An Ode to Burning it All Down: The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

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Have you ever been seized with the inexplicable urge to destroy an intricate and beautiful object? But you don’t; you just sit with that strange, uncomfortable urge twisting in your chest and gnawing away at your heart. That’s a bit like what reading The Genesis of Misery is like. The title is Neon Yang’s debut novel, released in September 2022.

Let me back up a little and maybe add a warning: gentle lambs, if violence is not your thing, maybe sit this one out. 

The Genesis of Misery is a frame novel, so we’re told the story by another narrator, which adds an immediate additional layer of intrigue. We open knowing that Misery Nomaki (they/she), just turned twenty and believed to be the Last Savior of the Faithful, has arrived at the Imperial Capital already a prisoner. 

Reader, we are plunged into the surge of their escape and exposed to their raw ability to manipulate stone as they attempt to phase through the holystone door of their cell. The action fiend in me was already on its feet, wildly cheering. I didn’t know Misery yet, but I wanted her to win. 

We learn quickly as we go, frantically fed threads of information about this new world with every sentence. There is so much about it that’s just cool. You like magic? Space cults? Mechs? Rocks? A void virus that lives in your head and explodes out of your body in the form of too many teeth, bones, limbs? The Genesis of Misery has it all.

You could live inside of the universe that Yang created, and foul-mouthed Misery navigates it effortlessly. They’ve had a hard life, made harder by the creature no one else can see. It says its name is Ruin, Misery calls it a demon, but the information it has is good. Though Misery believes it to be a manifestation of voidsickness, they’re keen on survival, so they play up the role of inscrutable messiah, trying to stay one step ahead of the not-quite-openly-warring Church and Empire. 

Throughout The Genesis of Misery, we’re given the chance to see Misery grow into her self-appointed role as chosen one, Hand of the Larex Forge, leader of a ragtag mech squad meant to eliminate the Heretics once and for all. We watch as they continue to gather belief and followers, carefully manipulating those around them, and we watch them fight space battles with fierce joy and explore the crackling tension with Princess Alodia Lightning—and others. It’s a riveting, wild ride, one that begins with a sinking feeling and ends with one, too. Misery has never had it easy. 

After finishing the book, I haven’t been able to stop tumbling it over and over in my brain, fixating on the strange world and still half-living inside its constructs. 

Is Misery an antihero? Maybe. 

Is she likable? Maybe. 

But are they forgettable? Absolutely not.

The Genesis of Misery is for you if you’re looking for a queer, gritty, “chosen one” retelling with a morally gray protagonist. It’s for you if you want a painfully intimate view of fanaticism, all nestled within a glittering, imaginative sci-fi universe. It’s for you even if you’re just here for mech battles in space. 

But mostly, it’s for you if you’ve ever felt like burning it all down.

Queer F/F Rom-Com for National Hispanic Heritage Month: The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School

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The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School had been on my reading list for way too long and I am so glad I finally opened it up to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15)! The sweet characters, nuanced coming-of-age and coming out story, and will-they-or-won’t-they first F/F romance had me hooked from the first page. 

Ever since Yamilet (Yami) was outed by her ex-best friend last year, she has been committed to acting as straight as possible: don’t hug your girlfriends too long, talk about crushes on boys—you know the drill. Her hope is that just maybe that acting will help her be straight, since she’s confident her religious mom would kick her out if she’s gay. It is both heartbreaking and endearing following Yami’s very gay thoughts as she tries oh so hard to be straight. She watches her every move, hoping they’re not too gay, and she is definitely not spending a lot of her time thinking about Bo, the only out girl (and one of the few other people of color as an adopted Chinese American) in her Catholic School.

I’m going to take a gander and guess that you don’t choose YA coming out stories for the high stakes plot. If you’re anything like me, you open up this kind of book for another sweet example of someone living into their truth and being better for it. Even if the end result of a rom-com is expected, it’s the journey to that queer happily ever after that is so fulfilling. I never get sick of honest yet positive coming out stories and this one from a queer Mexican American girl navigating Catholic school and a religious family is especially important to be told and read. 

The awkward growing up moments made me laugh out loud. The found family relationships made my heart swell. The biological family love and growth made me tear up. The very real homophobic reactions and religious trauma made me cringe. The understanding and patient romance made me swoon. And the journey of self-love and self-confidence was contagious, reminding me all over again of the freedom of getting brave enough to be you out loud. This was a beautiful read through and through—I highly recommend it!

