Academic Lovers to Enemies to Lovers: The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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Everyone knows the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”. For Professor Samantha “Sam” Threadneedle, the main character of Melina McKay’s moody and dark academia romance The Headmistress, that adage becomes very true. Three Dragons Academy, a remote all-girls boarding school that has been her home since she was an orphan left on the school’s doorstep, is close to financial ruin. Disquieted by the prospect of losing everything she has ever known and loved, Sam makes a wish for change. She is stunned, however, when change comes in the form of the new headmistress, Magdalene Nox. Magdalene has a reputation for being a ruthless administrator who will not hesitate to fire everyone if it means getting results. While all of Sam’s colleagues rush to hate Magdalene, there’s more to this new headmistress for Sam. Magdalene has haunted Sam’s dreams ever since their passionate one night stand three months ago. Soon, Sam and Magdalene are butting heads about the future direction of the school all while resisting their urges to re-create that special night.        

As a main character, you can’t help but root for and sympathize with Sam. She is a textbook example of a people pleaser, constantly giving of herself to her students and colleagues at the expense of her own needs. For example, she’s still in the closet at the beginning of the novel because she has wanted to avoid adding stress to the previous headmistress. She’s headstrong and combative when it comes to protecting those she loves, which can cause her to heedlessly jump into fights. She’s a lesbian white knight, ready to fight any fight, even if it means coming out the worst for it. It’s a personality type that I’ve always been drawn to, and her character arc of learning to balance her needs with the needs of others is something I very much relate to. 

In Magdalene, you have a very swoon-worthy love interest with great emotional depth. While she’s initially set up to be an “Ice Queen”, Sam and the reader discover that there’s more to her than that. She is not cruel because she wants to be. Her bluntness does not come from a place of animus, but rather from her drive to get things done. Just like Sam, she’s incredibly driven to save the school, even if it means making the tough choices. She knows she is going to be portrayed as the villain no matter what and plays that role because she knows it’s the most efficient way to save the school. However, there is also this sweet side to her that begins to emerge as her and Sam’s relationship develops. By the end of the novel, Magdalene ends up being this really lovable multifaceted character who also happens to be drop dead sexy. The fact that all of this is conveyed solely through Sam’s point of view is a testament to Milena McKay’s writing.   

Not only are Sam and Magdalene great characters by themselves, but the dynamic between them was a delight to read. Flashbacks to their one night stand appear early in the novel, so you know that these two have great chemistry. However, they almost immediately start butting heads upon Magdalene’s arrival at the school. Sam and Magdalene are both very driven and stubborn people, which makes for very entertaining arguments where sparks can really fly. Seriously, if I had a nickel for the amount of times I whispered “okay, now kiss!” during their arguments, I could afford to buy this book multiple times over. When they aren’t butting heads, the banter between them is infused with this playful flirtiness that I just ate up.    

In terms of story, I loved how tightly interwoven it was, with external conflicts seamlessly feeding into the internal conflicts between Sam and Magdalene. While forbidden romances between bosses and their subordinates are always fun, the fact that the external conflicts of the story kept forcing our couple together added that little bit extra. You have two stubborn characters who are insanely attracted to one another yet keep finding themselves on opposing sides of the same argument. It is in these disagreements where a lot of their relationship begins to develop and where the central tension between them lies. Furthermore, there are other external subplots that continue to crop up throughout the story and influence the narrative. There’s an anti-woke board member who’s hellbent on returning the school to its “traditional values”. There’s a group of queer students who could be forced to leave the school. There’s the bitter former headmistress causing trouble for both Sam and Magdalene. There’s even a mystery surrounding a series of “accidents” that seemed to be aimed at either injuring or killing Sam. While that does sound like a lot, none of them feel neither superfluous nor distracting. Instead, they are really well-balanced and serve to create a captivating story of two people falling in love despite all the challenges around them.   

