Grumpy/Sunshine Behind the Bar: In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins

In Walked Trouble by Dana Hawkins cover

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

In Walked Trouble, Dana Hawkins’s newest novel, takes us away from the coffee shop of Not in the Plan and into Nueve’s, a Puerto Rican bar and restaurant that should totally exist. (Has anyone else noticed just how many great concepts for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, films, TV series, etc. that exist in romance novels?) Remi James is briefly introduced in Not in the Plan, but all anyone really needs to know about this character becomes clear in the first chapter of In Walked Trouble—Remi is definitely on the surly side of the personality spectrum. 

A grump, if you will.

Despite her grumpy nature, everything seems to be coming up Remi: her boss has called her in to discuss what must be the promotion that she so rightly deserves. Having grown up in the foster system, Remi is obsessed with the idea that a house will make a home for her, but she needs more money for a downpayment. Money she will earn when she finally gets that promotion to head bartender. Which is why she’s so angry when she discovers that her boss has brought in Maya to co-bartend with Remi. No promotion, no raise. Remi’s attraction to Maya is immediately replaced with anger. (“Replaced” is a strong word—let’s say “supplemented by” instead.) To make matters worse, the money that would have gone into that raise is now being offered as a bonus. May the best bartender win.

Remi thinks that this will be no problem because of how fast and efficient she is. What she doesn’t know is that Maya tosses bottles, which tends to make a bartender very popular very quickly. Maya, according to Remi, is “ready for a runway.” And she smiles too much.

Is there a better trope than grumpy/sunshine? Don’t bother answering that question—there isn’t.

Maya also needs that bonus to afford her master’s in nursing, a degree she’s pursuing in part because of her sister, who has type 1 diabetes. She is also grieving her father’s sudden death nine years earlier. As I’ve written many times before, I appreciate when a romance novel focuses on the trauma of the main character (or, in this case, both main characters). While two characters can’t fix the trauma that the other faces, they can listen, be supportive, and offer help when appropriate. Sure, the other stuff is pretty good as well, but I really enjoy this element of Remi and Maya’s relationship.  

What other stuff? Well, if asked, I would point to a scene that involves mop water, ice cubes, a lemon slice, and dueling soda guns.

I could probably end this review here, right?

Back to trauma for a moment. If you’re the kind of romance reader who prefers the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” approach, In Walked Trouble is probably not for you. Yes, there is instant chemistry between Remi and Maya, but the movement on that attraction only occurs after they actually get to know each other. Fine… there is also a lot of alcohol. But even that isn’t what you think it is. Hawkins puts together a narrative where it is not entirely clear whether the physical intimacy came before the emotional intimacy or vice versa. That sentence felt cringey as I wrote, but I’m sticking with it because of how strongly I value the whole “talking about feelings” thing. We know that it isn’t exactly easy to open up to other people in a genuine way, and I can’t help but think stories like this one model a better approach.

Hawkins does reinforce a few other concepts in In Walked Trouble, including one of my favorites: coming up with really bad excuses to be somewhere or to do something for someone. Because sometimes you’re not ready to talk about your feelings with someone, but you still want that someone to know that eventually you might want to. The really bad excuse approach to getting to know someone never gets old.

Neither does grumpy/sunshine.

(One more thing: I had no intention of comparing In Walked Trouble to a film like I did last month in my review of Cover Story… but then I read someone comparing In Walked Trouble to the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. You know, the movie they show clips of during the “Kokomo” music video? And, okay, yes, Maya does toss bottles like Tom Cruise’s character. That is, and I cannot stress this enough, the only connection between this book and that movie. Seriously, don’t watch Cocktail thinking it’s a romcom. Watch it because a) it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Movie and b) it goes way darker than any movie whose soundtrack features “Kokomo” has a right to do.)

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Blossoming, Neurodiverse Love: Late Bloomer by Mazey Eddings

Late Bloomer cover

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

After winning the lottery, Opal Devlin puts all her money in a failing flower farm, only to find an angry (albeit gorgeous) Pepper Boden already living there. Though she’s unable to find her grandmother’s will, Pepper claims she’s the rightful owner of Thistle and Bloom Farms. While they agree to cohabitate, Opal and Pepper clash at every turn. Can something softer blossom between these polar opposites, allowing a new dream to take root and grow?