Content warnings: racism, homophobia, immigration, suicidal ideation and hospitalization of a character

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!

A Queer M/F Romance of Healing and Reconciliation: 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

Childhood Nostalgia is a Trap: Mister Magic by Kiersten White

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I wasn’t sure if I would review this for the Lesbrary at first, because although the main character mentions that she’s bisexual at the beginning, it didn’t seem to come up again. Once I finished it, though, I realized that queerness is essential to the underpinning of the story. (There are also several queer men side characters.)

Millennials all remember Mister Magic: it was a kids’ show with a huge following, and 30 years after it shut down, people still discuss it in message boards and debate the finer points of the show. Was Mister Magic a person or just a puppet? Did the show stop because a kid died, or is that just a creepypasta rumour? These debates are impossible to verify, though, because there are no surviving episodes or even clips from Mister Magic, despite it being one of the longest running shows of all time.

Val doesn’t remember her childhood. Her memories start when she and her father showed up at a horse ranch and began a new life. He refused to let her have any contact with the outside world, including watching television. Then, at his funeral, an oddly familiar man shows up and tells her she was once part of the Circle of Friends on Mister Magic, and they’re all getting together for a reunion. Before she can second guess herself, she leaves with these new/old friends, looking for answers about what she’s been running from her whole life.

I’m a little divided on how I feel about this book. The premise is interesting, and I liked the interspersed snippets about the show, including Reddit discussions. The author’s note was illuminating, and I respect what she was trying to do. I like the message about the danger of trying to return to an imagined childhood innocence, and how trying to do the best for your kids can lead you to crushing their individuality out of them. The ending was surprising but fitting. Spoiler, highlight to read: And I appreciated that the ideal person raising kids and teaching them lessons about the world was a childless queer woman. End spoilers.

While I liked the premise and the message of this novel, the execution fell a little flat to me. I think this would make an amazing novella—maybe even a short story. The middle dragged a lot, and I didn’t feel like I was getting new information. In the end, I’m glad I read it because of the strength of the premise and ending, but I do think most of the middle could be cut without losing much of the story.

As for the horror element, this is a little unsettling and creepy, but not outright scary or disgusting. I think this would be a good book to pick up if you want to dip your toes into horror, but don’t want to give yourself nightmares.

If you’re on the fence, I recommend reading the author’s note first to give you an idea of what the author is going for. Some elements of this are really strong, so it’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have if the plot was a little more streamlined.

Content warnings for parental abuse and neglect, racism, homophobia, religious trauma, child death.

A Cult in the Woods—Or Worse? The Wicked Unseen by Gigi Griffis

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Audre doesn’t fit well in the conservative small town to which she’s moved. She’s from New York City. She’s a lesbian. She’s a determined skeptic. And she’s the daughter of an occult researcher and a mortician. So when the preacher’s daughter, Elle, disappears, suspicion falls on Audre’s family. She works to find Elle, not only to rescue her crush, but to clear her father’s name.

For a quick read, this has a surprising depth of character. Audre is in some ways a typical heroine for a YA novel: loud, determined, most always right. But added characteristics like her affinity for horror movies make her feel more fleshed out. Similarly, her friend David is a typical sidekick character, made more developed thanks to his interest in journalism. Love interest and missing girl Elle features in flashbacks, making her not just a damsel in distress but a girl grappling with larger questions of faith and belonging.

The queer content is realistic. Audre is the new girl with a crush. Elle is a local who seems to reciprocate. It’s not magical instalove, which in my opinion makes for a more satisfying story. Amid a community that sees them as evil and aberrant, these two are just normal teenagers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this. It balances the creepy, cultish small town with the just-this-side-of-too-much sweetness of Audre’s family. (Her parents dress as Gomez and Morticia Addams for Halloween and it’s almost too adorable!) Audre and David are actually pretty terrible investigators, but the fast pace and forays into Elle’s point of view keep the book from ever feeling dull. In some ways, I wish it had engaged with its more serious themes, but overall that’s just not what this is. It’s a quick YA mystery about a girl’s disappearance and the validity of a queer teen.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, religious trauma, racism

Rachel reviews The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

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Described as a cross between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Tara Isabella Burton’s novel The World Cannot Give (2022) is a dark, Gothic, and powerful meditation on the dangers of desire and the consequences of ambition. 

