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

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

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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 Literal Dead Poets’ Society: All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

the cover of All That Consumes Us by Erica Waters

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The days have started getting shorter as darkness takes up more and more space every day. The evening air isn’t quite cold enough to keep you inside, but every gust of wind chills to the bone, and the woods behind my apartment are filled with piles of dead foliage sprouting mushrooms. There’s just something about fall that keeps my attention set on horror all season long. It was in that spirit that I picked up All That Consumes Us in October, a book which bills itself as a “gothic dark academia novel.” That alone was enough to get me interested, but by the time I was done, Erica Waters’s latest work easily made the list of my favorite reads this whole year.

It’s safe to say Tara Boone is not having the best time with her freshman year at Corbin College. She longs to be a writer, but she’s stuck working two jobs to pay tuition and taking the education track so that she has even the slightest hope of having a career to pay her student loans with. When she gets a chance to enroll in Magna Viri—an elite, somewhat secretive honor society that only accepts a few students every year and promises free tuition, great jobs, and connections after graduation—she jumps at the chance, even if that chance comes as a direct result of the untimely death of one of Magna Viri’s freshman students.

Magna Viri isn’t quite the godsend it seems, however. Some of the older students seem sick, almost hollowed out, and even her fellow freshmen are beginning to show signs of wear. Tara at first chalks it up to how overbearing and aggressive the group’s advisor is, but it rapidly becomes clear that something far worse is going on as she begins writing in her sleep. She wakes up at her desk again and again with words that aren’t hers scrawled on paper in front of her, a story far darker and more violent than anything she’s ever written before.

Tara is one of the most painfully relatable characters I’ve read in a long time, from the overwhelming impostor syndrome to the constant comparing herself to the more elite students to the feeling like if only she wasn’t being held down by her lack of opportunity maybe, just maybe she could be as good as them. Tara’s every thought and feeling is achingly real because they’re so familiar, in a way that I think just about every working class creative has felt at some point or another.

The supporting cast is also incredibly diverse. Tara’s classmates come from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Most of them are queer, her roommate is nonbinary, and the romantic interest has a chronic illness. That diversity isn’t just for show, either; each character’s interaction with the secrets at the core of Magna Viri is fundamentally shaped by their identity. I found all of them to be as well-crafted and memorable as Tara herself. Even as the story becomes more and more supernatural, the characters keep it grounded in a way that makes every punch hit that much harder.

I’m going to put a spoiler warning for below the break here, as well as the content warnings for All That Consumes Us, because I can’t fully describe why I loved this book without revealing a big part of the mystery. If what I’ve said so far intrigues you, I strongly encourage you to go read this book, and then come back for the rest after.

Content warnings: gaslighting, loss of bodily autonomy, possession, underage drinking and alcoholism, emotional abuse and manipulation, and brief scenes including violence, transphobia and misgendering, and hospitals

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The best thing about horror, to me, has always been the metaphor. Good horror, to my mind, isn’t just about sending chills up your spine or giving you that adrenaline rush of fear, it’s about using the safety of fiction to explore the things that frighten us. That includes the obviously terrifying things, like the thought of having your body literally controlled by someone else, but it also includes the awful things that have become so ordinary that we ignore them entirely or even just accept them as part of life, using those obvious things to blow them up to the point where the inherent wrongness of them becomes apparent.

All That Consumes Us has plenty of the former, but it is packed to bursting with the latter. For those of you who read this far without reading the book first, signing up with Magna Viri is signing up to be possessed by the ghost of a former member, someone who’s genius they considered so great that it could not be allowed to disappear just because they died. You create that person’s work for your four years at college, and in exchange you get to put your name on it. It started out with the best of intentions, as a partnership, but overtime became corrupted, and now the students of Magna Viri are being drained utterly dry for the sake of their ghosts.

The ghosts of Magna Viri work incredibly well as a scathing metaphor for so much of what plagues academic and creative work. They are the toxic productivity that demands that we expend ourselves physically or else be considered worthless. They are the commoditization of creation and the treatment of creators as tools that enrich the elite. They are the idea that there are only a few truly great works and everything else is simply derivative. They are the colonization of young, diverse minds, forcing them to focus on mainly the works of dead white men in order to be considered educated, and to mimic them in order to be considered skilled.