Oh. My. (Sappho.) Goddess. You may think you know Mazey Eddings’ writing style, but I assure you, you do not. Many of us read The Plus One and/or Tily in Technicolor last year, but Eddings has far exceeded herself with this one. As a neurodivergent author, Eddings’ stories often have some element of neurodiversity/mental health, shining a light on the different ways people’s brains work while embracing those differences through beautiful, realistic characters. Opal and Pepper are no different, both on the spectrum yet unique in their behaviors and view of the world. These women are not predictable, pre-programmed components of a story; they are ever-blooming, learning how to plant roots alongside one another, share sunlight, and rise despite being different species. Both plants, growing and adapting to different elements, yet very much the same. While Opal and Pepper have always struggled to fit in with the world around them, they manage to cultivate a safe, healthy garden for one another.

This is one of those overwhelming, layered, awe-inspiring sapphic stories that will tug at your heartstrings long after you read it. Eddings’ language leaps off the page, making it a little reminiscent of One Last Stop (be still, my little sapphic heart). I’ve beyond annotated Late Bloomer, when I’m usually selective about choosing quotes. You don’t just see love blossom between these two women; you feel it. It made me smile, laugh, get all messy and misty-eyed. As I said, neither woman is predictable. Opal feels directionless at the story’s start, allowing her (fake) best friend and (on/off) ex to step all over her. I expected her to be the wallflower, especially with the BITE we see from Pepper (pun unintended) in her first chapter, but the two balance each other out. When Pepper feels uncertain or anxious, Opal steps forward, bold and unwavering. When Opal begins to crumble, Pepper holds her up. They support each other, never allowing the other to wilt.

Unfortunately, this book relies heavily on miscommunication. Both women are eager to hide their real feelings at the risk of scaring the other. That lack of communication continues until almost the last chapter.

Recommended for fans of One Last Stop and Imogen, Obviously. Side note: please, please read the author’s note. Good goddess.

✨ The Vibes ✨

❀ Neurodivergency/Autism Spectrum
❀ Sapphic Romance
❀ Grief/Healing
❀ Forced Proximity
❀ Spicy/First Time
❀ Cottagecore Vibes
❀ One Bed
❀ Touch Her and You Die
❀ Dual POV
❀ Miscommunication
❀ Flower Competition
❀ Grumpy/Sunshine

 Quotes

❝Slowly, she leans toward me, and my heart pounds so violently in my chest that my head swims. Is she . . . It almost seems like she’s going to press that smile to my mouth. Teach me how it tastes.❞

❝Ah. There’s the you I missed.❞

❝I used to stress over finding a label that fit me. Lesbian. Bisexual. Pan. Demi . . . I’ve filtered through them all many times over, none ever feeling quite right. Just say queer and move on with your life, Diksha finally told me late one night after what was probably my sixth sexual identity crisis of my early twenties. But what does that mean? I’d wailed, draining more boxed wine into my plastic cup. My brain loves order and labels and concise frameworks to understand things, and not knowing where I fit feels unbearable. It means you’re you, and only you get to decide who you like and when you like them, Tal had said from their chair in the corner. The name of your feelings isn’t anyone’s business but yours.❞

❝But instead, she reaches out to me—opening her hand like a flower unfurling its petals to the sun. I stare at it. The ink stains and calluses and chipped nails and bitten cuticles. For a moment, that hand looks like a second chance.❞

❝Her poems spoke softly—as intimately as confessions between lovers—about the terrible, wonderful ache of being in love.❞

A Lesbian Road Trip Romcom About Death: Here We Go Again by Alison Cochrun

Here We Go Again cover

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

I read Alison Cochrun’s previous book, Kiss Her Once for Me, and liked it, but I was not expecting to love this one quite as much as I did. Some of that is for reasons that will translate to many other readers, and some of my enjoyment comes from it combining my own random interests. Either way, I highly recommend this one, even if you have no experience teaching high school English and aren’t also contemplating getting assessed for ADHD.