The novel follows Laura Stearns as she arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, a prestigious school on the coast that her favourite novelist, Sebastian Webster, whose book All Before Them has inspired her move across the country. Webster died at nineteen fighting in the Spanish Civil War and Laura idolizes him, believing that her time at the school will replicate the events of the novel. And indeed, Laura finds some of the intensity she is looking for among the school’s very exclusive chapel choir, led by the compelling, charismatic, and somewhat neurotic Virginia Strauss. 

Laura is immediately drawn to Virginia because of her similar devotion to Simon Webster, and Virginia is a born-again Christian, fanatical about her faith and her rigorous routine, including the miles she runs every morning. Virginia demands excellence from herself and the members of the choir. When Virginia brings Laura into the fold, sharing with her the rituals and routines of the choir/cult, Laura feels like she’s entered into a world heavy with meaning. But soon, things begin to fall apart as Virginia’s authority is challenged by various actors at the school, and Virginia’s demands get more and more outlandish before Laura must make a choice between following Virginia or saving herself. 

Overall, this book was enormously compelling and is perfect for fans of queer Gothic literature. I haven’t seen a lot of press around this book, but it really is perfect for fans of The Secret History and lesbian pulp. The intensity and power between characters in this novel left me unable to put this book down. The relationship between Virginia and Laura changes from hot to cold minute to minute, and Virginia’s pathology is so compelling. 

The setting alone is captivating. An elite boarding school on the edge of the sea, the novel strikes a balance between this bizarrely intense group of high school students who are surrounded by decades of history. The twists and turns of this novel continued to surprise me, and I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. The end of this novel caught me off guard in the best way. 

For anyone interested in queer Gothic mystery and intrigue, The World Cannot Give is a must-read!

Please add The World Cannot Give to your TBR on Goodreads.

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

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

Danika reviews I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

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Chloe Green and Shara Wheeler have been academic rivals since Chloe arrived in this Christian small town high school with its suffocating rules and homophobic culture. But at prom, as the fight for valedictorian is almost at a close, Shara kisses Chloe and disappears. She soon realizes Shara kissed two others that night: her boyfriend, Smith, and the broody boy next boy, Rory. She’s also left a series of clues for them on how to find her.

If this sounds like the plot of a 2000s-2010s YA novel to you, Chloe agrees, who says Shara has cast herself in a John Green novel. Chloe resents Shara: she’s the golden girl of Willowgrove Christian Academy. She’s pretty and blonde and has a quarterback boyfriend, straight As, and lights up every room she walks in. She’s the principal’s daughter. She can do no wrong.

Chloe feels like the opposite, like an outcast. The only thing they have in common is their GPA. She is out as bisexual in a school where no one else is out as queer. In fact, one of her moms was the first person to come out at Willowgrove when she went there, and it hasn’t seemed to have changed much. Chloe hates this town, this school, and her classmates who seem to thrive there. Her friends are the other rejects: closeted queer kids and theater nerds.

She’s not going to let Shara swan out so easily, not when she’s so close to showing her up. She wants to prove to everyone that she is better. So she wrangles together Rory and Smith to find her. They were once best friends and now can barely speak to each other, especially now that Shara kissed both of them.

Each chapter counts down how many days since Shara left and how many days until graduation, giving the chase the tension of a clock ticking down. Also, who can resist a scavenger hunt? Chloe becomes obsessed with these letters and clues: how they reveal that Shara wasn’t the angel everyone thought she was, just as Chloe always suspected. How Chloe is cracking the code and proving herself smart enough to find Shara. In fact, she’s so obsessed that she stops paying attention to her friends, who she hasn’t told about the clues, and even her schoolwork.

When discussing sapphic characters online, there are some common labels of “disaster bisexuals” and “useless lesbians.” Somehow, the sapphic main characters in this book manage to both be useless disasters. Shara and Chloe are obsessed with each other, and anyone reading will know — even if this wasn’t a romance novel — that they’re in love with each other. But they’re so wrapped up in their rivalry and the lies they’re telling themselves that they can’t see it.

While Chloe and Shara seem to be in their own world, there’s a whole other story unravelling outside of these two characters. This story has a lot of say about growing up queer in a Christian conservative small town. Chloe can’t wait to escape (just like her mom did before her, though she came back), but others find value in this town and want to fight to make it better. Chloe also slowly starts to realize that her view of Willowgrove is limited, and it’s not as straight and cis as she assumed, even if students aren’t out.

