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.”

An Epic, Slow Burn F/F Romance: The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

the cover of The Senator’s Wife by Jen Lyon

Amazon Affiliate Link

Since reading The Senator’s Wife, I’ve been thinking about what exactly my criteria is for rating a book with five stars. Anne of Green Gables is the first five-star book I ever read; Anne of Avonlea was, unsurprisingly, the second. The three books by Jeanette Winterson that were the subject of my undergraduate thesis—The PassionWritten on the Body, and The PowerBook—are all rated five stars. The only book that I rated five stars in 2023 was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died. I rated Iris Kelly Doesn’t DateWritten in the Stars, and Count Your Lucky Stars each with a 4.75 on Storygraph.

I’m not defending my five-star rating of The Senator’s Wife. I have to admit, though, that I’m still trying to understand just what it was about Jen Lyon’s novel/series that drew me in so forcefully. That admission notwithstanding, if I could offer some advice, it would be to dive into this 1000+ page odyssey as soon as you can. I read the entire story in three days—it would have taken less time if it weren’t for pesky nuisances like work and sleep.

Alex Grey, a professional soccer player and national team hopeful, is spending some well-deserved R&R with her lifelong friend Caleb on Daufuskie Island. Meanwhile, after a couple of decades spent dealing with her boorish husband, Catharine Cleveland, the titular senator’s wife, has begun making a habit of slipping away from the senator’s plantation mansion to spend a few minutes alone on the boat that she loves so much. As the weather turns unfavorable, Alex sees a small boat struggling against strong winds; when the boat capsizes, she dives in to try and save a life. The life that Alex saves belongs, of course, to Catharine.

This initial set of events takes place no more than ten miles from where I’m currently sitting. Admittedly, that fact doesn’t contribute to this review, but it is kind of neat, don’t you think?

Lyon switches between Alex’s perspective and Catharine’s perspective throughout The Senator’s Wife and the two subsequent novels, Caught Sleeping and Whistleblower. Alex grew up in South Carolina, taken in by extended family and raised conservative and religious. Spending her entire life within the confines of a single state—a small, narrow-minded one at that—Alex dreams of a bigger life. Catharine, meanwhile, has had “a bigger life,” one that has been defined by a bargain made with her father decades ago: marry a man she doesn’t care for and gain control of the family’s shipping company. Though she lives a life of wealth and privilege, managing the company better than her father ever could, Catharine still feels confined and without much agency. When Alex and Caleb bring Catharine back to Senator Cleveland’s mansion on that stormy day, neither Alex nor Catharine could predict how entwined their lives would become.

That’s right! Somebody is going to get a toaster oven, but not before what feels like the slowest of slow burns. To make matters even more engaging, somebody has a “deep, dark secret.” There’s also the matter of an age gap with which to contend. What I’m trying to say is that this book has everything. We start on Daufuskie Island, but end up in Charleston, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and… well, if Taylor Swift stopped there on the Eras Tour, there’s a good chance Alex and Catharine spend time there as well. Eventually, the story will take an international turn, but that is another story. Except, well, it isn’t. 

Don’t go into The Senator’s Wife expecting a trilogy. Caught Sleeping is not about one of Alex’s teammates or Catharine’s best friend Nathalie: it’s the middle third of Alex and Catharine’s story. Lyon’s trilogy is best thought of as an epic novel, not unlike Shōgun or The Pillars of the Earth. (All three books were released in 2023, suggesting that the trilogy was written as an epic.) The Senator’s Wife begs to be turned into an epic miniseries like The Thorn Birds or Noble House. Except with women who love other women. And some of those women are foul-mouthed Australians. (Hmm, I think I might be figuring out the whole five-star rating thing.)

Another expectation one should have going into this epic is angst. I mean, secrets and slow burns have to be accompanied by some angst, right? Well, imagine the angstiest romance you’ve ever read, double the angst, and that’s about the level you’ll find in The Senator’s Wife. Compared to what Alex and Catharine go through, every obstacle that I’ve seen romance novel characters go through seems trivial. These two women get put through an emotional ringer. To me, though, even though the scope of the story is—once again—epic, it never felt overwrought to me. The lives that these people lead do not resemble my life at all, but the plot and all of its angst never felt so overblown that I was taken out of the moment. 

