portraying the protagonists’ journey through recovery with empathy and realism. Lee’s portrayal serves as a reminder of the challenges individuals face on the path to sobriety, and how recovery is a continuous process.

The examination of power dynamics is another highlight of the novel. The teacher-student relationship between the characters introduces a layer of tension and complexity that is brilliantly executed. The internal struggles of the characters as they navigate their feelings while maintaining a professional boundary is both engaging and thought-provoking.

In conclusion, A Shot in the Dark is an exceptional read that skillfully weaves together a myriad of important themes. Victoria Lee’s ability to approach subjects such as consent, communication, faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics with sensitivity and depth is truly commendable. This novel is a must-read for anyone seeking a captivating story that sparks introspection and provides a platform for meaningful discussions.

Trigger warnings: substance abuse, alcohol, overdose, transphobia, abusive parent, antisemitism, drug use, religious trauma, relapse, death of a parent, domestic violence

Sweet Summer Bi Vibes: Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

the cover of Cool for the Summer

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“Just because you’re telling a good story doesn’t mean it’s the right story. And I think it’s really important to tell the right story.”

For three years of high school, Larissa had extreme heart-eyes for Chase Harding; the sweet, popular, football star any girl would die to date. After returning from summer break, Chase finally seems to notice her, but it’s not Lara’s stylish blonde bob that catches his attention: it’s the newfound confidence she gained over the summer. Enigmatic, too-cool photographer Jasmine is the one Lara spent all summer beside…and, on more than one occasion, kissing. The girl Lara can’t stop thinking about. The first time Chase flirts with her, Jasmine walks through the doors, only to reveal they’re completing their senior year together—and that she has no interest in picking up where they left off last summer. Everything about Lara’s senior year appears perfect—supportive friends, the most popular boy in school at her arm…so why can’t she get Jasmine and their summer together off her mind?

⚠️ Spoilers Ahead! ⚠️

Cool for the Summer is a light-hearted, quick summer read with definite queer Grease vibes. The story’s sweet, relatable sapphic spin is bound to hook you from the get-go. Lara is a first-generation Russian Ashkenazi Jew who thought she’d spend the summer working at an indie bookstore, only to travel to the Outer Banks of North Carolina with her mother instead. While staying at her mother’s boss’s beach house, she spends time with seemingly stand-offish Jasmine. The two bond in little moments we see through flashbacks—snippets that demonstrate even a summer is enough to discover real, life-changing love. Larissa’s character development, especially as she steps out from behind the shadows her friends have cast, is a beautiful example of how one moment can trigger metaphoric self-discovery and growth. Though her time with Larissa triggered that development, we see the continuous ripple effect it causes.

Adler doesn’t shy away from topics rarely explored in YA, including positivity regarding masturbation and sex. However, I do wish she’d explored some of the emotions behind those moments. Since Lara internalizes a lot of what she’s thinking and feeling, there was no real discussion that would have added depth to those scenes. However, I do wish I’d had this story growing up; it possibly could have changed everything.

I can’t stress quite how relatable this story was for me. Everything from the three-year-long unreciprocated crush to one summer of stolen moments and unexpected feelings that ultimately led to newfound self-awareness and -discovery were all pieces of my own bisexual coming-out story. Sometimes, the ever-after we write in our heads isn’t the ever-after we end up wanting—a realization Lara almost has too late.

This story was an opportunity to shatter a great number of bisexual stereotypes, especially since Lara is in a relationship when she realizes her feelings for Jasmine. There’s a brief comment, made by Chase, that almost delves into and defies those stereotypes of bisexuals “not being able to choose,” but Lara bites back her anger and brushes by it too quickly. While I’m beyond grateful that we’re getting more bisexual and overall queer stories, I do wish we could have opened that discussion. At the very least, it should have been a conversation Lara had with herself— her constant internalizing provided the perfect opportunity for it.