All That Consumes Us forces you to reckon with the cruel realities of academia and creation that we all too often take for granted, and it does so in a package that is diverse, suspenseful, compelling, and deeply unsettling. Currently, it’s sitting at the top of my list this year, and I think it’s going to be difficult to dethrone. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Healing in Queer Community: Old Enough by Haley Jakobson 

a photo of Old Enough on a shelf

Thank you to PENGUIN GROUP Dutton and Netgalley for this E-ARC in exchange for an honest review. (Published June 20, 2023)

I’ve followed Haley Jakobson’s social media for a while, so I was thrilled to hear news of her debut novel. And let me say, it did not disappoint! 

Old Enough follows our main character Savannah (Sav, for short) in two timelines: The present timeline focuses on Savannah in college during her semester in a Women and Gender Studies course. In another, we flashback to high school Savannah’s point of view. Throughout the novel, we learn the circumstances surrounding a traumatic event she experienced during high school and her subsequent social and emotional fallout. Chapter by chapter, readers witness Savannah’s healing journey as she confronts the past, cultivates new friendships, and exercises her autonomy. 

There are several key takeaways from this novel: 

Jakobson impressively deconstructs cultural norms surrounding “forever friendships” and the sunk-cost mindset of holding on for history’s sake. Additionally, we are introduced to a distinct cast of characters that become Sav’s safe place to land amidst the tumult of growing pains. There are knockout conversations on justice versus healing, plus beautiful depictions of a joyful queer community as Sav explores her bisexuality. 

This is a mature, new-adult coming of age story that covers a lot of ground, and it does so with vulnerability and precision. Old Enough is Savannah’s story, but it’s a story that will resonate with so many. (I highly recommend listening to Haley Jakobson’s episode on the “Sad Girls Who Read” podcast after finishing the book!)

FINAL NOTE: I would encourage readers to check content warnings, because there were several heavy topics addressed throughout the novel including (but not limited to): sexual assault, transphobia, and alcohol use.

The Perfect Sapphic September Read: The Adult by Bronwyn Fischer 

the cover of The Adult

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The moody, fraught, and atmospheric energy of Bronwyn Fischer’s novel The Adult (Random House, 2023) is the perfect September read that reflects the joy and the chaos of a new academic year! 

The Adult follows Natalie, an eighteen-year-old student who has just arrived in Toronto to begin her first year of university. Moving from her remote, rural hometown to a bustling city is destabilizing to say the least, and on top of it all everyone around her seems to fit in perfectly, while Natalie always stands apart. From the beginning of the novel, we can tell that Natalie is searching for an identity—for the exact code that will allow her to effortlessly blend into her new life without all the sharp edges she can’t seem to stop running into. She studies her would-be friends, searches online, and spends most of her time contemplating just how apart she feels from everyone else. 

Enter Nora, an older, mysterious woman who suddenly takes an interest in Natalie after a chance meeting. As Natalie is drawn further and further into Nora’s life—and into her intense, all-consuming feelings for the other woman—she wonders if this relationship contains the answers she’s been searching for. However, because Natalie fears how her friends will react to her relationship with an older woman, she quickly begins to lead a kind of double life while attempting to keep her time with Nora separate and sacred. But eventually, Natalie must reckon with the discovery that Nora is not all that she seems, and that the secrets she keeps could have devastating consequences for Natalie’s life. 

The Adult is a fabulously literary lesbian novel all about coming of age and coming out. In many ways, it’s easy to sympathize with Natalie’s insecurity and her desperation to fit into a world that seems to fast-paced and unfamiliar. We spend so much of this novel deep inside Natalie’s head, privy to her cyclical thoughts, her fears and anxieties, and her overwhelming obsession with Nora—an obsession that is made worse by Nora’s unclear feelings. It’s impossible not to find this novel immersive and captivating. 

While the plot of this novel is slow to unfold and the text is driven forward by the characters, I still found myself unable to put it down. Fischer’s writing carefully unveils the intricacies—and inconsistencies—of Nora’s life, which left me desperate to uncover (as Natalie eventually is) what all of the clues meant. It was fascinating the way Fischer played with readers’ expectations and then subverted or denied them at every turn. While the end wasn’t a huge surprise to me, I’m not sure it’s intended to be. Instead, it seems that what Fischer really wants to focus on in Natalie’s response to and growth from her relationship with Nora. I loved the way this novel was woven together. In some ways, it really did keep me guessing until the very end. 

There are certain plot twists I wasn’t overly captivated or convinced by, and I wasn’t sure how to handle them as a reader—especially when Natalie’s character struggles to cope effectively with anything. The twist I’m thinking of definitely added some intensity and urgency to the novel, but that could have been accomplished more effectively in other ways, I think. 