When it comes to being taken out of the moment, though, there is one more thing that you should know before picking up The Senator’s Wife. Based on the elements of the story that I’ve described above along with a basic knowledge of the romance genre, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to mention that the romance of this story happens within the context of an affair. (The title of the novel also kind of gives it away.) If that context bothers you… well, it bothers me too. I held off a bit on starting this book because of how much that bothers me. After Catharine’s first interaction with Senator Cleveland, though, it is clear that he is abusive. That’s an ethical conundrum on which your mileage will certainly vary. For what it’s worth, Lyon does a pretty good job of depicting what it’s like to escape an emotionally abusive marriage. Having lived that experience, I think Lyon might have actually done too good of a job. There were a couple of spots where I had to get up and walk away for a little while.

The Senator’s Wife has a lot to say about what it means to grow up and become a person who isn’t solely defined by who you were as a child, where you grew up, and who raised you. Senator Cleveland and Caleb are prime examples of people who only know one way to live, become confined by that one way, and then try to confine everyone around them to that same small, narrow view of the world. Though Catharine and Alex have already seen the cracks in those narrow worldviews, their discovery of each other helps them break through to finally be part of a larger world. Even if it’s difficult. Even if there are significant risks. Even if there are no guarantees.

If there is one last piece of advice that I could offer, it would be this one: Before diving into The Senator’s Wife, make sure that you hydrate, because there will be tears.

Content warning: cheating/affair, domestic violence, blackmail, revenge porn

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.

Supremely Steamy Slow Burn: Losing Control by J. J. Arias

the cover of Losing Control

Amazon Affiliate Link

For my first romance of 2024, I decided to read Losing Control by J. J. Arias. I had heard so many great things about this author (shout out to the Strictly Sapphic podcast) and knew that I really wanted to check her work out sometime. So when my friends gifted me a copy for Christmas, I knew what I had to do. I am so happy with my choice. This book is a nearly perfect steamy slow build romance with tons of emotional depth.

Losing Control is the first in her new series of books set at the Miami-based Dominion Talent Agency. Andrea Ortiz is one of the top talent agents at the agency. The definition of straight-laced, she has gotten where she is by always following the rules, whether they be from her parents, teachers, or her boss. It’s led her to a fairly simple and straightforward life, but that’s the way she likes it. This life is upended, however, when she’s tasked with managing Roxy, better known as the wild and sexy pop star Roxxxy. Roxy’s latest antics have resulted in her tour manager quitting right before her nationwide tour is about to begin. Unable to find a replacement on such short notice, Andrea has no choice but to go on tour with Roxy in the hopes of keeping her out of further trouble. As Andrea and Roxy spend night after night together on Roxy’s tour bus, a connection forms between them that threatens to make Andrea break all her rules. For Roxy, this connection may finally be the thing that allows her to let someone in and see the real person behind the stage persona.

One of the key elements that can make or break a romance, especially a slow burn romance, is the tension between the characters. As a reader, it’s not enough to be told that characters are into each other; you need to feel it. J. J. Arias does a masterful job of making you feel the sexual and emotional tension between Andrea and Roxy as it gradually builds throughout the book. From their first meeting, you can sense the energy between them in the prose. Every sentence and paragraph is expertly used to build a palpable sense of inevitability between Andrea and Roxy, even if the characters themselves think it impossible. You know these two want each other; you feel it as it continues to escalate and drive them to do things they never thought they would. What makes this tension even better is how Arias mixes the sexual and emotional sides of this tension. Andrea and Roxy don’t just want to have sex with each other. There’s more to it than that, even if they don’t know it quite yet. All of this works together to make the slow burn a roaring fire that slowly builds into a blazing inferno.

Of course, tension is only good if there is a payoff. Arias knows this and delivers a highly satisfying payoff. (Slight spoilers for the last quarter of the book, highlight to read) She forgoes the trope of a third act breakup and instead gives us what could be described as an extended epilogue filled with incredibly steamy sex scenes and fantastic emotional character moments. At this point, the tour is over, and Andrea and Roxy are back in the real world. They’ve decided to be together, but that means figuring out what that means for both of them, their careers, and their personal lives. I personally loved this because it allows us to see how Andrea and Roxy continue to develop as a romantic partnership. Additionally, the sex scenes are so good because not only do they give us tasty 5-alarm spice, but also show how much these characters care for each other, how far they’ve come, and how deep their love is now. (End of spoilers)

Losing Control is a wonderfully steamy book filled with fantastic characters that you want to be together. The tension between characters is palpable and the payoff is very satisfying. If you’re a fan of spicy sapphic slow burns, I highly recommend this book. Personally, I can’t wait to see what J. J. Arias has cooked up in the rest of the series.