I was intrigued by the premise of this one, with the scavenger hunt and mystery element, but it began to drag for me in the middle. I love a flawed main character, but both Chloe and Shara are sometimes insufferable, with extreme tunnel vision. Then the story changed gear, and the ending chunk pulled me back in with the emerging storylines from other characters. It was also fun to see Chloe and Shara bounce off of each other: they are both so stubborn and opinionated that their collision is intense — that is, until they realize they might want the same thing after all.

You probably don’t need my recommendation to read this: it is Casey McQuiston after all, but you have it anyway. If you want a rivals to lovers F/F scavenger hunt YA romance that steadily gets more queer as you go along, pick this one up.

Nat reviews My Home is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke

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If I were going to throw a book down into the middle of a fray between Romance readers and Lit Fic lovers, it would be My Home Is on the Mountain by Caro Clarke. This novel is absolute proof that you can have it all. You do NOT have to choose. You do NOT have to suffer (okay, maybe a little suffering, there’s angst aplenty, but you don’t have to endure the pain for an eternity). You, my friend, can read exceptional prose and get the HEA of your dreams. (Cue Oprah doling out Happy Endings to the readers.) 

As though it was plucked straight out of the depths of classic Southern literature, Clarke’s novel is set in Eastern Tennessee in the early 1930’s. As someone who grew up in the south and read my fair share of Southern authors, heaps of Faulkener with a side of Zora Neale Hurston, this book was right up my alley from the start. The novel focuses on the relationship between Cecilia Howison, a privileged young woman from a wealthy, influential Southern family, and Airey Fitch, a local fiddler and hard working young woman living up in the Smoky Mountains. Her family is rich in land, but otherwise destitute. Major themes in this novel include economic inequality, exploitation of the lower classes, religion (specifically Christianity), and societal expectations around gender and sexuality. 

One of the highlights of the book for me is that it plays with language and dialect in ways that any self-respecting word nerd should eat up with a spoon. Reference to regional mountain dialect and the perception of words spoken is something the author plays with throughout the book, as well as how language relates to class and education. There is so much to unpack and explore in the novel that I’ve barely mentioned the romantic entanglements of our two MCs, Cecilia and Airey. Their budding friendship is based on Cecilia’s desire to show the world that Airey Fitch is an undiscovered violin prodigy, though she maaay have some ulterior motives as she’s a bit sweet on Airey from the very start. 

As the two women explore their relationship further, we start to wade into the waters of religion (with various interpretations) and the societal pressures of the time. We see their individual world views and how they’re shaped by their beliefs in ways you may not expect. But as you might have guessed, the relationship is fraught with fear of societal repercussions and looks doomed from the start. But I’ll remind you, this is a romance. Fear not. 

One last thing to say about Clarke’s writing: this was a well researched, and I mean, really thoroughly researched novel. After reading it I went to the author’s website for her book, which details her notes chapter by chapter, with pictures and information on everything from clothing to cars. It is fascinating and I highly recommend you at least scan it a bit during reading, as it includes music as well. Airey can play just about anything on her violin, from old time standards popular in that time to Dvořák and Bach. Descriptions of Airey’s music are well executed, and if you want to listen along, some of it can be found on the website. (Be advised though, the site contains spoilers, so don’t skip ahead.) 

10/10 – Now if only someone would come along and make this into a movie! 

Danika reviews Sisters of the Vast Black and Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather

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As soon as I heard about a series that follows nuns in a living spaceship — that also has a sapphic main character — I had to pick it up.

The sisters of the Order of Saint Rita are ostensibly a Catholic order, but a lot has changed. They have little connection with Earth, ever since a devastating war severed most of the power of the corrupt Earth Central Governance. In the generations since, communities have grown up under their own power in different systems.

Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, their lab-grown organic spaceship, visits those communities that want either baptisms, weddings, or to receive medical care — most of what they do has more to do with medical care than religious offerings.

The series begins slowly, introducing each of the sisters, who all have their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Not all of them are devout, and most have some sort of secret they left behind in order to start this new life. While this is a sci fi story, of course, it feels very grounded. Details like having to sift through spam on their communications array makes it feel like a realistic vision of the future.

The sapphic element comes in when we learn that Sister Gemma has fallen in love with a female engineer she met during one of their stops at a service station. Since then, they’ve been secretly exchanging letters. It’s not the gender of her love interest that’s a problem; it’s the fact that she’s broken her vow by entertaining a romantic relationship at all. This is a fairly small part of the series, but we do get to see Gemma’s journey and struggle in this decision: she loves her sisters and her work tending the ship, and she feels lost outside of that.