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Adult and I think it’s an excellent novel to read for fall! 

Please put The Adult  on your TBR on Goodreads.  

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

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

The Enthusiastic Ally to Bisexual Pipeline: Imogen, Obviously by Becky Albertalli

the cover of Imogen, Obviously

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Now that I’m twice the age of many of the protagonists in Young Adult books, I have a different relationship with them. I still read YA, but I find myself feeling protective of the main characters instead of relating to them. Nothing exemplified that shift more than reading Imogen, Obviously, where I just wanted so badly to give Imogen a hug as I read it.

Imogen is a high school senior who is a very enthusiastic queer ally, even though she’s, as Imogen puts it, “hopelessly” straight. Her sister and two closest friends are all queer. She goes to every Pride Alliance meeting. Her favourite movie is But I’m a Cheerleader, and she collects editions of One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston.

Her best friend Lilli is a year ahead of her and has already found a queer friend group in university—the same school Imogen will be joining in a few months. Imogen is happy for her… even though she feels out of place. She doesn’t want to intrude, as a cis straight person.

When Lilli finally convinces her to visit, she drops a bombshell when Imogen arrives: Lilli felt insecure about not having a serious relationship with a girl before, and she lied about Imogen and her being exes. So now everyone thinks Imogen is bi, including Tessa, who gives Imogen butterflies, which is obviously just Imogen queerbaiting inside her own head.

Imogen as a character broke my heart, to be honest. She’s a people-pleasing overthinker who analyzes herself to death, twisting herself into knots until she loses sight of the very obvious. The very obvious like: she’s not straight. The very obvious like: her friend Gretchen isn’t the authority on all things queer, and can be pretty toxic when she acts like it.

In a social media graphic for the book, the author describes Imogen as having queer discourse brainworms, which is a good way to put it. She tries to educate herself about queer issues, but just ends up thinking that there’s only one right way to be queer. She doesn’t feel the same way about girls as she does in her crushes on guys, so she concludes that means she doesn’t like girls at all. Even when faced with obvious evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself that she’s just trying to be bisexual for clout and that she’s a bad person for appropriating queerness.

“Queerness recognizing queerness. It’s kind of beautiful when you think about it. I really do wish it was mine sometimes.”

Imogen longs to be part of the queer community, and while I’m sure there is some 100% straight and cis person this applies to in the world, it’s such a relatable queer experience. I was in middle school when I excitedly talked about looking forward to joining the Gay/Straight Alliance in high school, and how if I could choose, I’d be pansexual and panromantic. But, of course, I was hopelessly straight…

Gretchen was a difficult character. Some people will absolutely hate her, which I understand. But I found myself thinking that my high school self was somehow right between Imogen and Gretchen: an anxious overthinker who also was so deep in queer discourse that I thought I knew it all. Gretchen is going through some things and lashing out at other people—I hope that this is just the beginning of a journey of processing her trauma, because she’s not in a healthy place now.

I haven’t even mentioned the Tessa/Imogen romance! It is adorable. Tessa is a lesbian and Imogen (spoiler?) is bisexual. Both are Jewish. Poor Imogen takes a while to understand she’s falling for her, but it’s a fun ride, including college shenanigans with her and their friend group.

I loved reading this, even if being inside Imogen’s head could be a little too relatable at times. This is actually my first Becky Albertalli read, but I can now confirm the hype is justified. I highly recommend it to any queer person who once also thought they were hopelessly straight.

Nat reviews How To Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow

the cover of How to Excavate a Heart

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Sweet yet angsty. Coming of age and coming out stories. A meet cute that’s…not so cute. Jewish holiday rom com. All the big, tender feels of young love. Non-stop cackling, except when you take a break to have a good cry. A prominently featured corgi. These are a few of my favorite things about Jake Arlow’s How to Excavate a Heart.

College student Shani Levine is determined to spend the holidays alone doing a winter internship at the Smithsonian—that means she’ll be away from her family, her mom specifically, which she feels guilty about while also desperately feeling the need to get away. There are a lot of complicated feelings around this stage of life, and Arlow’s character portrayals feel very authentic—the main characters are both first year college students figuring out what it means to be independent, to manage this in-between phase of life, caught between home and their new freedoms. This is also where Arlow nails the post-teenage angst humor. 

