Sapphic YA with Complicated Families

Sapphic YA with Complicated Families cover collage

Here’s a trope I didn’t realize I loved in a YA novel: complicated families. Whether it’s an unusual family configuration, strained parent relationships, or long-lost siblings, I love seeing queer stories that explore all the different ways biological families can look. I come from a very loving and supportive but also fairly complicated family, so this topic is close to my heart. So here are a few of my favorite YA books with complicated families!

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this one, because it was hugely popular when it came out! This is a story told in verse about two sisters: one in New York and one in the Dominican Republic. Yahaira lives in New York City with her mother and her father, and Camino only sees her father once a year, when he comes to visit the Dominican Republic–but they actually don’t know about each other until their  father dies.

This is a story about grief, but it’s also about trying to navigate those family secrets as well as finding out more about their father after he died, when they don’t have a chance to talk to him about it or understand why he kept those secrets.

This is a really beautiful story that deals with some pretty difficult subject matter. Camino, especially, is really struggling, and when her father dies, she doesn’t have that  same support and protection that she had before, and that leaves her vulnerable. One of the things I really appreciated about this book was the two main characters slowly starting to  figure out who they might be to each other. We only see the beginning of this, but it stayed with me. This is a beautiful book about the complicated forms that family can take. (Yahaira has a girlfriend, so that’s the queer content.)

You can read my full review here.

This is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

This is one of my favorite YA books! It’s a literal getting the band back together story with an F/F romance subplot–who can resist that? This follows three teenagers in the summer after they graduated from high school. They used to be best friends and in a band together, but a lot of events transpired at the same time that broke them apart.

When a battle of the bands is announced, though, they have to figure out how to come back together to hopefully win a ten thousand dollar prize, which would be life-changing money for them. What broke up their friend group is that one of the main characters was struggling with alcoholism and was hospitalized. At that same time, Dia’s boyfriend died, and weeks later, she realizes she’s pregnant. So she decides she can’t stay in Hanna’s life as long as Hanna is really self-destructing and drinking so much, especially now that she is pregnant. They don’t talk to each other again until this summer that the story takes place.

What I really liked about this one is telling the story of Dia’s teen pregnancy and being a young mom. I come from a family of young mothers, and it is very difficult to be a young mom, but I also really appreciate stories that show how complicated it is and how you can still have this beautiful family that comes out of it. It’s a fairly small part of the plot, but it does show how Dia’s family came together to help her raise this child.

You can read my full review here.

How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

This is a heart-wrenching story that is equal parts sweet romance of two girls falling in love and Grace’s difficult relationship with her mother. Eva, Grace’s love interest, has just lost her mom, and she finds comfort in conversations with Grace’s mother, Maggie. Grace feels pulled in several directions: she’s jealous that Maggie and Eva have a better relationship than Maggie and Grace, but she’s also nervous for Eva. Maggie can seem like a gregarious, generous person, but she is unreliable. Grace is the one who has to rescue her from dangerous dive bar situations. She’s the one who is pulled from house to house and Maggie moves in with short-term boyfriends.

Grace also feels like she’s at a crossroads. She dreams of being a pianist and has a crucial audition coming up that would secure her a place at a prestigious school, but she’s afraid of what would happen to her mother if she left her alone.

You can read my full review here.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

Suzette and her brother Lionel used to be very close, but then Lionel started struggling with mental health issues and Suzette was sent away to boarding school. Suzette is bisexual and their family is Black and Jewish, so we see how those intersectionalities play out in Suzette’s life, especially when she was at boarding school, where she had a bad experience and was outed outed.

The focus of this story, though, is Suzette and Lionel trying to repair their relationship. There’s this gulf between them of that missing time–how they were both struggling when they weren’t in each other’s lives–and they’re having trouble getting back to where they were before. Some of the descriptions of this book talk about the love triangle where they are both interested in the same girl, but it isn’t really about that, and it’s not some sort of competitive love triangle. It’s much more about this sibling relationship and their complicated family, where they clearly both care a lot about each other, but are having trouble talking to each other about what’s happened, what’s changed in their family, and about how they can form a new relationship with each other.