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Three Dragons Academy with Sam and Magdalene. If you’re looking for a steamy romance with great characters, moody atmosphere, and enthralling story, I highly recommend giving The Headmistress your undivided attention.

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

the cover of Losing Control

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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 Steamy Lesbian Historical Romance in France: An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

the cover of An Island Princess Starts a Scandal

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“A person could live a lifetime in six weeks, Your Grace. Entire lives have been changed in less.”

Picture this: it’s summer, your sunscreen is applied, and you’ve taken the day off to spend solo on the beach. You’ve already taken a dip in the ocean. You lay out your towel and get all your fun drinks and snacks ready, and you pull out An Island Princess Starts a Scandal: a steamy F/F romance set in 1889 Paris. Bliss. That’s how I read this title, and it was the perfect setting for this romp of a romance read.

I’m not usually a big romance reader, especially historical romance, but this changed my mind about what a historical romance novel could be. It has such a fun premise. Manuela is a lesbian engaged to a wealthy man, but she has a summer of freedom in Paris with her two best friends before she gets married. She plans to spend this time exploring the sapphic side of Paris in one last debaucherous adventure.

There, she meets Cora, a wealthy businesswoman giving off Anne Lister vibes. Basically the only thing of value to Manuela’s name as a single woman is a small parcel of land she inherited, and Cora needs it to complete a lucrative railway project. Manuela agrees to sell it on one condition: Cora needs to be her guide to the lesbian nightlife of Paris. Oh, and did I mention they already met once before at a queer sex club?

This made for a perfect beach read. I always love seeing the gay side of Paris in the late 1800s/early 1900s, especially the art and literary side. Manuela is a painter, so we see a bit of that: Manuela sees examples of women who have managed to make a living doing their art, something she thought was impossible.

That setting combined with the premise had me hooked from the beginning, and the dynamic between Manuela and Cora kept me reading. Manuela is reckless, indulgent, and clever, while Cora is more tightly wound and ambitious. They clash, but they’re also instantly obsessed with each other. Both are leveraging their power over each other before the land deal goes through for good, and they’re both pretending they’re fine with this being a purely physical, limited time fling.

I can’t leave off that this is perhaps the steamiest romance novel I’ve ever read. There are a lot of sex scenes, everything is described, and everything is described in detail.

I did sometimes get hung up on the writing style, because there are a ton of sentence fragments. They’re a stylistic choice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write that way, but they’re frequent. I did sometimes snag on that and get distracted from the story.

This is part of a trilogy of romance novels, each following one of three friends as their love stories play out simultaneously during this summer. I liked seeing glimpses into those stories, and though the other two are straight romances, I still might pick them up, since I had so much fun with this one. This is the second book in the series, technically, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by starting here.

If you’re looking for an immersive and sexy romance to escape with for a while, I highly recommend this one.

Fake Dating at Its Best: Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date by Ashley Herring Blake

the cover of iris kelly doesn’t date

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Delilah Green Doesn’t Carethe first book in Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls series, was the first sapphic romance I had ever read. It is still my favorite because, not only is it an excellent book, but I credit it with opening up an entire new world for me. Nowadays, I’m predominantly reading either sapphic romances or stories with sapphic subplots. Astrid Parker Can’t Failthe second book in the series, was also outstanding, so when I saw that Iris Kelly, the sassy and playful side character in both books was getting her own story, I was excited. As soon as I had my copy of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, I dove in. I am delighted to say that Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date, doesn’t disappoint. It is a hilarious and heartwarming story of a short-term fake romance that leads to long-term love.   