We meet May in a rather abrupt manner—and this is not really a spoiler as it’s in the book’s synopsis and in the first chapter—with the front of Shani’s mom’s Subaru. May is also spending the holidays in DC with her dad, but not because she wants to be there. She’s having her own family issues, and being rudely greeted by the bumper of a car doesn’t exactly put her in the holiday spirit. May initially comes off a bit frosty, but of course we’ll eventually see those walls melted away. 

The book is told in first person from Shani’s perspective, so you really get into her mindset. As she works out her feelings and makes self discoveries, you’re along for the ride. While this book is a holiday romcom, it’s also just as much a coming of age story, and we see a lot of Shani trying to figure out how and when to talk about her “new” life with her mom, when she doesn’t quite know how to come to terms with it herself. This includes keeping her first real relationship a secret, along with her sexuality. 

(Spoilers and Trigger Warnings:) We kind of see this coming, like the Titanic about to hit the iceberg, as we see more snapshots of Shani’s first relationship. Each memory reveals more specific—or perhaps more accurate—details, as her relationship with May progresses. Our narrator is holding back so much in part because she’s just not had certain realizations herself about the abusive nature of her first relationship. Acknowledging these truths is a big turning point in the book, and it’s clear Shani can’t move forward with May until she’s come to terms with her own past. (End of Spoiler)

The supporting character cast gets major points, especially Beatrice (Aunt Bea) who is her own one woman comedy show, and Shani’s mentor at work who’s a few years older—the wise lesbian we all wish had been in our lives to dispense advice. And yes, the corgi (dogs absolutely count as characters). Overall, Arlow’s given us a sapphic holiday romcom that will excavate your own frozen little heart.

Trigger warnings: abuse, sexual assault

Danika reviews She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick

the cover of She Gets the Girl

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Do you want to read a fun and absorbing new adult F/F romance written by a wife/wife author team? Of course you do. So you can probably stop reading the review now. Go ahead and grab it.

This follows two point of view characters: Alex and Molly. Alex is a flirt who doesn’t take anything too seriously, which is why her on-again off-again girlfriend, Natalie, doesn’t trust her while she’s touring. Alex has promised to make platonic friends and stop flirting with every queer girl she sees, it will be an uphill battle to convince Natalie.

Meanwhile, Molly has had a crush on Cora since they were in high school together. Now, they’re starting at the same university, but she still can’t seem to get up the courage to ask her out. Or talk to her at all. That’s where Alex comes in, who promises to teach Molly how to get the girl. At least, she will if Molly promises to serve as a platonic friend reference at the end of this.

They quickly rub each other the wrong way, especially when Cora swoons over Alex. They have diametrically opposed personalities and are constantly bickering over the best course of action.

This has aspects of a Cyrano story: Alex is trying to get Molly together with Cora, but their relationship keeps deepening. They begin to confide in each other, perhaps because this odd arrangement allows them to be more vulnerable. Alex talks about financially supporting her alcoholic mother and how she’s worried that she won’t be able to keep her safe now that she’s not living at home.

Meanwhile, Molly’s relationship with her mom has also changed: they used to be each other’s best friends, but Molly is trying to find some independence and resents her mother for not letting her go. Molly’s mom is also a Korean adoptee who internalized a lot of racism in her upbringing, which is hard for Molly to deal with as a mixed race person.

I actually wish we had a little bit more time with both of these subplots, because there are big, thorny topics that don’t have a lot of space to be explored in this story. We only get a handful of lines devoted to either Molly’s or Alex’s moms, and the wrap-up of those plotlines feels a little abrupt.

But of course, this is a romance, and that’s where our attention is. I felt so much while reading this like I was watching a teen romantic comedy movie, including all the banter. (And yes, we get the cute rollerskating date promised by the front cover.)

This was compulsively readable. I would pick it up meaning to just read a chapter and resurface several chapters later. It’s a cute love story with some charmingly oblivious main characters who somehow don’t notice that they’re falling for each other. This is being marketed as YA, but it follows Alex and Molly as they start college

My only other complaint about this one is that I felt like it ended early. I wanted just a little bit more time with this couple. (Semi-spoiler, but not really because this is a romance: it ends immediately after they get together). I mean, they’re teenagers, so I’m not expecting to see their wedding, but I would have liked a glimpse into their more established relationship.

If you like sapphic romcoms, I definitely recommend this one.

This review was adapted from my review on the April 5th episode of All the Books.

Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Danika reviews I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin

I Hate Everyone But You by Gaby Dunn and Allison RaskinIt’s a shame that New Adult as a genre never really took off outside of Romance, because I think there’s a demand for it. The just-after-high-school years, whether they’re spent in college/university or elsewhere, have distinct challenges. I Hate Everyone But You is set during that time, following Ava and Gen as they are just beginning university. They have been inseparable best friends for years, and they stay in contact through constant emails and text messages.

The entire novel is written in these emails and text messages, making it a modern version of an epistolary novel. It’s an interesting format: it’s an extremely quick read, and because they are so close, Ava and Gen both share their innermost thoughts while providing their own narration of what happened. There is an element of unreliable narration because we only see it through their stories, but you can usually read between the lines to figure out what “really” happened. They deal with typical issues with that stage of life: dating, sex, drugs, and figuring out their identities. This isn’t shied away from, but because it’s texts and emails, these experiences are not told in detail as much as they are just matter of fact statements. They also bring their existing baggage to this new life stage: Gen comes from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and enabling mother, and Ava deals with intense anxiety (and possible OCD?).

If you like Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin’s online presence, like their Just Between Us youtube channel, you’ll probably like this book. Their characters very much seem to match their personalities. The strongest part of this book is the bond between Ava and Gen. They fight–in fact, they bicker almost constantly. But that’s because they are open and honest with each other. They call each other out. They ask uncomfortable questions. They aren’t afraid to be their whole flawed selves with each other–and they have a lot of flaws.

For instance, Gen comes out as queer over the course of the book, and Ava can’t seem to let go of some variation of the question “Wait, are you gay now? Why do you like this guy: aren’t you gay now?” Ava has some ignorant questions about the queer community, to Gen’s irritation, but she means well. If you don’t want to see someone struggle through their heterosexist assumptions, this might be painful to read (she also asks Gen about a trans person’s genitals at some point). Transphobia is addressed here, but it may not be given the depth and time that it deserves.

Despite all these disagreements, though–despite their anger at each other or disappointment, despite lashing out and ignoring each other at times–there is never any question of their loyalty and love for each other. They are family. They are able to process ideas and emotions with each other, to bounce off ideas and try out new labels. They know that they will still be accepted by the other, no matter what conclusions they come to.

This isn’t a story for everyone. The format itself will put some readers off, though I found it absorbing. There is less of a plot and more of an exploration of these characters and their growth (apart and together) over time. On top of the heterosexism and transphobia included (though called out), there’s also a very questionable relationship between Gen and Charlotte, a T.A. almost twice her age with a propensity for sleeping with undergrads. As for me, though, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters: I liked that they were able to share even the most messy or uninformed thoughts and feelings with each other, and I found it to be a very quick, engrossing read. I look forward to diving straight into the sequel.

Danika reviews This One’s Going to Last Forever by Nairne Holtz

I wasn’t sure how to sum up This One’s Going to Last Forever, so here’s the blurb:

This One’s Going to Last Forever reflects both the naïve optimism of those who have yet to learn about love — and the cynicism of those who feel that by now they should know better.

Clara, a university student working at the McGill Daily, discovers that in love and politics, commitment is often more imagined than real. Kelly and Sonya share a bond that has less to do with love than with their dependence on each other and a succession of friends who supply them with heroin. A middle-aged man who performs drive-through weddings dressed as Elvis realizes, as he marries his first same-sex couple, that the only domestic partner he is ever likely to have is his ailing father. But when he ends his latest relationship, an unlikely friendship results.

The characters in these darkly comic stories and novella may be searching for love in all the wrong places, but they are also able to find love in the most unexpected places.

Nairne Holtz has a great skill for establishing characters and moods that really stick with you. Each story seems to contain a distinct moment more than a strict plot. Definitely the strongest part of This One’s Going to Last Forever is the characters. My favorite protagonist was Clare of the novella “Are You Committed?” She feels completely clueless compared to everyone around her at McGill: everyone–her roommates, her fellow journalists at the school newspaper, her friends–they all seem to know exactly who they are and what they’re talking about, and she’s still trying to gather enough facts to form an opinion. She doesn’t know what her sexuality is or the difference between the personal and political or what “Silence = Death” means. It makes her relatable.

A few times the book bumps into the gay pronoun problem: if you’re writing about two (or three or more) women, it’s really hard to establish which “she” you’re talking about, to it’s easy to overuse names. Overall, however, the writing is strong.

This One’s Going to Last Forever is a Lambda Literary Awards finalist in Lesbian Fiction. They are a terrific resource for finding quality queer books.

Have you read This One’s Going to Last Forever or another lesbian short story collection? What did you think of it?