Ghosts or Post-Partum Depression? Graveyard of Lost Children by Katrina Monroe

Graveyard of Lost Children cover

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

After giving birth to her daughter, Olivia is struggling—not just with being a first-time mother, but mostly from being haunted. She hears voices whispering terrible things to her, a black-haired ghost is following her in her nightmares, and her body is deteriorating rapidly from her child’s never satiated hunger. And, despite her best efforts, she cannot help but notice that history is repeating itself for the worst.

Years before, her own mother tried to kill her. Obsessed with the idea that her child was a changeling—a substitute left by a supernatural being after kidnapping her own daughter—Olivia’s mother tried to make a deal with an evil spirit living at the bottom of a well, which almost cost her her life at only 4 months old. And while everyone always told Olivia that her mother had been a troubled woman with complicated health issues and a fragile state of mind, she is now questioning what really happened all those years ago, and what exactly is happening to her now.

Told from a dual point-of-view, jumping between the past and the present, Graveyard of Lost Children is the haunting story of motherhood and the cycle of fear and violence that gets passed down through generations of mothers trying to reach an unattainable standard of perfection.

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that motherhood is one of the most terrifying experiences I could imagine for myself. From being pregnant to taking care of a baby to raising an actual child, I get shivers down my spine just thinking about it. Graveyard of Lost Children was, therefore, essentially my biggest fears coming to life on page, right before my eyes, and I loved every second of it. As soon as I finished this book, it dawned on me that I’d just had the privilege of experiencing absolute genius, and I remembered why I so deeply love and appreciate the horror genre.

I would have expected this novel to be so far removed from my own life experiences that it would have too little of an effect on me to be a memorable story. However, having a lesbian take on that bone chilling role of motherhood and being able to see her, from the beginning, struggle with truly loving being a first-time mother, made Olivia extremely relatable to me, and I found it impossible to remove myself from the narrative. I felt so deeply connected to her, and it made the entire reading experience so potent.

The gem that Monroe managed to create with this novel really lies with its ability to convey how terrifying it is to become a mother for the first time. The narrative took its time to explore the anxiety and the feeling that people are looking at you differently or treating you differently or judging you for every little choice that you make. It then shows how an extremely guilt-tripping fear starts to settle in, making you question yourself and forcing you to wonder if you are in fact a bad mother who is making all the wrong decisions.

Monroe makes multiple fascinating literary choices with this book, one of which is writing a story about motherhood through the eyes of a lesbian main character. It suddenly becomes not just about the experience of motherhood, but specifically the experience of being the person within your couple who gave birth to your child. Olivia is a lesbian who does have a wife, but she is the one who underwent the pregnancy and gave birth to their daughter. This creates an interesting dynamic, because although it is clear that her wife wants to support her and understand what she’s going through, there is inherently a rift that is created between both women. As much as she wants to be there for Olivia, it is very difficult for her to grasp just how difficult it is to be a mother right after pregnancy.

Another indication that Monroe is an incredibly talented author is that she forces her reader into the position of an antagonist, driving the point of her story home in a deeply personal manner. Olivia is undergoing all these seemingly inexplicable horrors that are affecting her physically, emotionally, and psychologically. But, because she is a mother, everyone believes that it is all simply “in her head”; everyone, including you as the reader. Your entire reading experience essentially consists of you trying to figure out what is real, what isn’t, if you can actually trust the narration, and whether or not Olivia is losing her grip on reality through a postpartum psychosis or if there is in fact something supernatural at play. Her biggest issue is that she doesn’t know who to trust, because no one really believes her: her wife, her doctor, her friends. And although you are following her through her journey, Monroe chose to write Olivia’s chapters through a third person point-of-view which, especially in contrast with her own mother’s present-day chapters being told through a first-person narration, creates a distance between Olivia and the reader. By the very format of the book, Monroe forces you to perpetuate the cycle of doubt and pity by which first-time mothers often feel heavily attacked. It is a master class in making specific literary choices that not only make your story more interesting but are inherently tied to the message you are trying to convey.

Of course, aside from the genius that is subtly peppered through Monroe’s craft, she also has an amazing ability to write affective scenes and passages. Olivia spends so much time suffering from bruising and soreness and all kinds of pain that people feel after having undergone pregnancy, and although I have never come close to experiencing even an iota of that pain, I genuinely felt exactly what Olivia was going through. I felt my body aching as I was flipping through the pages, but I could not get myself to stop reading. It was a terrifyingly visceral experience that I would recommend in a heartbeat.

I appreciate that Monroe doesn’t try to sell you this fantasy of motherhood that is all sunshine and rainbows, but at the same time doesn’t villainize or discredit it. It was perfectly nuanced, very well written, and overall, horrifyingly entertaining.