Just as high school is such a pivotal time of life despite being only four years, my three years teaching and learning to teach had a permanent impact on me. I may not have been a high school English teacher for long, but I think some part of me always will be—and it’s still my back-up career. During those years, it completely consumed me. I would lay awake at night trying to figure out how to be a better teacher. My practicums were the most stressful times of my life. So it won’t come as a shock that I deeply related to this story about three high school English teachers. Unsurprisingly, Cochrun used to be a high school English teacher herself. (It’s also dedicated to teachers: “For all the queer educators out there. You save lives simply by showing up. Thank you. And for every queer teenager who became a little too attached to their English teacher. I see you. I love you.”)

Logan and Rosemary are rival English teachers at the same high school, but once, they were best friends. Then one kiss ruined their relationship, and now they can’t stand each other. It doesn’t help that they are classic Type A (Rosemary) and Type B (Logan) teachers, each judging the other for their opposing styles. How did they end up in the same profession? When they were teens, the only person who saw and accepted these two struggling queer and neurodivergent teachers was Joe, their Mexican American, openly gay English teacher. In their conservative small town, Joe was a life-saving presence for them, and they both followed in his footsteps.

Joe isn’t teaching anymore, though. He’s only 64, but years battling pancreatic cancer has ended with him being recommended hospice care. Both Rosemary and Logan have been helping take care of him, but he has a deathbed request that will be a lot more challenging to fulfill. He wants to die in his cabin in Maine, and he wants Logan and Rosemary to drive him there. Together.

Because the two of them can hardly be in the same room together, the idea of being in the same car for almost a week seems impossible, but they can’t ignore Joe’s pleas for them to make up and help go out the way he wants to. Besides, Rosemary has—unbelievably—just been laid off and doesn’t have a guaranteed job to go back to after the summer, so she needs something to keep her anxious brain occupied. So, she makes a giant binder of travel plans and convinces Logan to get on board, and off they set: a dying man, two mortal enemies, and a dog, all crammed in a van together.

I love a road trip story, and just as you’d expect, being in a confined space together forces Logan and Rosemary to communicate. There has been a lot of miscommunication between the two of them over the years, including Logan believing that Rosemary is a tight-laced, high-achieving, heterosexual neurotypical person with everything under control. In reality, they’re both neurodivergent lesbians, and Rosemary manages her anxiety with a desperate need to try to be in control, with a plan for everything.

The two of them haven’t been friend since they were 14, but neither of them moved on in the nearly two decades since. Rosemary keeps so busy with teaching that it allows no time in her life for dating, while Logan keeps her relationships to casual hookups only.

Logan planned to graduate and travel the world, having big adventures. But when her mother left her dad, she was determined not to do the same thing, so she’s been living with him ever since. This road trip is the first time she’s really left their small town.

As they travel, the two of them continue to butt heads, but they also reluctantly reconnect as adults—and finally address what actually happened the day they kissed. Logan’s instincts to run away from conflict mean that it’s not so easy to repair their relationship, though, especially when Logan refuses to grapple with Joe’s imminent death.

In the acknowledgements, Cochrun calls this a romcom about death, and that is accurate. I appreciated that it doesn’t have a particularly romantic view of death. Rosemary and Logan have to change Joe’s diapers as he howls at the indignity. Death is not a quiet, noble affair. It’s prolonged and painful—both for the person dying and their loved ones. There is a little bit of “Tuesdays with Morrie shit,” as Joe refers to it, but it’s not cloying.

(Spoilers, highlight to read) I also thought the first sex scene—Rosemary’s first time having sex—was especially well done. They both go very slowly, with clear consent at all times. It’s sweet, and since I’ve had some sex scenes completely turn me off of the book recently, I was glad to see it treated with such care.(End of spoilers)

A lesbian road trip romance + ruminating on death + both characters having ADHD + all the main characters being high school English teachers made this a home run for me, but you don’t have to have my exact configuration of interests to enjoy this friends to almost lovers to enemies to lovers romance. And yes, I cried.

Official content warnings: This book contains references to an off-page death of a parent due to overdose, and it includes the on-page death of a parental figure.

