Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

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On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

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

A Meditation On Grief Through a Speculative Lens: Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield

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I’ve seen this book mainly categorised as horror but after reading it, it feels more like a speculative fiction with elements of horror and sci-fi in it. This book transcends genres: that’s the mark of a phenomenal read! 

I went into this story expecting an action-packed, horror-strewn plotline and found something much better and resounding. Leah, a marine biologist, is married to Miri and embarks on a deep-sea mission from which she doesn’t return for six months. It’s a mission that goes horribly wrong and alters her life inextricably. The story is told from alternating points of view of Leah and her wife, Miri. 

The first portion of the book portrays the slow and gradual deterioration of their relationship and the silences that hover around them. The writing style is mundanely descriptive and intimate but charged with unspoken emotions. The author spotlights and emphasises their dynamic inner worlds and feelings and their reaction to this traumatic event. 

The chapters are interspersed with haunting and heartfelt past memories of the couple that throw into stark relief their dire situation in the present. Miri feels that the only way to move forward is to look back and hold the past as a beacon of light to guide their enigmatic future. This new unprecedented future seems endless, strange and indescribable, and in contrast, the past feels tangible and comforting. So she collects pieces of her past, holds them close to her heart, and soldiers on. 

There is a constant tone of nostalgia and a sense of something that is lost and irretrievable. Miri tries her best to be there for her wife through her transformations and it takes a toll on her. For Leah, she carries the horrors that she faced under the sea to her life on the land as well. The sea haunts her days and nights alike. Leah’s experience under the sea isolates her and brings her face-to-face with a truth that lodges itself into her body and continues to take charge of her. It is interesting to witness the struggles of the wives parallelly. 

Some of the chapters in the book make brilliant comments on grief and its enduring hold. It shows us how grief can transform us, either for the better or for the worse. Apart from the sea experience, I think the book also comments on how some traumatic events can really shake the foundations of our lives and relationships and permanently set us adrift. Also, I found the naming of the parts in this book very interesting and accurate. It documents how Leah gradually becomes one with the ocean and loses her grip on the land. 

The last portion of this book is filled with suspense and it takes on a frenzy sort of urgency. Even though I predicted the ending, it completely crushed me. It reminded me of the movie Shape of the Water. As long as you don’t dwell on the technicalities of the plot, the story is heartbreaking and profound. The book gets sadder as it progresses and then suddenly it plunges you into an abyss of absurdity and terror. I was not ready for it. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! The entire reading experience feels like a poetic submersion! 

Young Adult Breakthroughs in the Florida Bayou: The Immeasurable Depth of You by Maria Ingrande Mora

a photo of an ereader showing the cover of The Immeasurable Depth of You against a painting of a boat
Photo by Shelby, painting by Peter Price

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Thank you to Peachtree/Peachtree Teen and Netgalley for this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review. (Published March 7, 2023) 

I adored this YA coming of age gem! The book follows Brynn, a young bisexual teen struggling with severe anxiety, as she’s forced to spend her summer away from her home in Cincinnati, Ohio to instead live with her father on his houseboat in Florida. Brynn’s mother sends her away for a “technology free retreat” after discovering an alarming internet post on her daughter’s blog. While exploring the bayou, Brynn meets a mysterious girl named Skylar who shares that she’s bound to the water. Upon discovering this, Brynn makes it her mission to help Skylar escape before the end of the summer.

Originally, I believed this book to be a queer romance, but that’s my mistake for failing to properly read the synopsis. Brynn’s queerness is explored as she makes connections throughout the story, but the plot focuses on her individual journey more than any single connection. The depiction of Brynn’s mental state was well executed, and compassionately showcased the debilitating impact anxiety/OCD/ADHD can have. Despite her proclivity for self-sabotage, Brynn is a character who was easy for me to sympathize with, all things considered.

Despite the heaviness, the novel remained hopeful and at times, funny. Brynn was a complex protagonist, witty while insecure, introspective and angsty. Her interactions with her parents were reminiscent of conversations I had at her age. The narrative voice felt authentically “teen” and not simply an author attempting to write youthfully.