A Fantasy of Community: Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

the cover of Legends and Lattes

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

Legends & Lattes has been reviewed at the Lesbrary before, and it’s certainly gotten a lot of praise online in general, so why do I feel the need to add my own positive review to the mix? I think it’s because the reason I loved it isn’t one I’ve seen touched on much, and it’s also why I think cozy fantasy has a particular appeal to queer readers—I adored it when I first encountered it in The Tea Dragon Society, and this series has only cemented that love.

I’m here to argue that queer cozy fantasy isn’t just about low stakes. It’s about building community, and that’s why it—like the found family trope—is so popular with queer readers.

To be clear, this series is cozy on several levels. The chapters are short and easy to read. It’s fairly low-stakes, it has a cozy setting—a coffee shop—and even the plot mirrors the home renovation TV shows so many people put on for something comforting. The romance is a gentle slow burn built on establishing trust and mutual respect. There’s a ratkin baker who invents cinnamon rolls. There’s a lot of coziness to go around.

But what I found the most cozy, comforting, and heartwarming about this book was the building of community. Viv sets out to start a coffee shop, and that’s inherently something you can’t do alone. She needs help to build and design the physical space as well as to staff it when it’s done. Because she’s starting this in a new town, she needs to build relationships in order to complete this goal.

Viv isn’t exactly the poster child for extroversion and teambuilding. She’s an orc, and that means many people are intimidated by her and associate her with violence. It doesn’t help that she was a fighter, and this is her attempt to retire from the adventuring life. She can be a little gruff, but she’s also kind. She reaches out to people, and almost despite herself, she build a community around the shop, allowing space for everyone’s talents and interests.

This is a story about finding your people. It’s found family, sure, but it’s also not just that. This is a community. Even if they’re not over for dinner every night, they have each other’s back when needed. Family is important, but I think focusing on found family can ignore the many ways we form connections with each other. A handful of essential relationships—family—in our lives is necessary, but so are the network of connections we make in other types of community. The friends who you only see a few times a year, but will always show up in an emergency. The ex-coworker who lets you know when a job possibility perfect for you opens up. The coffee shop owner who lets you host open mic nights there.

This community also allows for reinvention. Almost everyone associated with the coffee shop is exploring a role outside of what’s been assigned to them by society. Can an orc leave violence behind? Can a succubus be respected for her people skills without being reduced to “seductress”? Can a ratkin be a baker? Of course they can. Together, they’re able to support each other as they defy the expectations that have restrained them for so long.

It’s also a story about resilience and hope. The kind of hope that can have you build a business from the ground up, (spoilers, highlight to read) and run into the flames of it burning down to rescue the cappuccino machine so you can do it all over again. That hope blooms from the reciprocal generosity of true community. Being part of a network of people, all supporting each other in their own ways, allows you to have the confidence to begin again.

Human beings are meant to live in community with each other. We’re a social species. We depend on each other to survive. But consciously building these connections is something queer people are more likely to do, because we know that the family we’re born with could very well be conditional. Coming out tests all the relationships in our lives, and even if they survive, it’s hard not to be aware of how precarious they can be. I think that’s why cozy fantasy like this speaks to us so much: it reminds us that we can find family and community by reaching out to other people seeking connection. It can be messy and unconventional, but beautiful both in spite and because of that.

I did not think this cute fantasy book would have me thinking about the nature of human connection as it relates to queerness, but here we are! Whether you’re looking for a comforting read or inspiration to build community in your own life, pick this one up.

Gory Bisexual Horror/Fantasy: The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey

the cover of The Dead Take the A Train

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

One thing about a Cassandra Khaw book: I never know what I’m getting into. Even two-thirds of the way through this, completely invested in the story, I still kept thinking, “What genre is this? And also, what’s the plot?”