A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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

The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

Witches Under Modern Systems of Oppression: How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy

the cover of How to Succeed in Witchcraft

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

At the top of the T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School’s leaderboard is Shay Johnson. One of the most impressive and successful witches among her peers, this almost guarantees her the coveted Brockton Scholarship which would allow her to register to the university of her dreams—an education that her parents otherwise cannot afford. Her main obstacle is her years-long rival: Ana Alvarez. When both girls get recruited by their drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee, Mr. B, Shay wearily accepts the starring role to ensure her scholarship win, all while her professor’s behaviour becomes increasingly inappropriate and her rivalry with Ana slowly turns into something more.

If you’re looking to tap into some great YA fiction, I cannot recommend this book enough. Brophy managed to write a perfect balance of entertaining and witty banter, a narrative voice that is fun and easy to follow, as well as some deep, rich, and complex conversations about abuse, manipulation, racism, classism, and homophobia.

Shay is such an incredibly funny main character, and young readers who feel pressured to overachieve in academics will be able to instantly relate to her. Throughout my own reading experience, I felt as though I was an older sister watching her sibling go through all the same mistakes I made at her age. It was truly endearing, and I loved following her through all the highs and lows of her academic journey and her love story. Brophy wrote an extremely realistic main character and gave her the space she needs to recognize, understand, and learn from her mistakes. They always included a ton of nuance in their characters’ conversations, the conflicts weren’t immediately resolved and brushed over anticlimactically, and they built a very relatable cast with some fascinating dynamics.

The element of the story that I believe was the most successful was the way in which Brophy melded their magic system so seamlessly into our modern-day world. Fantasy authors have a tendency to do a lot of fantastical world-building that is set in some real-world human setting, while simultaneously ignoring the tragedies and realities of our history. This book feels very contemporary, in that the magic bleeds into our societies exactly as they have been built, including the systems of oppression that exist in our modern world. Brophy uses witching and magic not to “escape” humanity as we know it, but specifically to address issues of racism, of class disparity, of homophobia, of abuse of power. Shay’s storyline is, at its core, deeply influenced by the fact that she is a Black lesbian who comes from a lower-class family, and her struggles as an obsessive overachiever are rooted in the expectations that have been laid out for her future by the society in which she grew up. It gave the book some wonderful depth, without necessarily becoming overly complex or inaccessible to its intended young adult audience.

The entire plotline surrounding the play itself was phenomenal, because Brophy managed to weave so many societal critiques together. Their teacher presenting it as an “inclusive” and “diverse” musical, only for him to deeply misunderstand and misrepresent his students’ racial backgrounds and ethnicities during the casting process, was a very accurate portrayal of people co-opting specific terms and ideologies to make themselves seem good and progressive, without actually having to care about the issues at hand. The story as a whole empathizes with teens who don’t know how to stand up for themselves and who realize the system is working against them, but also gives them some specific tools for calling out bigotry and abuse, especially when it comes from people in positions of power.

And, of course, I adored the sapphic romance in this. I was rooting for Shay and Ana the entire time, and it was so entertaining to watch our main character be so foolishly oblivious, in a way that is extremely realistic for a young, teenage lesbian. The rivalry between them makes it very easy for readers to become invested in their relationship and I loved how Brophy developed their love story in a way that felt very messy—i.e.: realistic for their age—as well as absolutely adorable. I also appreciate that Brophy didn’t shy away from using the term “lesbian” multiple times throughout the story, as it still feels very rare for authors in mainstream publishing to allow their young main characters to specifically label themselves as such.

If you’re looking for an easy read that is at times fun and light, but that nonetheless packs a punch when it comes to exploring its themes and the ultimate message, this is the perfect read.