Representation: lesbian MC, lesbian parents

Content warnings: postpartum-depression and psychosis, suicide attempt, attempted murder, thoughts of self harm, thoughts of harm to a baby/child, forced institutionalization, psychiatric hospitalization, paranoia, anxiety, death, graphic description of childbirth, manipulation, emotional abuse, medical trauma

A Southern Gothic Coming of Age: Something Kindred by Ciera Burch

Something Kindred by Ciera Burch cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Times We Almost Kissed cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Representation: bisexual main characters

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

The Song the World Needs: Thunder Song by Sasha taqwšəblu LaPointe

the cover of Thunder Song

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

This was one of my five star predictions for the year, and I’m happy to say it lived up to that expectation.

Thunder Song is a collection of essays about being a queer Indigenous women in the U.S. today. It begins with LaPointe talking about her 83-year-old great-grandmother calling the Seattle symphony to commission a symphony. They politely turned her down, and she called back every week to ask how her symphony was going until they finally agreed. The making of this orchestral work also became a documentary, The Healing Heart of Lushootseed.

From this first essay, I was hooked. LaPointe weaved together the past and present, drawing on the stories of her family and community as well as the political movements of the moment, like Black Lives Matter. She discusses both traditional stories and pop culture. As the title suggests, music plays a big role in the collection, including her days as one of the only Indigenous people in the punk scene of Seattle: “Eventually this idea that I was a punk first and a Native person second became unbearable.”

I took so many notes while reading this that I don’t know where to start, because I want to tell you about all the essays. LaPointe talks about growing up being treated differently by white people than her siblings were, because she has lighter skin, despite the fact that they all grew up together. She talks about her struggles as a teenager, running away at thirteen, ending up in the psych ward, and then being emancipated at fifteen, living with six friends in an apartment together.

She also addresses the many ways colonization impacts Indigenous people today, from generational trauma to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls: “[when] one of us goes missing, we don’t get the front page or the five o’clock news. We get red dresses… I want my niece to know she’s worth more than a dress waving in the breeze. I never want her to question that the whole world would stop if she ever went missing.”

One image that really stuck with me was LaPointe describing the tulip festival that takes place on her culture’s land, and how it is a “petal-made flag of settler colonial triumph, a reminder that we have lost something.” Once marsh, this land was changed by settlers to be more “productive,” making it unrecognizable for the people who have lived off of it for thousands of years. Once a year, tourists make the roads impassible, celebrating this display of non-native flowers.

Of course, this is the Lesbrary, so Thunder Song also touches on the author’s queer identity. LaPointe says, “The first time I ever heard the term Two Spirit I felt a sense of relief wash over me.” She discusses how Two Spirit people were often sacred in many Indigenous cultures, and how the “shame [she] learned to carry is the work of generations of colonization.” She also mentions being in a throuple at some point:

“My partner wanted to know, Are you polyamorous? Meaning, Do you require multiple partners at once? The answer is no. But I do need the freedom to embrace my queer heart, to accept and celebrate it and let it run wild through the relationship.”

There is so much more that I want to talk about, like LaPointe’s journey to decolonizing her diet, or her complicated relationship with her mother, or the story about The Little Mermaid jacket, or her feelings about questioning motherhood, or the experience of going through Covid-19 as a culture where disease was part of an attempted genocide against them.

These essays are compelling and thought-provoking. All I can say is you should read them yourself! While they touch on heavy, difficult topics, this is fundamentally a story about healing and survivance: “There is something to learn from indigenous ways of thinking that has to do with courage and resilience, because even in the face of attempted genocide, of erasure, we descendants are still here.”

This is LaPointe’s second book, and I’ll definitely be reading her memoir Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk next.

“All over the world, indigenous communities are fighting for their survival, the survival of their sacred lands, their languages, and stories. Communities are fighting for their land back, for the salmon to return, for a stop to the desecration of sacred sites. They are protecting tribal lands in South Africa. They are protecting Mauna Kea. They are water protectors and knowledge keepers, storytellers and healers. They are the song the world needs right now.”

Content warnings for missing and murdered Indigenous women, miscarriage, racism, rape, addiction, generational trauma, and abusive relationships.

The Joy of Demolishing Your Life: Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of Astrid Parker Doesn't Fail

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

I read Delilah Green Doesn’t Care almost two years ago and loved it—especially the dynamic between Delilah and Astrid—so I couldn’t tell you why I took this long to read the next book in the series. I still find Astrid to be a fascinating character, the sex scenes were just as steamy, and I still really enjoy this group of characters… but it didn’t have quite the same magic for me this time around. There were elements I really enjoyed, but I felt some distance from the story.

