A Sapphic Romance That Soars: Fly With Me by Andie Burke

the cover of Fly With Me

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

They were mirrors in a way. Both of them watching their loved ones suffer. Both unable to help in any meaningful way. Both coping—one with work and the other with a list. Both scared shitless of hurting the other one.

Content Warnings: Terminal illness, chronic illness, misogyny, toxic relationship, grief, traumatic brain injury

ER nurse Olive Murphy’s fear of flying doesn’t stop her from getting on a plane to honor her brother, but it seems her fear is misplaced. A medical emergency forces Olive to leap out of her seat and into action, only for the flight to get redirected. She would have missed the marathon she was meant to run at Disney if not for Allied Airlines pilot Stella Soriano: a gorgeous, type A woman who captivates Olive with a glance. They share a magical day at Disney together as the video of Olive saving a man’s life goes viral (after all, she did TECHNICALLY save Mickey Mouse), prompting an uptick in positive press and sales for the airline. Stella sees it as an opportunity to earn her long-deserved promotion and asks Olive to play the role of her fake girlfriend as they generate more press. Can Olive stand playing a fake role when her heart is already on a one-way flight?

Get ready for a sassy, steamy, sapphic love story bound to soar into your heart. Andie Burke’s debut novel has a little of everything; an insta-crush, fake dating (complete with a binder full of rules and research!), sharp and witty banter, plus some real and raw mental health rep. Between their anxieties, family responsibilities, and messy emotions, both Olive and Stella are relatable main characters you can’t help but fall in love with. Sparks fly from the moment Olive and Stella meet, and Olive’s mega-crush is adorable without making her seem adolescent. We gain a lot of insight into both characters’ lives despite the fact that the story sticks with Olive’s point of view, which isn’t always an easy feat. The prose is descriptive but not overly flowery, but it’s the character development that really flies off the page. I absolutely adored Olive’s best friend, too (imagine Felix from Orphan Black).

Burke does a wonderful job of normalizing mental health conditions without it being the main focus. Olive’s symptoms are as much a part of her as the heart-eyes she wears when Stella is in the room. After her (toxic) ex broke up with Olive because her anxiety disorder and panic attacks were “too much,” Olive is afraid her symptoms will eventually scare Stella away. Meanwhile, Stella’s responsibilities as her father’s caretaker (who has Parkinson’s) create the cracks in her type-A facade and show us why she’s so committed to earning her promotion. Both characters encounter misogyny as well. While some readers might feel that there’s too much going on, Burke carefully stacks these issues atop of one another. That’s life; we’re all juggling multiple conflicts, both internal and external. Read the quote I selected again. These women are mirror images of one another. Their struggles, while different on the surface, make it all the easier for them to empathize with and support each other. There’s also no perfect, easy solution to the problems these women are facing because, again: that’s life.

A part of me does wish this story split the POV, allowing us to see Stella’s perspective. Keeping the focus on Olive ensured Stella’s feelings for her remained hidden, but…come on. We all know where a sapphic romance novel is bound to end: with a sapphic romance. The “fake dating girlfriends with benefits” situation is where the story really gets messy. It’s difficult to believe that Stella doesn’t have romantic feelings for Olive at that point. The miscommunication trope is still my least favorite, but it lingers much too long in this one, leading to a not-at-all surprising third-act breakup. Even so, this remains the best sapphic romance I’ve read so far this year.

Recommended to fans of the fake dating trope, serious character development, and a heart-eyed, healing main character.

 The Vibes ✨
✈️ Fake Dating
✈️ Bisexual Main Character
✈️ Sapphic Ship
✈️ Panic Attacks/Depression/Mental Health Rep
✈️ Debut Author

Major thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC of this book via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion regarding the book.

A Page-Turning Mess of a Queer Love Polygon: The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

the cover of The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

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

If you’re looking for something fun, marathonable, the right amount of messy, and full of queer love polygon drama, then look no further than The Happy Couple. I listened to this as an audiobook (a short and snappy 5.5 hour experience) and I found myself always looking forward to my next drive or run just so I could hear what happened next. 