Julie is a 30-year-old exorcist for hire, not quite scraping by in New York City by taking on the deadliest and most gruesome jobs carving monsters out of people and going head to head with demons. Her arms are wrapped with barbed wire magic, which she tears from her flesh in order to use those spells. She keeps a suitcase full of fresh organs in case she needs to swap any of hers out on a mission gone wrong. She also is not making enough to pay her rent, never mind support her drug habit.

She just broke up with her ex-boyfriend, Tyler, who works for an investment company that is mostly invested in souls, body parts, curses, and making deals with unfathomable gods. It’s a dog-eat-dog environment where you’re more likely to be killed gruesomely than be promoted, but Tyler loves it there, and he sometimes hires Julie for the jobs he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty for. When Julie doesn’t go along with one job, though, he plots revenge.

Just as Julie is beginning to wonder how she can possibly scavenge up any cash, her high school friend Sarah shows up suddenly at her door. She’s been secretly in love with her for years. Side note, my favourite bisexual woman stories are the ones that name a bunch of faceless ex-boyfriends, and then there’s ✨ her ✨. This is definitely one of those books. After a lot of prodding, Sarah finally admits that she’s here because she’s running from her abusive ex, Dan… and then has to make Julie promise not to torture and kill him.

And that’s sort of the plot. Two bisexual girls falling for each other while their ex-boyfriends try to ruin their lives. It’s probably the goriest book I’ve ever read—the descriptions are truly skin-crawling—but it doesn’t feel like horror to me. It doesn’t feel like I’m supposed to be afraid. If you’re the kind of person who needs to understand the magic system of a fantasy world, this is not for you. It’s a mess of different types of magic, demons, curses, Eldritch gods, and other inexplicable weirdness. It’s dense with world building, without any one structure weaving it together. This totally worked for me, but you need to just let it was over you.

In fact, I think that complements the setting well, because New York City—as the title suggests—plays a major role in this story. And this tangle of different kinds of magic felt like a reflection of many different worlds all living in parallel inside of NYC. Also, did I mention that lay people have no idea magic is real? Despite the unending encounters Julie has with possessed brides-to-be, foxes puppeting zombie bodies, and so much more, it somehow goes completely unnoticed; she can walk onto the A Train covered in blood and viscera, and no one looks twice.

In some way, it actually reminded me of a noir story. Julie is trying to track down Dan, and she is constantly getting injured. That dogged pursuit in a gritty environment while getting beaten down and somehow surviving felt like it would be at home in that genre… just with a lot more tentacles than usual.

Then, just to keep things interesting, at the heart of this gritty, gruesome, often gross story is a ridiculously cute bisexual F/F pining love story. I love a sapphic friends to lovers story. I won’t spoil it and say whether they get together in the end—also, this is only the first in a duology—but I will say the pining is not one-sided. I’m also annoyed that I had such trouble finding out if this was a queer book before I read it, because so much of the book is about Julie and Sarah’s relationship.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this big, sprawling book. I haven’t mentioned the angel, or what the plot turned out actually to be about, or Tyler’s point of view chapters, or how about halfway through the book we start to get one-off POVs from other characters. And I have to squeeze in the fact that there’s a character who is cursed to not be able to die until he has sold every book in the bookstore to the Right Customer, and as a former employee of a used bookstore, I felt that in my bones. I’m pretty sure I’ve met someone with that same curse before.

If you can stomach gore and a whole lot of weirdness, I really recommend this one. It kind of reminded me of Welcome to Night Vale, with a lot more blood. So if that’s your vibe, you need to pick this up.

Content warning: gore, blood, violence, body horror, relationship abuse (not described in detail), drug use.

Cheesy Goodness: The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich by Deya Muniz

the cover of The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

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

Note: Though plot spoilers are restricted to the very end of the review, this review discusses some themes and character arcs in the latter part of the book.

As the first snow falls in my region, it’s a perfect time for a cozy graphic novel with grilled cheese oozing on the cover. Despite some quibbles, I had a great time with The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich by Deya Muniz, a lighthearted young adult romance inspired by the author’s own love story.