We start this story with a meet-disaster between Astrid and Jordan. Astrid’s business is failing—which is even more stressful with her hyper-critical mother always looking over her shoulder—and this opportunity to renovate the Everwood Inn for the popular TV show Innside America could be her last chance to turn things around. Since she left her fiancé last year, she needs a win. Jordan is also in a tumultuous time in her life, trying to come back from a low point where she may have almost started a fire out of rage at her worksite. Whoops. Now she’s back in her hometown to help with the reno of her grandmother’s inn. Astrid and Jordan both need this to go well. But instead, their first encounter is Jordan accidentally running into Astrid, spilling coffee all over her very expensive white dress, and Astrid cursing her out in a cutting speech that could have come straight from her mother’s mouth. When they meet again at the inn and realize they’re working together, they immediately square off—which makes for great TV. But then that spark turns into a different kind of heat.

The most interesting part of this book for me was Astrid, who I was also intrigued by in the first book of the series. She is a case study in upholding expectations, designing her whole life to be the kind of person her mother wants her to be. Even after she walks away from the prospective of a perfect-on-paper (and awful in real life) marriage, she just turns her attention into trying to have a perfect career in interior design, without ever considering whether this is even something she wants to be doing.

I feel a kind of sociological fascination in this because it’s so different from my own experiences. I’m the kind of person who’s much more likely to reflexively refuse to do something when I’ve been told to, even when it makes sense and would benefit me, versus reflexively going along with what I’ve been told. I always like getting the chance to be in the head of someone who thinks differently than I do, and I appreciated seeing Astrid’s hard-won journey to living for herself instead of her mother.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, for some reason I just couldn’t get into this book like I did Delilah Green. It also had a couple of tropes that irritate me, even though they’re very minor. (Spoilers, highlight to read.) The first one is when a woman says “I haven’t orgasmed from sex before” and their partner immediately says they will make them orgasm. I could go on a whole rant about this, but I’ll just say that you’re placing way too much pressure on your partner to orgasm just to make you happy, which is more likely to backfire. The other minor trope I bristled against was Jordan mourning her relationship for so long and then suddenly realizing that actually that relationship was terrible the whole time and it was good that it ended. I’m not saying that can’t happen, but I see it more than I’d like in romance novels. I don’t know that I’ve read any romances where a previous relationship actually was good unless that previous partner died. In real life, relationships end for all kinds of valid reasons that aren’t “this was always bad and never should have happened”! (End of spoilers.)

Those are minor points I probably wouldn’t have thought of for more than a few seconds if I had otherwise been absorbed in the story, though. I can’t say what it is that didn’t work for me here, so I’m going to chalk it up to being a problem with me, not the book. I’m still going to read book three, because it follows my favourite character of the friend group. Hopefully, I’ll like it as much as I did Delilah Green!

Sapphic Slice of Life in Pastels: Rainbow! Vol. 1 by Sunny & Gloom

the cover of Rainbow Vol 1

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

Boo is a high schooler who likes cute outfits, daydreaming, and also the new girl at school (maybe). New girl Mimi—with her wild mint-colored mane, low tolerance for sleazy douchebags, and modern-day chivalry —seems like the perfect “prince” to give Boo the whirlwind high-school romance of her dreams. Much to her frustration, though, Boo isn’t a shoujo main character. She’s a teenager who’s busy trying to help pay the bills and save herself from her mother’s ceaseless string of poor decisions. But with a little help, our bright-but-beleaguered protagonist might finally have a shot at some kind of happy.

Rainbow! Vol 1 is a heartfelt, sincere story that tackles some difficult, darker themes while never sacrificing either its sense of emotional grounding or first-love butterflies*. I have a weakness for the gentle comedy of kindly awkward characters being awkwardly kind to each other, and let me tell you, this has that in spades.

I also have a weakness for pastels and soft lines (Steven Universe backgrounds live rent-free on my laptop and phone screens to this day). The pink-mint-heliotrope scheme of the comic is soothing on the eyes, sweet on the sensibilities and so cute that I finally understood the literal meaning of “kawaii“.

And speaking of Steven Universe, the art style exudes Cartoon Network vibes, with a splash of shoujo and Erica Henderson-esque elements that will hit older readers right in their nostalgia sweet spot. It certainly did for me.

I’ve been following this on Tapas for a while, where you can read ahead if the ending leaves you wanting more. In particular, I appreciate how the readers can find a lifeline in the budding relationship between Boo and Mimi when the storyline takes a turn for the heavier—much like Boo herself is beginning to. No matter how rough things get, that hope is like the rainbow at the end of the storm.

Overall, this is a sweet sapphic slice-of-life story centered around two high schoolers trying to figure out who they are outside of the expectations imposed on them, and maybe falling in love in the process.