Celine and Luke are engaged, and their wedding date is quickly approaching, but will they go through with it? Luke is a pretty obvious serial cheater and Celine is so focused on the work of being a concert pianist that she has just ignored it. Yes, the oh so happy couple. Additional layers of drama unfold as more and more angles of their love polygon are exposed. Archie is Luke’s best man as well as Luke’s ex-lover who is definitely still in love with the groom-to-be. Celine’s ex, Maria, shows up at the engagement party and stirs the pot. Celine’s sister Phoebe knows Luke has something to hide and is convinced to get the bottom of it. And Vivian, yet another ex of Luke’s, is willing to call people on their craziness and bring some tough love to her friends in this mess.

Buckle up, folks. This cast of wild characters really brings the drama that can only be fully encapsulated by interrobangs. Luke doesn’t show up to his own engagement party?! It’s hours before the wedding and Luke needs a new shirt but who comes to switch shirts with him other than his ex-lover, Archie?! Celine’s ex is having long heart-to-hearts with Luke?! 

The Happy Couple felt like reality TV in the best way. I was immersed in this story’s twists, turns, and reveals that provided a welcome distraction when my brain needed a break from the current world. But what I loved most is that it didn’t just feel like gossip that pulls me in but at the end of the day makes me feel icky. Naoise Dolan writes her indeed flawed characters with a kindness and nuance that allowed me to see them for more than their often infuriating actions and reflect alongside them in the gray decisions they find themselves having to make. It was a delightful balance of unhinged meets kind. 

If you’re driving home for the holidays and need a book you can finish in one road trip, I highly recommend pressing play on this one!

Content warnings: toxic relationships, drug use and abuse, infidelity, suicidal thoughts

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

Sweet, Chaotic Bisexuals: Love at First Set by Jennifer Dugan

the cover of Love at First Set

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

“Queer chaos trumps moral fortitude, especially when making out is involved.”

For Lizzie, working at a gym isn’t just a job; it’s her home. For now, she’s only the check-in girl (and occasionally, the owner’s punching bag), but one day, she could manage her own. When her bestie (and emotional support himbo) and boss’s son James asks her to play plus-one at his sister’s wedding, she agrees, hoping to find a chance to talk to his parents about a promotion. One drunken pep-talk later and the bride-to-be, Cara, realizes she doesn’t want to get married after all. It doesn’t help that Lizzie is crushing on her hard—or that Cara decides to stay with her brother while getting her derailed life back together. Afraid his sister plans to set him up on a blind date, James urges Lizzie to keep her distracted. Can Lizzie girl the hell up and keep her crush under wraps?

Lizzie is a beautifully realistic mess and knows it. Growing up with an unreliable, emotionally-abusive mother taught Lizzie she could only rely on herself, while her economic status triggered some serious self-esteem issues. Though her self-reliance and independence are strengths, her unwillingness to trust others also becomes a weakness.

Jennifer Dugan heard the phrase “queer pining” and understood the assignment. Lizzie’s insta-crush on Cara spurs some hilarious self-talk that puts the “com” in this queer rom-com. The constant, silent, somewhat reluctant pining is intense, raw, and real, but her sass and sarcasm never let it get overly sappy. Though Lizzie can’t see it, Cara’s obvious crushing is equally intense, making these two lovesick, bisexual messes the perfect match.

Unfortunately, everything I loved in the first half of the book becomes exhausting by the second half. Lizzie allows both James and Cara to manipulate her into favors that benefit them too often. Her self-proclaimed cowardice spurs the story’s internal conflict a little too much. The self-deprecation that was once funny became painful enough to become cringy, too.

While I love a slow burn, Lizzie and Cara’s relationship is too focused on showing physical development, but not the emotional development. We don’t see the pillow talk or hidden moments between them that lead to them falling in love with one another. The external conflict—Cara’s mother—is written as a two-dimensional antagonist. Her motivation for keeping the women apart is status, but why? (Did she grow up in poverty, or feel shamed by a group with higher social status at one point in her life?)

Vague spoilers below.

My biggest pet peeve is a plot powered by miscommunication (in this case, a complete failure at communicating from the start), and this story relies on it all too much to reach an unsatisfying happy ending that’s tied up in a literal bow. The writing was so strong and held so much promise in the beginning, but I’m afraid the third-act break-up, blow-up dinner scene, ultimatum, and ending didn’t do it for me.

End of spoilers.

Recommended for anyone who loves pining and scheming of Shakespearean proportions. This sapphic rom-com will be a sweet if chaotic addition to your TBR.