In the kingdom of Fromage, Lady Camembert can’t legally inherit her father’s fortune without marrying a man. Aware that she isn’t into men, her father suggests she move away and pretend to be his son. After his death, she follows his advice. She brings only one servant, Feta, who has been with her since birth. While taking on a masculine persona is no problem for the dashing, gregarious Cam, discretion proves a greater challenge, as she immediately makes waves at the princess’s no-furs ball. Cam has always been a fan of Princess Brie’s activism and develops a crush on her, causing no end of frustration for Feta, who knows Cam could be arrested if her secret gets out. 

If the naming scheme isn’t making it clear, this is a story more interested in a fun time than a realistic time. If you want to be swept away in an earnest fairy tale of a royal romance, be assured that this one doesn’t take itself too seriously. The expressive art style was what personally sold me on it and gave me the most giggles. Cam especially is a bundle of charm thanks to her mannerisms, ranging from debonair to excitable to flustered. The pages’ compositions effectively conveyed the story, with clarity, good flow, and emotional impact. Plus, Brie’s puppy is top-tier precious.

Despite the title, this book is less focused on food (if anything, the main characters are into fashion, which Cam nerds out over adorably) and more on whether it’s worth giving up true happiness to take a path focused only on avoiding pain. As is pointed out later in the book, many people don’t have the luxury of trying to actively pursue a good option in life and must instead choose the least undesirable path. Being a princess gives Brie more freedom to break boundaries and set a new standard, despite the societal limitations around gender and sexuality—yet even as an activist, she balks at the idea of upending the status quo. Meanwhile, from the start, Cam rejects the “safe” path of marrying a man, but then has to choose between the safety of living a secretive life versus pursuing a chance at love. 

Without spoilers, I’ll just say I didn’t personally enjoy how the midpoint turn played out or where it left the status quo of the main characters’ relationship for a portion of the book. I would have preferred a direction that allowed for more interaction between the main couple in the book’s second half. I also wished that Brie’s best friend, Ricotta, got to shine more as an individual. Her design and personality were fun, so I would have liked her to get a bit more depth outside of her support of the main couple, and for her to be more in the loop in the end. In contrast, I thought that the other main supporting cast members, Gorgonzola and Feta, had satisfying character arcs, as some of the most memorable moments involved them changing their approaches to the central conflict and theme. 

Everything else aside, I couldn’t stop grinning at Cam’s reactions from panel to panel, and I’m glad I read this. Order this book up if you like your romance with an extra helping of cheese.

The following content note contains spoilers:

This book contains an instance of a character guessing her love interest’s assigned gender due to a visual cue and then reacting negatively, which may be triggering for trans readers. As implied in the summary, the book also contains parental death and discussions of structural sexism and heteronormativity. 

Fake Dating Meets Single Parenting: Make Her Wish Come True by A.L. Brooks

the cover of Make Her Wish Come True

Buy it on Amazon with this Lesbrary affiliate link!

Make Her Wish Come True by A.L. Brooks was released on October 23, 2003 and is a contemporary romance about two women who are absolutely not in a place to date. Or so they keep telling themselves.

Abby Baxter had to grow up way too fast, stepping in to raise her 12-year-old half-sister after their mom passed away. She’s been working for an online magazine as an administrative assistant until she can break into her dream profession: a journalist. Her prospects seem to get a boost when her friend, a columnist who writes for the magazine, offers Abby a deal: fake date a woman for a story, and she’ll do what she can to get Abby her shot at writing.

Erica Goode has been solely focused on raising her daughter, Kayla, for the last eight years. She works two jobs to help support their family, and has no time for a social life. When she’s presented with the chance to date Abby, and get out of the house in the process, who is she to say no? What follows is a slow-burn romance for two women who have both made sacrifices that many others can’t easily understand—and neither knows quite what to do when presented with someone who understands what the other has been through but recognizes they might not be at the same point in life.

I adored this sweet and charming story about two women trying to find their way after both of their lives took unexpected turns when they were young. Abby is so sure she doesn’t want another child in her life after having to put hers on pause to raise her sister. When she meets Erica and her daughter Kayla, Abby is adamant she can’t be in a real relationship with someone who has a kid. And despite finding Abby incredibly attractive in more ways than one, Erica’s number one priority is her daughter. What I really appreciated about this story was that you couldn’t fault either woman for how they felt and what their limitations were. I understood why Abby was so hesitant. After dropping out of college to care for her sister, Abby knows better than anyone that raising a child is a huge responsibility and, with her sister now in college, it makes sense that she is incredibly reluctant to do it all over again. As much as you want Abby to give this relationship a real chance, I respected that A.L. had Abby take her time. Deciding whether you’re prepared to make all those sacrifices again can’t be something decided overnight. As a reader, I wouldn’t have been able to trust it otherwise—and certainly neither would Erica.