Anyone who’s read one of my previous reviews knows my biggest rom-com trope pet peeve is miscommunication. The entirety of this story feeds off the miscommunication between Lara and Jasmine. While that fear and confusion are real and relatable (I’ve lived through it myself), I do wish there was at least ONE attempt from either of them to try, long before that miscommunication escalates the conflict between them.

With how short this story is, there’s definitely room to explore the emotions behind certain scenes in-depth. Again, Lara internalizes almost everything instead of using a friend as a sounding board, leaving this story with more “telling” than “showing.”

This quintessential summer read is ideal for lovers of YA, happily-ever-afters, and stories of self-discovery. It’s also perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Alice Oseman. Happy reading!

✨ The Vibes ✨

☀️ Summer Love
💜 Bisexual (Questioning) and Aroace Rep
✡️ Jewish (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) Rep
🔎 Self-Discovery
⌛ Past/Present Timeline
❤️ Happily Ever After
💕 Love Triangle

⚠️ Content Warnings: Brief Biphobia, Underage Alcohol Consumption, Parental Divorce

Danika reviews A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone

the cover of A Merry Little Meet Cute

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Note: This a HarperCollins title. The HarperCollins union has been on strike since November 10th, asking for better pay, more diversity initiatives, and union protections. Learn more at their site.

I have never read (or watched) such a horny holiday romance.

This is an M/F bisexual/bisexual romance that follows Bee, a plus-size porn star, and Nolan, a former bad boy boy band member, as they film a Hallmark-esque Christmas movie together while trying to keep their scandals under wraps.

I really enjoyed both Bee and Nolan’s perspectives—it turns out that an easy way to have me like the male love interest in an M/F romance is to make him bisexual. Bee is trying simultaneously to act for the first time, hide her porn career from the squeaky-clean Hope Channel, and fight against sleeping with and/or falling for her costar. If people find out that they’re having sex, that will threaten the image rehabilitation they’re both trying to get from this movie.

Meanwhile, Nolan is also struggling not to fall into bed with his costar. But what he’s hiding from the Hope channel is his family situation. His mom has bipolar disorder, and he’s usually home with her and his teenage sister, helping out. His mom is amazing and capable, but requires some support, especially with her switching medications right now, and he feels incredibly guilty being away from home–but the only way to support the family is with this job.

I thought this aspect of the book is really well done. We see his mom as a three dimensional person who has been an amazing parent to Nolan, and he fights against the ableist ways people can paint her as a victim or helpless. He cares about his family so much, and he has trouble letting go and trusting that they can handle problems on their own–he especially feels guilty that his teenage sister has to be so capable. This subplot adds a lot of depth to an otherwise romp of a romance novel.

In addition to discussions about ableism, we also touch on fatphobia, biphobia, and misogyny. While Nolan has a scandal in his past involving speed skaters and an up-and-coming figure skater at the Olympics, it was the female figure skater whose career was threatened by the media coverage. And if Bee and Nolan’s secret comes out (that they’re sleeping together), Bee will be the one to take the brunt of the fallout. Also, Bee has experienced so much fatphobia on sets that she initially assumes Nolan’s discomfort meeting her is because he’s fatphobic, when really he is just losing his mind because he’s wildly attracted to her.

Nolan already followed Bee’s ClosedDoors account, which I thought might be a weird dynamic, but it is matched by Bee having been a big fan of Nolan’s boy band, with posters in her childhood bedroom and some fanfics written about him then, too. So they both have the same degree of parasocial relationship with each other going into it, and it doesn’t feel unbalanced. They both tease each other some about it when it comes out, and neither seems uncomfortable.

The sex scenes—of which there are many!–were a mixed bag. Some of them were truly steamy, while others had language that made me cringe. But overall, I though it was fun to read a Christmas romance that had so much sex and sexual tension, given that they’re usually so PG-13.

So, if you want a last-minute queer holiday romance read, I highly recommend this one.