 ✨ The Vibes ✨
👟 Sapphic Rom-Com
👟  Bi Visibility
👟  Gay Best Friend
👟  Economic Classes
👟  Shakespearean Miscommunication, Pining, and Scheming
👟  Self-Esteem Issues

“Don’t sit behind the gym counter of your life when you’re meant to be in front of it. “

A Fraught, Erotic Fever Dream: Mrs. S by K. Patrick

the cover of Mrs S.

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Every so often I read a novel that just has the perfect summer energy about it—and even though I read a review copy of Mrs. S by K. Patrick (Europa Editions, 2023) in the spring, I was thinking of summer the entire time. Perfect for fans of novelists like Emma Cline, Mona Awad, or Leon Craig, Mrs. S is an unforgettable novel. 

This novel is the kind of fascinating, character-driven historical fiction I’m drawn to. Set at an English boarding school sometime in the second half of the twentieth century (the timeline isn’t clear), an unnamed narrator arrives under the position of matron at the school. As butch lesbian from Australia, our narrator feels like an outsider in more ways than one. That is, until she meets Mrs. S, the headmaster’s alluring and captivating wife. At first, Mrs. S seems to be the narrator’s opposite in many ways—primarily through her self-assuredness and her carefully performed femininity—but as the summer wears on and the two women grow closer together, the narrator comes to realize that the two have far more in common than she thinks. 

A lesbian affair conducted in secret at a British boarding school? There is no novel I would rather read. Plus, a butch lesbian protagonist is a refreshing perspective. I read Mrs. S in one sitting, and it was exactly the kind of fraught, erotic, fever dream novel I hoped it would be. I loved the narrator’s insular personality and her struggles with her queerness were issues I could both sympathize and identify with. Although this novel is framed as the narrative of an affair, it is really more about the narrator and her thoughts, feelings, and journey to come to terms with who she is—a journey that isn’t close to complete by the novel’s end. 

The narrator’s relationship with Mrs. S has the kind of chaotic, fated, anxiety-inducing intensity that I hoped for. Mrs. S has an untouchable, unknowable air about her that always keeps the narrator (and us) on the outside, even when she appears to let us in. Nevertheless, we fall in love(?) with her alongside the narrator, and the second half of the novel seems to hurtle toward the end. While it seemed to take a long time to get to any kind of movement in the plot between these two characters, I now think that that’s a result of this novel really being about the protagonist’s trying to find a place in the world. 

Speaking of places, the boarding school setting is so fabulous, and there’s a reason why queer authors return again and again to the idea of a girls’ boarding school, a place that supposed inculcate “proper” heterosexist codes of femininity and often ends up complicating them instead. Mrs. S’s status as the headmaster’s wife further undermines the “power” of the boarding school as an institution and I think there’s so much to be said about the usefulness of this setting for Patrick. The atmosphere of this novel—contributed to by Patrick’s sensual descriptions—is part of what kept me reading. 

I highly recommend Mrs. S as your queer novel of the summer! 

Please add Mrs. S to your TBR on Goodreads and follow K. Patrick on Twitter

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.

Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.

Maggie reviews Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

the cover of Manhunt

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I knew going into Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin that it was going to be a wild ride. The pair of bloody testicles suggested by the cover tells you that right off the bat. And to tell the truth, I’ve mostly gone off of apocalypse fiction the last few years – given the state of the real world – but I was intensely interested in a trans-centered apocalypse story, and requested that my library purchase it.  A few marathon sessions – and some screeching at my book friends over messaging – later, and I had zero regrets and a lot of thoughts. Manhunt is a book of many bloody layers, all of them delightfully queer. The content warnings are numerous, but at its heart the story is in turns touching, funny, and cathartic, and if zombie apocalypse fiction is in your wheelhouse, you should give it a try.

I have decided, in the interest of article flow, to give the full list of content warnings at the end of this review. Please skip down to there if you have any doubts on the content, but in general Manhunt contains extreme amounts of violence, gore, and bigotry, with a little light cannibalism thrown in for flavor. *ahem* Set on the east coast of America, months after a deadly virus has swept the world and affected anyone with too much testosterone, the survivors struggle to stay alive amongst wandering packs of flesh-hungry zombies and the wreckage of civilization, as per standard fare in a zombie apocalypse.