Iris Kelly is surrounded by love. Her best friends have found love. Her parents are still madly in love after decades of marriage. Her brother and sister each are married and have kids. Iris, on the other hand, is committed to commitment-free hookups. She has experienced the pain of what a relationship can do to a person, and wants no part in it. This aversion to romance is at odds with her career as a romance author. And this creates the worst case of writer’s block while working on her next novel. Meanwhile, Stevie is a struggling actor who is also struggling to cope with the fact that her ex-girlfriend of six years is now dating their mutual friend. Looking for a good distraction, Iris runs into Stevie at a bar one night and there is instant chemistry. However, their one-night stand ends up going horribly wrong (seriously, it’s so bad). While both of them would rather forget the night and move on, fate brings them together when Iris auditions for a play Stevie is in. With all Stevie’s friends assuming that Iris is auditioning because they are dating, Stevie asks Iris to play along. Seeing this as an opportunity to get some inspiration, Iris agrees. The arrangement is simple: Iris and Stevie will pretend to date until the end of the show. Stevie will save face and get her friends to stop pressuring her to date around. Iris will use the experience for inspiration on her next novel. However, as the two spend more time together, things become far less simple.

The “fake dating” trope is not one that I often gravitate towards. This is because, being a terrible liar myself, I struggle with the idea of maintaining the lie of a fake relationship long enough for anyone to buy it. That being said, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date won me over so quickly with how it creatively uses this trope. For starters, it felt more believable than other “fake dating” stories because the only people being lied to here were Stevie’s group of friends and members of the play’s cast and crew. It also was not a lie that they needed to maintain for too long. The stakes of the lie are also fairly low compared to other “fake dating” books I’ve seen out there. It is not some grand scheme for money or a promotion. Stevie just needs a rebound so her friends will back off and stop pitying her. Iris just needs material for her book. Lastly and most importantly, I really liked how quickly the emotional connection between Stevie and Iris developed. Ashley Herring Blake skipped a lot of the standard casual fake dates you see in these romances. Instead, she dove straight into highly emotional moments for both Iris and Stevie, letting them build their connection more quickly. While it still did take them a while to act on their feelings for one another, their emotional connection began to develop much earlier on. Altogether, these things made the scheme feel more plausible and hooked me in very quickly.  

Something else I have loved about the Bright Falls series is how emotionally authentic and heart-wrenching these books are. Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date continues this trend with a story of two  characters dealing with some real heavy issues like General Anxiety Disorder, self-doubt, insecurity, and hopelessness. The way each of these is handled feels so genuine. How Stevie and Iris talk to and about themselves mirrors things I have heard myself or others say when struggling with these feelings. It made me want to reach into the book, hug them, and go, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.”

At the same time, Ashley Herring Blake also expertly shows how love can help us overcome issues such as these. She doesn’t treat love as a panacea, though. It’s not that these characters just suddenly feel better and solve all their problems once they find each other. Instead, she shows how a loving relationship is about being there for each other. Stevie and Iris put in a lot of tough emotional work into helping each other when they are at their lowest. It isn’t always easy for them, just like it isn’t always easy in the real world. And just like in the real world, Stevie and Iris still have a lot to work on individually even after the events of the novel. As a reader you walk away knowing that, together, they can overcome it all. That’s what a fantastic love story is all about. 

In addition, Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date is a really funny book. The banter between characters is playful and witty. Scenes which could be played as embarrassing are painted in a more humorous tone. Ashley Herring Blake also has fun playing with other common romance tropes, setting you up to expect one thing and then giving you something else. Also, as a fan of puns, I was happy to see several really good ones. For example, this book has inspired me to find ways to name all my group chats using puns with the word “queer” in them. Lastly, it’s also a really spicy book, with plenty of tantalizing lead-ups to some really hot sex scenes.    

If you’re a fan of the previous books in the Bright Falls series, you will also really appreciate all of the call-backs and references to those books. Delilah, Claire, and Astrid play sizable roles in the story, for both Iris and Stevie, in ways that do not feel shoehorned in. I can’t say much more because of spoilers, but trust me when I say that Ashley Herring Blake closes out this series in a way that is satisfying for all Bright Falls fans.

All in all, I adored Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. It gave me everything I want in a sapphic romantic comedy and so much more. I highly recommend it for any fan of the genre, whether it be your first in the Bright Falls series or not.  