Kelleen Reviews Three Novellas to Marathon This Summer

Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant

the cover of Caroline’s Heart

I read Caroline’s Heart by Austin Chant for the first time this month and it blew my mind. It’s a queer trans historical western fantasy novella and it’s just so GOOD. I don’t read a lot of fantasy and I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I love a queer historical, so I jumped in with both feet. I don’t want to give too much away, but it follows a bi trans witch who’s trying to resurrect her lost lover and the bi trans cowboy who has her lover’s heart in his chest. And then, they fall in love. The stakes are so high, the world building is so precise, and the romance is so addictive. It’s tender and raw and absolutely electrifying. It’s the perfect Pride read for historical and fantasy lovers alike!

Representation: bi trans heroine, bi trans hero, bi trans author

Content warnings: death of a loved one, blood, violence

Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole

the cover of Can't Escape Love

Alyssa Cole writes the most dynamic, diverse, relatable romance worlds and this little novella is no different. The fourth in her Reluctant Royals series, this novella follows Reggie, the badass CEO of the nerdy girl media empire Girls with Glasses and the video creator she used to have an internet crush on. When Reggie’s insomnia has made it impossible for her to keep working, she turns desperately to Gus, whose puzzling livestreams are the only thing that ever soothed her enough to fall asleep. And then, they fall in love. Reggie never actually names her identity on page, but she’s polysexual of some kind. She is also a wheelchair user. Both Reggie and Gus are neurodivergent and the way their brains work together is so lovely. These two understand each other better than anyone else does and they make something so beautiful together. The book is sexy and smart and nerdy and hilarious and absolutely delightful. Alyssa Cole is always a must-read, but this novella is EXCELLENT, and perfect for the second half of your Pride TBR.

Representation: queer, neurodivergent, wheelchair using Black heroine, neurodivergent, Vietnamese-American hero, queer, neurodivergent, Black author

Content warnings: roofies (off-page, mentioned), discussion of hospital stays

Wherever is Your Heart by Anita Kelly

the cover of Wherever Is Your Heart

Anita Kelly has given us a gift for us in the Moonies series, a series of novellas that center around a queer karaoke bar. This one, the third and final in the series, is sapphic and is my favorite of the lot. It’s a soft novella about blue collar soft butch lesbians in their late 40s, early 50s who are ready to settle down and fall in love and I love it with everything that I am. And then, they fall in love. I don’t really know how to describe it, but this book is about soft butches but it also feels like it IS a soft butch? Like it’s an embodiment of soft butchness in book form. It’s so tender and gentle and beautiful. The book takes place during Pride at a karaoke bar so now’s the perfect time to read it! My predominant feeling when reading an Anita Kelly book is warmth—I feel warm and safe and seen and celebrated, and what more could you want from Pride?

Representation: middle aged, plus sized, butch lesbian heroines, chronic pain, nonbinary author

Content warnings: Drunk driving, alcoholism, death of parent, weed

Sometimes, in my life existing as a twenty-something butchish queer disabled woman and experiencing different aspects of my community online and in the world, I worry that I am not cool and hip and irreverent enough. And sometimes, this makes me feel not only like I’m not connected to my community but that I have no business calling it my community. But all three of these books never fail to remind me that queer people are also silly and awkward and quiet (I’m not quiet) and soft and nerdy and dramatic and complicated, and that there is not one acceptable way to be queer.

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

Kelleen reviews The Roommate Risk by Talia Hibbert

the cover of The Roommate Risk

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Recently, a friend of mine asked me for friends-to-lovers romance recommendations. Now, if you know anything about me as a romance reader (besides the fact that I’m gay and disabled and read gay and disabled romance), it’s that I HATE the trope friends-to-lovers.

I love friendship. I think friendship is the greatest gift and greatest tool we have, and I often think that our society actively denigrates friendship in favor of a hierarchy that places romantic and sexual love at the pinnacle of human connection (I saw as a nearly exclusively romance reader). And every time I read a friends-to-lovers romance, I think “but why can’t they just be friends? They gave each other everything they needed as friends,” and “Wait, but what was keeping them apart in the first place?” I know that this is how many many real life relationships start — as friends — but in a romance novel with a plot, I always find it frustrating and unsatisfying. Except for when Talia Hibbert writes it. (Yes, okay, and like a few other times, but mostly when Talia Hibbert writes it.)