The story centers Beth and Fran, two trans women who struggle to support themselves as hunters, only they do not hunt for food. They’re hunting feral men, so they can harvest their testicles and kidney lobes, which are, apparently, concentrated reserves of estrogen. They can eat the testicles themselves in a pinch, but their goal is to take them back to their friend Indi, who can refine the estrogen and sustain the community of people depending on it to not turn feral themselves, including trans women, non-binary people, and cis women with hormone disorders – anyone who would naturally have too much testosterone and be susceptible to the virus. (In the spirit of having a good time, I Did Not Question The Science of any of this, so you will have to do that research yourself.) 

The main danger they face though is not the feral men, it’s the Legion, or the Sisterhood, or whatever any particular group calls itself – bands of cis women who took advantage of the apocalypse to go full bigot and declare the virus vengeance for thousands of years of rape and torture and the oppression of women etc etc. They’ve gone militant, with XX face tattoos and all the sisterly new traditions and womyn-centered vocabulary they can make up, and they consider anyone trans an unnatural danger rather than a person, a bomb waiting to go off that must be eliminated before it can harm more “real” women (although they too are concerned with estrogen extraction, so evidently they’re willing to go the distance to protect their cis-ters with hormone imbalances from the plague). Trapped between the Legion and the whims of rich person bunker towns, Beth, Fran, Indi, and their new friend Robbie, a trans man who has been living in the woods by himself since the virus hit, struggle not only to survive, but with how far they’re willing to go and what they’re willing to do for that survival and what sort of community they can build up from the rubble they’ve been left with.

What I found especially thrilling and interesting about Manhunt was the dichotomy of its story. On a surface level, it’s a very normal zombie apocalypse novel, albeit one that does not hide the violence. Every few pages someone starts fighting with a nail gun, or busts open a skull with a blunt instrument, or mentions brutal police state measures. There are stockpiles of food and supplies. People are innovative about how they reuse things. There are vague references to things on a global scale that Don’t Look Good. Things you can find in any apocalyptic wasteland story, almost comforting in their presence. But then also dotted throughout the story, sustaining its humanity, are these incredible moments between characters that speak to deeper experiences. Characters talk about the importance of building and sustaining community, specifically trans community. About the politics and futility of passing in the face of fascism and when it crosses the line into betraying your friends. What things you have to hold onto to be yourself and what things you’d be willing to compromise in order to survive. Whether it’s worth surviving if those things are taken away. And the characters are this wonderful hodge-podge of traumatized zombie apocalypse survivors. Trans and Cis. Woods-training or militaristic or civilian. Passing and not. Nonbinary, allies, willing to fight, wanting to hide, oblivious, terrible, trying their best. And they’re all, to a person, hot messes. Not one single person has their shit together. Everything they do with and to each other is messy, emotionally and physically. The sex isn’t always nice and affirming. Sometimes it’s about proximity or it’s transactional.

Beth and Fran, for example, start out in a relationship based on their friendship and their life in the wilds, but it is strained almost beyond bearing as they come into contact with both the Legion and with the bunker compound they take refuge in. Beth, unable to pass, finds herself pushed into more and more repugnant situations and is forced to decide what she’ll put up with for safety or whether she can be safe at all in a compound. Meanwhile, Fran, once she’s not solely around Beth on hunting trips, makes a series of sexual and relationship decisions based on how feminine they make her feel and what they can get for her long term. There is a lot of focus on the choices available to each character vs what each character is ultimately looking for in a relationship in the context of transness and the new World Without Testosterone. And I found it so refreshing to be thrown into this messy, gory world, to roll around in the blood and the dirt with these characters, and still get shown moments of community and pulling together. To let these characters be messy and hurtful but also be good and have fulfilling relationships. This book is entirely bloody, but not entirely grim.

In conclusion, you should not push yourself to read this book if you don’t like zombie apocalypse novels, or if violence or gore bother you. But if you want trans-centered horror that does not shy away from what it has to say, I implore you to give Manhunt a shot. Be ready to have a good time, to yell about it to other people, to laugh at the moments where the author was clearly like “this is my novel so I can have this moment if I want to.” It was grim and bloody but it was also joyous and cathartic in the writing. Give it a shot and have a good time with it.

Content warnings include: violence, gore, transphobia, TERFs, bigotry, cannibalism, death, executions, torture, rape, assault, dubious consent, indentured service, slavery, dehumanization, medical experimentation, eating disorders, body dysphoria, white feminism.  I’m truly sorry if I’ve missed anything, but I think in general this covers it and gives the general tone of the novel.  It’s not for those bothered by violence.