While most of the first book deals with the sisters’ internal lives as well as an ongoing debate about whether their ship should be allowed to mate, the action ramps up dramatically at the end, when they are pulled into a conflict that could restart the war that took so many lives — a war that one of the sisters has a horrifying connection to.

In the afterward, the author discusses how this began as a short story, which I can see. It’s definitely a narrative that has more to do with emotions and ideas than a fast-moving plot (until the end). While the second book picks up after all the action in Sisters of the Vast Black‘s conclusion, it still is fairly slow paced, especially when I was expecting it to pick up considerably.

I also unfortunately had trouble keeping track of all the characters. That’s a fault of mine as a reader with a bad memory, but I could only recognize a few of the sisters. Between that and the slow pace, these novellas took me a surprising amount of time to finish. That was made worse in the second book, which doesn’t have any chapters.

While there are interesting ideas explored in this series, I finished it feeling like it would have worked better as a short story for me: it began to drag, and I didn’t feel connected enough to the big cast (in a small amount of pages) to pull me through it. I’m sure that other readers with a better memory and a little more patience for sitting with philosophical reads will enjoy this one, though.

Maggie reviews Matrix by Lauren Groff

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In the backdrop of the glamorous life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matrix follows 17-year-old Marie, who is unwanted at court for her bastardy, her height and rough-hewn appearance, and her scandalous family history of women crusaders and warriors. Deeply in love (and lust) with Queen Eleanor, Marie is shocked to find herself shipped off to a dilapidated abbey in England as its new prioress, despite having no vocation. Nominally historical fiction, Matrix only vaguely concerns itself with documented historical events, rather focusing on the space women can build for themselves when they have the space to do so and the relationships they had with either other, from queer to contentious and everything in between.

The abbey Marie is consigned to is impoverished, the nuns are diminishing in number and beset by disease, and the local gentry and peasants are refusing to pay their rents and stealing abbey land. The abbess is vague and frequently lost in the depths of her own mind, the other sisters in charge are frequently cruel or inefficient, and Marie has no interest in becoming a part of the community or taking any real leadership. Instead, she frequently writes to Eleanor, letters and religious poetry, hoping that Eleanor will think fondly of her and bring her back at court. It’s only as the years pass and she realizes that Eleanor will never return her affections that Marie turns her mind to taking up the reins of abbey leadership, and once she does Marie, trained to run a noble estate, builds her abbey from a pit of disease and starvation to a bustling and powerful community of religious women and herself into a towering religious power who takes more authority on herself than the church would normally allow.

The sensuality embedded in Marie’s story is both commonplace and shocking. Early on, while Marie is still at court, we learn that she has had a sexual relationship with her maidservant Cecily – and that her regard for Eleanor isn’t purely platonic – but it’s unclear whether Marie regards these encounters are “real sex” or more along the lines of physical things that just happen since it’s presented so matter-of-factly – nothing to see here, just medieval gals being pals. This is both reinforced and complicated by her relief when, years later at the abbey, the sister in charge of the abbey infirmary invites her to come by for regular orgasms as a way of “rebalancing the humours” and categorizes it as a simple physical thing that some people need to have. Relief because she has scoured religious texts for “female sodomy” and found nothing – indicating that she has an inkling her sexual encounters would not be as acceptable to wider society but her quick acceptance of an explanation – and the continuing circle of physical relationships among the sisters – indicates that no one intends to give up such acts or feel guilt over them. Indeed, none of the conflict in the story was about the simple existence of such relationships, and it seems like the community built by the women has a strong tradition of close relationships between sisters.

Matrix is outside of my usual reads, because I don’t normally long to read about the Catholic Church, but I really enjoyed how this book blended historical figures with beautiful imagery, and how it played with the line between sensuality and practicality. It’s not a typical historical fiction book, but it is eminently readable and enjoyable. I enjoyed the idea and the slow rise of women building a base of protection and power for themselves in an area where their options were limited and without much influence. I enjoyed Marie’s slow turn from pining for Eleanor to determination and skill to take the situation she was given and make it better, and her increasing desire to make it a community by women for women, with fewer and fewer men allowed on the grounds for any reason. The resulting community is flawed and prosperous and queer and strong and rather engaging to read about. A good rec if you want a little something different in your to-read list.