Representation: Black, biracial, lesbian main character; Cuban, bisexual love interest; Filipina side character

Content warnings: grooming and manipulation by a teacher, racism, homophobia

An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

the cover of An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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

I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

A Dramatic Supernatural YA Horror Read: Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

the cover of Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Here Lies Olive by Kate Anderson is a young adult fiction novel that follows sixteen-year-old Olive as she navigates unwitting friendships to save a ghost that she accidentally-on-purpose brings into the material plane in order to find out if the Nothing that she saw when she “died” after an allergic reaction is really all there is at the end. She is constantly thinking about the Nothing; it becomes such a preoccupation and such a big source of anxiety for her that she abruptly ends her friendship with her best friend Davis, and she has to figure out how to be by his side again post-Nothing when his new girlfriend pulls both Olive and Olive’s school enemy Maren into his life.

I’m not usually a YA person, but the premise of Here Lies Olive was so good that I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did! I liked this story a lot more than I expected. The author really captures the drama of being a teenager in a way that I found myself able to get into. At times when I typically would have started rolling my eyes or DNF-ing any other YA novel, I instead found myself able to accept the over-the-top reactions to the dramatic situations Olive and her friends find themselves in due to the way Kate Anderson set up the story. Of course Olive is dramatic; she’s a teen who died, came back to life, and is now terrified about the dark, lonely fate that she thinks awaits her and everyone she’s ever cared about. Of course she stopped hanging out with her best friend and thinks that losing his friendship will hurt less than losing him to the Nothing; she’s a teenager. She doesn’t know any better. I completely understood where Olive was coming from. It reminded me of how big every emotion felt during my own teenage years, and I didn’t even have ghosts or the Nothing to deal with. Olive is definitely the sort of character I could see a younger me finding a lot of solace in.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the budding relationship between Olive and Maren. I’m a big fan of enemies to lovers, and while their rivalry wasn’t as strong or visceral as I typically like my rivalries to be, it still seemed plenty important to Olive and Maren, and that was good enough for me to keep reading. A slow-burn has to be a very specific brand of slow-burn for me to love it, and I think Olive and Maren almost hit that mark within this genre.

What really kept me reading, though, was the supernatural aspect of the book. I really love the way Kate Anderson made sure to keep the ghostly details going throughout the story. I was worried that, at some point, the ghost stuff would drop off to be replaced by just regular teenage life, but the book’s supernatural element was up and in your face until the very end. Even the town Olive lives in is spooky! Nearly everybody has a job somehow associated with death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one hundred percent of the population claimed that Halloween was their favorite holiday. Olive always thinks of the Nothing once she comes back from it, and the moment she brings Jay’s ghost into the fold, she stays with him, intent on righting her wrong and getting the confirmation she craves about what truly happens after death. Olive never loses her curiosity with the thing that led me to pick up the book in the first place, and that kept me holding on when I could have dropped off.

Here Lies Olive still contains some of the regular qualms I have with the Young Adult genre: a villain revealed in the third act who the main character could have figured out was the villain in the first act, parents who talk to their teenagers like they either have no time for them or like they’ve all gone to therapy, and a solution to a problem at the end that feels way too perfect. But I still enjoyed it, and I would easily recommend this book to anyone who wants a YA novel with a bit of a dark twist.

Content warnings for death (obviously), ghosts, and some gore that I didn’t expect but actually really liked.

#SapphicSoccerStoryGoals: You Don’t Have a Shot by Racquel Marie

the cover of You Don't Have a Shot

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

You Don’t Have A Shot is sapphic soccer-rivals-to-lovers perfection set in present-day Southern California. If you’re still mourning the fact that the Women’s World Cup is over or you agree that “fútbol is life” a la Danny Rojas from Ted Lasso (but with a queer Latina twist), this book is for you!

In this heartwarming YA novel, Racquel Marie (she/her) introduces readers to Valentina “Vale” Castillo-Green, who is half Colombian, half Irish, and all about soccer. At the outset of the novel, we learn that Vale’s dream of playing college soccer has just imploded after her high school team, the Ravens, suffer a devastating loss at the hands of Hillcrest/her archrival, Leticia Ortiz. Although Vale is the captain of her team, it is apparent that she has lost her way as its leader. Vale intends to spend the summer before her senior year sulking at a low-stakes, sleepaway soccer camp she hasn’t been to in several years with her best friends and teammates, Dina and Ovie. Unbeknownst to Vale, soccer camp has gotten way more competitive in the last few years and she isn’t the only SoCal Latina planning to spend the summer there. Leticia will be attending as well, and sparks are sure to fly!