Content Warnings for bullying, parental neglect and substance abuse

*Fans of Heartstopper will definitely find a lot to love here, but if I, personally, had to draw a graphic novel comparison, I’d say it reads something like if Emile Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters switched out the horror for shoujo-ai and the adult audience for YA readers. It might seem like an odd comparison, but the complicated family dynamics, treatment of tropes as a source of comfort, and handling of the way Boo’s fantasia act as a slipstream lens through which she copes with reality and her feelings of alienation all reminds me of Ferris’s iconic work.

I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane

the cover of I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself

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

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

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

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

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

Spoilers for ending:

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

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

A Vampire Pandemic: Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

the cover of Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin

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

Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin isn’t your ordinary vampire book. In this world, vampires are known as Saras: people who are infected with Saratov Syndrome, a brutal pandemic that changes how society functions. You can’t get into a place without first pricking your finger on a scanner meant to identify anyone who is a Sara, and if you go out on your own at night, you’re taking your life into your own hands. Mia is a young woman in her twenties whose mother was turned into a Sara when Mia was a kid, and we follow her as she navigates the codependent, abusive relationship she has with her mother throughout the years.

The best thing going for this book is the world. I was instantly enamored with the concept the moment I started reading, and when things lagged, I stayed because of how interesting I found the Saras. Mia is her mother’s bloodletter. They have a daily ritual: Mia draws her own blood and pours it into her mother’s cup, and that is how her mother gets by without murdering other humans in front of Mia. Treating Saratov Syndrome—treating vampirism—like a pandemic is an inspired idea. I could see the bones of the Covid-19 pandemic shaping the story through curfews, isolation protocols, and an emphasis on people leaving the house at their own risk. As a healthcare worker, this resonated with me and gave the story meaning that I hadn’t expected to find. It’s also such a fresh take on vampires. Saratov Syndrome is probably one of my favorite depictions of vampirism. It’s a disease with no cure. It produces both Saras and people bent on killing them in the name of self-defense. Caffeine, alcohol, and rusted metal become known deterrents to Saras, and you see how the world is changed from our reality in order to make room for that.

The relationship between Mia and her mother is also a high point for Night’s Edge. The book oscillates between present Mia and past Mia, showing us their fraught relationship beginning with her mother’s death/subsequent Sara-turning through where they are now after more than a decade. This is the strongest relationship in the entire book. There’s a love interest, of course—her name is Jade, and she’s everything Mia is not. However, I found myself more intrigued by whatever was going on between Mia and her mom. Throughout the book, you have to watch as Mia slowly figures out that her mother is an abuser, and it hurts when a promise her mother made in the past is broken the next time we switch to the present. When her mother first becomes a Sara, you see her try to avoid hurting Mia for a while, but that soft edge is gone from her in the present. The mother she had before is not the mother she has now. Mia’s life is shaped completely around not exposing her mother’s secret and always being there for her every need or whim. She thinks that she has to spend all of her time protecting her mother from a world that doesn’t understand her the way Mia does. She’s never dated anyone. She doesn’t do anything with her life. She works morning shifts at a bookshop, and she attends to her mom every other moment. This is it. This is Mia.

Then she meets Jade at the coffee shop next door, and her life slowly begins to change. Mia feels an instant spark of connection with Jade. Jade is nice, bright, and seems to feel that same spark for Mia. Their relationship takes shape quickly. Suddenly, Mia is seeing a world outside of her mother’s control. You would think, then, that their relationship would be really interesting. However, Jade is a cardboard cutout of a person. That sounds harsh, I know. She’s supposed to be a stark opposite to Mia, a fun-loving, colorful-eyeliner-wearing, rocker chick who shows Mia what life could be like if she got out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s all she is. There are no moments of growth for her, no character development, nothing. Jade is the same person at the end of the novel that she is at the beginning of it. While Mia starts to seriously consider and make an effort to leave her mother behind and go with Jade across the country, Jade is just kind of there, an escape plan, a plot device to move Mia’s story forward. Anytime the two interacted, I found myself wishing that Jade would give me something more to hold onto. I wanted Mia to see Jade and figure out what her life could be herself, without Jade telling her what she could do and where she could go. (Spoilers follow) Jade offers to let Mia come with her when she leaves to go on her next adventure, and Mia agrees, following someone else’s plan for her life again. Mia eventually choosing not to go with her is one of the few times Mia makes a decision for herself, and I saw her growing as a character when she did that. She doesn’t make a lot of her own choices, so I cheered for her whenever she did.

All in all, this was an okay read. The end of the story is a bit of a letdown to me (Mia fails to make a decision, and something happens anyway), but other readers might not see it as such. If you want a refreshing take on vampires and codependency, give this a shot! Trigger warnings for: child abuse, blood, death, violence/injury (including domestic violence), and a scene involving active shooters at a musical event.