Additionally, the atmosphere was beautifully constructed, with detailed prose that made the bayou come alive. (Side note: I read the book while in Florida, which made my reading experience extra special.)

My main critique is of Brynn’s relationship arc with Skylar. I would’ve enjoyed more interactions between the two. Their dynamic would’ve been more intriguing if we’d seen more of them together on the page; their progression felt a bit rushed. However, Brynn’s relationship arc with each of her parents was well done.

Overall, this was a positive reading experience, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s work. 

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): death, grief, suicide, and natural disaster.

Shelby (she/her) is a reader, writer, and actor based out of Louisville, Kentucky. When she’s not emoting on the page or stage, Shelby enjoys traveling, hiking, and in general, being a silly goose. You can find her on Bookstagram @storytimewithshellbee or Booktok @storytimewithshellbee

Sea Monsters and Lesbian Pirates: The Abyss Surrounds Us & The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie

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The Abyss Surrounds Us and The Edge of the Abyss feel like one book that’s been split in two. And I mean that in the best way possible—one of my biggest frustrations with young adult fiction is when it doesn’t take the time to slowly and properly develop its themes, characters, narrative payoffs, and romances. The Abyss duology doesn’t fall into that “fast food” pitfall; there’s plenty to chew on here, though it’s not like the story has a slow start. Quite the opposite, in fact: though there’s quite a lot of worldbuilding setup that the first novel has to do, The Abyss Surrounds Us takes the classic science fiction approach of dropping the reader into the deep end and letting us acclimate as the story goes. A hard trick to pull off, but Skrutskie manages it while also developing a cast of delightfully intriguing characters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the Abyss duology actually about? The books take place in a near future where the Earth is mostly flooded, and sea travel is the most important means of global connection left to humanity. Naturally, this means pirates—and charmingly, it also means genetically engineered sea monsters raised and trained to defend ships from pirates. As fun as that premise sounds in theory, the execution is even better. The protagonist, Cas, raises and handles these “Reckoners,” as the big beasties are called, but finds out quickly into her first mission that the world is a lot more complicated than she may have assumed. Skrutskie does an excellent job making every character feel real and multi-dimensional—from the terrifying pirate queen Santa Elena, to the roguish pirate Swift with whom Cas has immediate and obvious chemistry, to the horrifically strong but recognizably animal Reckoners themselves.

A lot of these elements—the culture around Reckoners and pirates, the romance between Cas and Swift, the escalating conflict for control of the sea—are resolved satisfactorily enough by the end of the first book, but some of the best payoffs come in the second. In a way, it is both the Abyss duology’s greatest strength and weakness, because for some reason I just never see people talking about The Edge of the Abyss. And I don’t know why! Granted, these books can be pretty hard to find—no library system near me had any copies (though they do now carry Skrutskie’s new trilogy about men piloting spaceships—go figure).

Point is, the Abyss duology is highly underrated—and The Edge of the Abyss  is not to be slept on, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Abyss Surrounds Us. I’m not sure I could even separate them enough in my head to decide which one is better…though you do need to get to the second book to see a ship getting attacked by a giant squid. Which is a fact, I think, that speaks for itself.

Content Warning: animal injury/death

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

Larkie reviews The Girls are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

The Girls Are Never Gone cover

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I love a good horror movie, and can never resist a classic haunted house, so when I heard that The Girls are Never Gone is about a podcast host investigating a 30 year old murder and possible haunting of a dilapidated old mansion, and it’s sapphic, I jumped on it. This book was a lot of fun, first of all. It had a fairly lighthearted tone overall, as the story followed three friends caught up in solving a 30 year old mystery and unveiling some of the even older history in the house.

The friendship in this book was one of my favorite parts. Of course I was expecting a bit of romance and tension, since I did pick up a sapphic horror book, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun as the three girls (Dare, Quinn, and Holly) worked to restore the Arrington estate. It made me want to grab a couple of friends and go explore somewhere spooky and then have a sleepover because we’re too nervous to be alone afterwards.