As a parent myself, I found Erica’s emotions around dating to be relatable and true. It’s so hard not to lose yourself in parenting, and you have to make the conscious decision to make time for you to be a “person” outside of that role. As a single parent, Erica feels the added pressure of trying to be everything to her daughter. It’s so easy to think that our kids should be our sole focus all the time. Sure, for a period of time after they’re born, that is how it needs to be, but as kids age, it’s necessary to have an identity outside of “parent” and to be a whole person. With that said, it is often incredibly hard to balance these roles and responsibilities, and to do so without feeling guilt is near impossible. A.L. presents that dilemma in a realistic way, though you can’t help but hope Erica allows herself the happiness she deserves. I also loved the multigenerational parenting that occurred in this story. Erica’s mom is such a huge part of helping raise Kayla, and we see that the concern for your kids never goes away—even when they are grown.

At its heart, this feels like a story about letting go of the past and being willing to be brave enough to see a brighter future. Things can always go wrong, hearts can always be broken, but sometimes those risks are worth taking. Both Erica and Abby have things to lose, but they both also have everything to gain.

Kayla, Erica’s daughter, is cute and precocious. She’s a good kid, and it’s clear in the story that Abby’s reluctance isn’t about Kayla, but about the undertaking of caring for another human being. The way Abby and Kayla’s relationship grows is sweet and organic. Kayla asked Santa for another mom, and the journey to that answer is complicated and real.

While this story has many sweet moments, and I appreciated that any angst along the way was dealt with in a timely manner, it should also be noted that this certainly has some steam that not just Erica and Abby appreciated! Although Erica has known she was bisexual since she was a teenager, she’s never physically been with a woman before, and A.L. builds that tension between her and Abby incredibly well. There is something delicious about the fake dating trope, especially when it’s clear both main characters are fighting that attraction. The series of dates, including skating and romantic dinners, offer plenty of situations for that tension to build and grow.  

This is a great book to kick off November!

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.

Swashbuckling, Time Travel, and Sapphic Romance: Isle of Broken Years by Jane Fletcher

the cover of Isle of Broken Years

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The first thing I have to say about Isle of Broken Years is that I didn’t want it to end, and it’s been a while since I felt that way about a book. The second thing you should know is that this isn’t just a book about pirates, though the cover and description, if not carefully read, may lead you to believe that’s where you’re headed. To be fair, we do begin the adventure with lots of swashbuckling and a bit of kidnapping, but this book is really more of a time travel story with lots of unexpected surprises. If Lost, Gideon the Ninth, and Their Flag Means Death had a weird little baby, it might be Isle of Broken Years.

Our main characters are Catalina de Valasco, a Spanish noblewoman being married off by her family and en route to her betrothed by way of galleon; and Sam Helyer, the cabin boy of a privateer ship intercepting said galleon. Sam, as it turns out, is not a cabin boy at all. The beginning starts off strong, with lots of action, a battle at sea, a little hostage taking (as a treat) and some getting to know our main characters. Content warning: there’s a lot of talk/threat of potential sexual assault in the beginning pages—it doesn’t happen, but it drives the opening of the book as Sam is trying to keep Catalina safe from the other sailors.

Just when you’re comfortably settled into your colonial era pirate world, the book makes a major shift. Sam and Catalina end up stranded on an island that’s not at all what it seems, and meet up with a group of other survivors previously stranded there. The diverse cast of characters and their interaction is one of the really fun aspects of the book, as they share vast cultural differences, and sometimes struggle to communicate from language barriers. While a lot of this is comedic, there are also some serious discussions involving slavery and human rights. Meanwhile, Catalina and Sam are at odds with each other, as the former has no love for pirates and thinks they all should hang—fair, considering how the book kicked off. Catalina and Sam eventually have to learn to work together, and a fun little romantic arc unfolds as well.