If you loved Take a Hint, Dani Brown, I beg you, I implore you, I beseech you, PLEASE read The Roommate Risk. It is friends-to-lovers with a bisexual Black heroine, a South Asian hero, anxiety rep, pining for DAYS, and more super hot, steamy sex than should reasonably fit in 75,000 words.

The story is told in flashbacks interspersed between scenes of “now,” when a flood in her flat requires Jasmine to move in with her best friend Rahul. Rahul has been in love with Jasmine since they met and slept together once in college and, when Jasmine asserted that she does not sleep with her friends, elected for friendship over hooking up. However, the fates of adulthood and forced proximity now require them to confront their desire, and ultimately their love, for one another.

I think one of the reasons this book works so well for me is that their friendship is so clearly the center of their sexual and then romantic relationship. No matter how loudly Jasmine asserts that she does not do relationships and does not sleep with her friends, the fact that they have nearly a decade of friendship between them is what allows them to trust one another fully with their bodies and their hearts.

This book is so brazen and full of heart. It is sex positive and body positive. Jasmine is casually and essentially bisexual. Her queerness is fully integrated into her identity and is not at all a factor in their conflict. It is unapologetic and unexplained. And reading a queer Black heroine in an M/F written by a queer Black author feels like a gift.

I love seeing an author work through the same questions over multiple projects and diving back into Talia Hibbert’s backlist and seeing her tackle these similar themes and tropes is such a delight. This is a friends-to-lovers romance that puts the friendship first and tells a true, authentic, complex story about queerness and anxiety and interracial love.

Content warnings: parental neglect, panic attacks, anxiety, death of a parent, accidental cuts (blood), alcohol misuse

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Meagan Kimberly reviews Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales

the cover of Perfect on Paper

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Darcy Phillips secretly runs the relationship advice service that comes from the mysterious locker 89 at her school. When Alexander Brougham discovers her secret, he enlists her help in getting his girlfriend Winona back. Everything becomes complicated when her secret gets out, including how she used the locker for selfish reasons. While Darcy prides herself on her 95% success rate, she still has a lot to learn about people, relationships, and herself.

There’s so much teen drama that could easily delve into cringe territory. But Gonzales uses great finesse to illustrate how complicated and messy emotions can get. The characters all make frustrating mistakes, but her deft writing leaves room for compassion. At every turn, she gives her characters the chance to learn and grow.

The back and forth enemies to lovers between Darcy and Brougham is absolutely delicious. Perhaps calling it enemies to lovers is a bit strong. It’s more like moderately annoyed with each other to smitten. Still, seeing each character unravel to one another with every moment they spend together does a great job portraying how hard it is for some people to let others in. These are both characters that don’t let many people see their true selves often, so to do that for each other creates a beautiful romance you can’t help but get wrapped up in.

A cast of queer side characters makes it all feel like a family within this school community. There’s Ainsley, Darcy’s sister who’s transgender; Ray, the other out bisexual in their school; Finn, Brougham’s gay best friend; and a bunch of other students and their teacher Mr. Elliott part of the Queer and Questioning (Q and Q) Club.

While Darcy spends the majority of the book doling out relationship advice, both romantic and platonic, she has a hard time seeing herself and her relationships. She puts her best friend Brooke on a pedestal and calls it love. She fails to see her own shortcomings. She jumps to conclusions about Brougham and sees what she wants to see. But throughout the whole story, you keep wanting her to get better. And she does.

Gonzales creates moments that touch on tough subjects like divorce and fighting parents, and how those relationships at home affect the people these characters become. She also weaves in confronting biphobia, both from fellow queer characters and internalized by Darcy. She begins to question her bisexuality and if she belongs to the queer community if she has feelings for a cishet boy.

There’s a lot of angst and anxiety, but always a glimpse of hope for these characters.

Trigger warning: Biphobia