I will say that I do kind of wish the book was a bit scarier. There were some excellent spooky scenes, but they were mostly sandwiched between more lighthearted aspects of three teenagers having fun and exploring together (and shenanigans with Waffle, the blood sugar signaling dog who does a better job at detecting ghost activity). With all the creepy elements, you’d think that this book would be scarier overall, but it wasn’t really. This might be a good thing if people enjoy horror aesthetics without wanting to be terrified, but it missed the mark slightly for me. However, lots of the scary lake aspects were excellent. I love it when people vomit up lake water, what can I say?

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea 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.

Danika reviews The Girls Are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

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I’m very picky when it comes to horror books, mostly because I’m a wimp and get freaked out very easily. When the weather starts to get a little chillier, though, I start to crave creepy, witchy, autumn-y books, and that’s when I start eyeing the horror section. The Girls Are Never Gone was a great choice because a) it’s sapphic b) it’s more atmospheric and creepy than all-out terrifying and c) there’s a water element to the haunting. I love haunted house books, especially The Haunting of Hill House (here’s my review of how it’s absolutely sapphic), and I’ve also been intrigued by underwater horror ever since I took an creepy deep sea museum exhibit ride as a kid. I mean, it was an elevator, but it was unsettling.

But you probably came here to read about the book. The Girls Are Never Gone is an old-fashioned haunted house story, but one with a queer disabled main character.

Dare was cohost of a popular YouTube ghost-hunting show with her boyfriend -but then he broke up with her, and now she has to start over. Her new project is a solo podcast where she investigates one story in longform. She’ll be investigating Arrington Estate, where years ago, a girl drowned in the lake on the property, and it’s been rumoured to be haunted ever since. Dare got an internship to help restore the house into a museum, and she intends to use this access to dig up the history of this place.

Dare is an interesting take on a ghost-hunter, because she’s both skeptical and hopeful about the existence of ghosts. She had to face her own mortality very young, when she realized she was dependent on medical intervention for her Type 1 diabetes (the author also has type 1 diabetes). Now, in addition to the medical equipment she keeps on hand, she also has Waffles: a not quite as useful service dog whose alerts are unreliable. She has had an interest in the afterlife for many years, and she would love to see a real ghost–but despite all of the investigations she’s done for the channel, she’s never found one. Dare looks for scientific explanations first. Still, she brings a whole collection of ghost-hunting equipment with her to the house, and she’s serious about the investigation.

There, she meets a fellow volunteer, Quinn, who also happens to the commenter who alerted her to the possible haunting–oh, and she’s a cute girl. Then there’s the third member of the volunteer team, Holly. All three of them develop an instant, easy rapport that serves as a nice contrast to the creepiness of the house.

Arrington Estate is a decrepit, falling apart house that always seems to be leaking water from the ceilings, regardless of weather. It’s beside a lake that seem more like an ocean: it has mysterious currents that make it unsafe to swim in, and it seems to be getting ominously closer to the house.

It’s a slow build, both in terms of the haunting and the slowburn romance. We first really get to know the characters, with a few weird things happening in the background with the house, like a glowing light in the middle of the lake or a glimpse of something in the mirror. It’s atmospheric, and even before anything particularly scary happens, there’s a real sense of Arrington Estate as a character with its own personality and motives.

I really enjoyed the podcast element — it reminded me of Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy (review), which is another queer YA with a bisexual main character who had a project with her ex-boyfriend and had to start over when they broke up! In both of these books, they nail the podcast excerpts: they really “sound” like podcasts–and ones I would listen to! The creepy atmosphere, on the other hand, reminded me of The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould (review), which I also really enjoyed.

I am very happy that sapphic YA horror is beginning to have enough titles to choose from! This is a perfect read for a breezy fall afternoon.

Certain things that will always mark a house’s age, things human hands can’t change or erase: echoes of laughter, late-night secrets shared, wishes made, arguments had, all absorbed into the walls. A house remembers everything it witnessed, down to its very foundation. And Arrington seems to have a particularly long memory— of what, I’m not sure yet.