Vale is a character with depth and substance. Her inner monologue is sharp and hilarious. She is flawed, relatable, and always growing. Early on, we learn that her mother died of cancer a few years ago when she was thirteen and she is continuing to work through that grief. Unfortunately, that process is exacerbated by her complicated relationship with her father, who really wants Vale to excel in soccer, but has a penchant for negative, and often cruel, reinforcement that borders on emotional abuse. In his eyes, nothing Vale does on the pitch is ever good enough, and she has internalized his criticisms, as evidinced by her anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Notwithstanding her fraught relationship with her father and the loss of her mother, Vale is incredibly resilient and well-adjusted. She is in for an unforgettable summer where she is going to have to figure out what kind of leader she is and grapple with what soccer truly means to her.

The world that Racquel Marie builds is rich with diversity. Vale is biracial, queer, and asexual. Leticia is Cuban, a lesbian, and has two moms. There are several women of color who play important roles in Vale’s life, as well as significant bisexual, pansexual, gay, and trans characters. Although not a criticism, I really wanted to hear more about Vale’s queer asexuality. I thought it was an important aspect of her identity that I don’t usually see represented in YA literature and that Racquel Marie could have spent a little more time developing it. 

Overall, I loved this book. I coveted sapphic YA when I was in high school, but I couldn’t always find it. When I did, the characters didn’t usually share my cultural background. You Don’t Have a Shot is the kind of feel-good, representative book I wish I had growing up. Read it.

Trigger Warnings: anxiety, death of a loved one, and emotionally abusive language.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Nat reviews Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

the cover of Guava Flavored Lies by J.J. Arias

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Ever since I read J.J. Arias’s Guava Flavored Lies, I’ve wanted to go to Miami so bad, just to hit up a Cuban bakery or three for a pastelito de guayaba and a cafecito. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by Arias, and, as with a lot of prolific authors lately, this recent work is a departure from her normal MO (in this case, exemplified by Vampires and the Goode series).

From two households alike in dignity, Sylvie Campos and Lauren Machado are business rivals and lifelong enemies thanks to a decades long feud between their families. But the conflict for our main characters may be more complex than it seems on the surface – details about Sylvie and Lauren’s past will be revealed along the way that give us a bit more insight into why the anger between the two seems so very… extra.

The story is largely centered around the feuding between the Campos and Machado families, who both own popular Cuban bakeries in Miami, and who each accuse the other of having allegedly stolen family recipes when the founding families parted ways. Opening with a flashback to Lauren and Sylvia’s schooldays, we get a glimpse of how the families’ long time squabbles have affected their kids, who are literally at each other’s throats, though it’s tempered with a hefty dose of humor.

Lauren and Sylvie end up thrown together in the foodie version of the only one bed trope; that is, one food festival and only one functional espresso machine. Aside from their day to day struggles while being stuck side by side at a high profile event, and all the verbal sparring that comes along with it – Sylvie is still determined to try to solve the mystery of the family feud and to prove once that Lauren’s family are recipe thieves.

By the end of the book you’ll have some intense cravings for croquetas and a strong cafe con leche. But the food is also a vehicle for themes of old vs new, as the younger generations of both rival bakeries are being groomed to take over. Lauren wants to modernize some aspects of her family’s business, trying out vegan recipes and experimenting with (much to Sylvie’s dismay) oat milk in her Cuban lattes. Sylvie just wants to perfect the classics and build on her family legacy. Food is the love language of both our MCs, and rather than being at odds, their styles are complimentary, though it takes some translation to realize it.

A satisfying enemies-to-lovers romance, Arias gives us an example of the amazing quality of writing coming from self published authors and small presses these days. Solid, witty prose and dialogue, and pacing and intrigue to move the story along. I hope this is a book that finds its way into a lot of e-readers! And as a long time independent publisher of Sapphic romance, Arias has a backlog of works in the event you fall for her recent bakery wars romantic comedy.

Danika reviews I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

the cover of I Kissed Shara Wheeler

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

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.