This book checks all the boxes: pirates, aliens, murder, creepy islands, betrayal, comedy, time travel, mystery, and yea, a lil bit of kissing. It’s a fun ride, but has a number of serious moments including struggles with identity and sexuality. My main complaint is that it wasn’t longer. There were a number of places that Fletcher could have expanded the narrative, including some of the side characters’ back stories, and even the romantic element between Catalina and Sam. But I guess it’s always better to be left wanting more!

Content warning: mention of past sexual assault, threat of sexual assault

A Tender Foodie F/F Manga: She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat by Sakaomi Yuzaki

the cover of She Loves to Cook, and She Loves to Eat by Yuzaki Sakaomi

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in Sakaomi Yuzaki’s latest manga, that proves just as true for women.

She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat is a lovely, heartwarming story about two neighbors who bond over a shared love of food. Nomoto, an office worker with a passion for cooking and no one to finish off the epically-sized dishes she dreams of making, finally meets her match in Kasuga, her very tall, very reserved neighbor with a very, very large appetite—an appetite perfectly suited to dishes containing, say, eight eggs and over three pounds of rice.

The dialogues flow naturally in this excellent translation by Phil Christie, as does the character growth. While the two initially get off on a slightly awkward foot, a series of shared dinners slowly bring them closer together.

But what starts as mutual appreciation is beginning to show signs of developing into something deeper in these first two volumes. Between bashful daydreams, thoughtful gestures, and small steps outside of their respective comfort zones, the two women find themselves wanting to spend more time with each other. And more time looking at each other.

And as their feelings become more and more obvious, it shows clear as day on the page. Blush-lines and all.

a manga panel showing Nomoto and Kasuga eating together. Nomoto is looking at Kasuga and smiling with faint blush lines over her cheek and nose

Tell me this isn’t the face of a woman in love.

The slow simmering of the romance is poised to make it all the more satisfying. This is such a perfect comfort read—clever, funny, sincere and so full of love. The second volume has a bit about the cultural meanings of take-out boxes that had me in stitches.

The focus on food includes some truly delicious descriptions and illustrations, so I’d recommend reading this either on a full stomach or with some savories handy. For example, crab cakes and spicy peanut sauce (which is what I got up to make halfway through volume one!) or popcorn with melted cheese and sun-dried tomato pieces (the accompaniment to volume two).

If you prefer Japanese food inspired by the story, there are also recipes at the back of the books, so you can open to the last page and prepare something ahead of time…

the cover of She Loves to Cook, She Loves to Eat Vol 2

Fans of Doughnuts Under a Crescent Moon and that soft, low-stakes romance-with-a-side-of-social-commentary centering two working women will find a similar slow-burn story here, albeit with more overt observations on gender roles and norms in modern Japan. It doesn’t shy away from nuisances like marriage pressure, misogyny and uncalled-for assumptions, but it does not let them take center stage, either. Unless it’s to gently, elegantly skewer them.

Whether portion sizes, passion or paychecks, the women are constantly expected to make do with less. But these diminishing encounters are subtly contrasted with the genuine appreciation, acceptance and admiration that Nomoto and Kasuga’s budding relationship is based on.

a panel showing Kasuga saying, "Speaking up sometimes makes a difference."

They really do care for each other so much and it’s so lovely to read. There are so many warm fuzzies, but it’s the grounded sort of tenderness that comes with age. I was smiling so much at the little kindnesses and considerations they had. It’s such a healthy relationship that never loses its sense of humor.

I mean, no one says that the quickest way to a woman’s heart is through her period cravings, but the author certainly understands!

Chapter 16 was the one that deviates a little from this vibe and delves into some heavier topics. It comes prefaced with an author’s note stating such. But it also has a Frog and Toad reference that proves a well-placed picture can express a thousand words. It’s a reminder of the ways queer youth find and make meaning from media that was never explicitly about them, but which made space for stories like theirs nonetheless. For a manga focused on acceptance, it is a series of fitting visuals.

The manga might also appeal to fans of the older m/m series What Did You Eat Yesterday by Fumi Yoshinaga. Granted, the plot seems to take precedence over the food so far, while it was the other way around in Yoshinaga’s manga, but I’m excited to see where it goes. Preferably, with a plate of loaded egg-battered fries on the side.

Volumes one and two are currently available in English, and Volume three is available for pre-order!