Fake Dating at a Sapphic Island Getaway: The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre

the cover of The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre

The Honeymoon Mix-Up by Frankie Fyre was released in June 2023, and it’s a sweet and spicy contemporary romance about two people facing unusual circumstances which leads them both to a situation of a lifetime. Basil Jones has the seemingly perfect life until she is left at the altar by her fiancé. Determined not to lose out on an important work deal, she goes on the honeymoon trip as planned. She flies to gorgeous Sapphire Isle, where sapphic women go to escape their real life and live in paradise, even for a short time. The only issue? It’s a strict “couples only” policy, and Basil is without a partner. Enter Caroline King. The two had one brief encounter prior to meeting each other for a second time on the island. That second meeting is a little less by chance than Basil thinks, but Caroline is both taken with Basil and needs a place to stay, so she agrees to be her “wife.”  What follows is a fake relationship trope for the ages, with each of them holding on to secrets from the outside world and one another.

If you are a fan of fake relationships, sapphic islands, and intense sexual chemistry, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a must read. I admit that I do find something delicious about two people having to fake their way through intimacy, only for that intimacy to grow into something real. The tension in this fake marriage is no different and is perhaps even turned up several levels due to how Basil’s and Caroline’s first encounter went down. (Ahem…so to speak.) There is no denying these two women are attracted to each other, but each has their own reasons for trying to resist the pull they feel. Caroline has learned mixing business with pleasure can lead to heartbreak, and Basil was just left at the altar–an event that would leave anyone to proceed with caution.

In addition to these two women having to play wives, the forced proximity of sharing a honeymoon suite (*there is, indeed, only one bed*), and being on a literal island adds to them not being able to escape the other. Fyre, who’s name is fitting for how she writes certain scenes, has created an environment that any sapphic will be clamoring to find. There is something incredibly lovely about the thought of escaping to a safe island filled with other sapphic women. Also, it is no secret in my personal life that I am quite competitive, so Fyre’s invention of the “Sapphic Olympics” left me longing to find a real life version. The events she’s created are clever and fitting for its participants. I don’t mean to brag, but I would absolutely nail the dresser building competition. Within the context of the story, the games are just another area to add fuel to that tension between Caroline and Basil. Having to work together as a team and pitting them against one of Basil’s childhood nemeses creates another scenario where they are forced to confront their ever growing attraction. Basil’s Type A behavior, paired with Caroline’s more practical approach, fueled by her time in the military, creates a perfect storm of additional conflict.

As the weather gets colder, it would be wise to hold on to this book if you’re looking to read something to keep you warm. Literally. I, for one, will never be looking at a photo booth the same way again. I have a feeling after reading this book, neither will you. Their story is filled with delicious tension and heated looks. Fyre is incredibly good at building tension so tight you think you might burst, so you can only imagine what the characters are feeling. Thankfully, you don’t have to imagine too much. There are those scenes that will have you looking around to make sure you’re  alone or, at the very least, that no one is peeping over your shoulder. Maybe don’t read on public transportation. Or do, who am I to judge? (If there is one thing the sapphic community can do, its school features so no one knows you are reading about two women doing the horizontal polka.)

As filled with sexual tension as this book is, there are other themes that flow throughout. Through Basil, it examines the pressure of family obligations and how long we can allow our parents’ dreams to propel us forward before a resentment starts to build. Fyre also forces the main character/reader to examine at what point hurtful actions and breaches of trust, despite the intentions behind them, are too much for us to forgive. What is that line and do those good intentions absolve the person who hurt us and broke our trust? I found myself asking what that line would be for me.

At its base level, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a story about overcoming your fear of failure—in life and relationships—and being brave enough to try again. I appreciate the twists that Fyre also throws in, keeping you guessing about a few mysteries until a reveal leaves you saying: “OH!?!”. Did I want to grab one character at one point and say: “please, out with it!” Yes! But without it, there would be no conflict to overcome.

With a cast of side characters that include a hedgehog and supportive best friends who will leave you smiling, The Honeymoon Mix-Up is a great read.