You can read my full review here.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m danforth

I couldn’t help but talk about one of my favorite books, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This book starts with Cameron having her first kiss with a girl and at that same time, far from the ferris wheel she’s riding, her parents die in a tragic audience. When Cam finds out, those two things become connected in her mind. She is sent to live with her very conservative aunt, and she ends up being sent to a conversion camp.

This is a really difficult read in times, but it is beautifully written. I love Cam Post as a character, there’s a bunch of great funny moments, and the side characters are really strong. The complicated family is mostly Cameron trying to reconcile with her grief and with her feelings about her parents, who she never got to come out to, so she doesn’t really get closure. She feels this misplaced guilt that somehow this was a punishment for her kissing a girl, and that’s why her parents died. It’s about her learning to accept her whole self and trying to deal with her grief without punishing herself. This is my favorite YA book of all time. It’s brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

This is a beautiful historical YA novels set in the 1920s in the U.S. It’s about Garnet, who loves birds, but she can only express her interest in ornithology by cutting intricate silhouettes of birds; that’s the “ladylike” way that she can pursue her interests. Her mother really needs for her to get married to support them, because they don’t really have any other options. Meanwhile, Garnet falls for a flapper girl.

What makes this complicated, and I think what is the strength of the book, is that it discusses what we owe to each other and to our family: the difficulty and complexity of balancing your own individual needs and wants with the people who might be dependent on you. In most queer YA books, you get to come out and live your authentic self, and if your family is not supportive, you walk away from them. But for Garnet, she knows if she walks away from her mother, she has almost no way to support herself. Her mother would be fairly helpless living as an older single woman in 1920s America with no money and no backup. Silhouette of a Sparrow grapples with those really difficult questions about family and individuality.

You can read my full review here.

Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

What I really liked about this book is that it has two main characters who are both Bengali Irish teenagers, but they’re very different from each other: they have very different families, they speak different languages, they have different religions. They are both queer, but one of them is out as bisexual to her family, who is extremely accepting, and the other character has a family where she can’t really safely come out.

I think that in modern queer YA, we don’t see many families where you just don’t come out–because it’s not a good idea or because you don’t feel safe doing it. And I think it’s important to have that representation. I especially liked that because we had these two families, we saw that it wasn’t just because they were a Bengali family, that there are Bengali families who would be very accepting and others that wouldn’t be. The comparison between those two families that made it such an interesting book to read with that lens.

Another complicated family component to this is that Ishu has spent her life being fiercely competitive with her older sister. She’s even competing to be head girl (that’s how she got into this fake dating mess) to try to one-up her sister. But they begin to have a different dynamic with some distance, and a subplot of this story is them rebuilding their relationship as something more supportive.

You can read my full review here.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

This is about Nora, who was raised by her con artist mother. She had to participate in a lot of cons and become different people in all of them. Obviously, that is already a very complicated family. She no longer has much contract with her mother, and she’s living with her older sister who helped her get out that dangerous situation. They are trying to leave that life behind them, but Nora ends up being caught up in a bank robbery and held hostage with her girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend.

This is an incredible thriller: it’s so fast-paced. Definitely check out the trigger warnings, though, because it is also one of the most brutal books I have read. It is incredibly effective, and for the purposes of this list, it really shows how difficult it is for Nora to have grown up with this mother, who did not provide a safe and loving environment for her, but who also helped inform so much of who she is, and Nora trying to detangle those. If you are okay with really difficult subject matter, including rape, murder, and gore, and if you want to read a thriller about misogyny, I highly recommend this one.

You can read my full review here.

Middletown by Sarah Moon

This is the book that inspired this post! It’s YA novel about two sisters who are trying to stay out of foster care while their mother is in rehab, and it It also has a gender questioning main character.

Not only do Eli and Anna have a difficult relationship with their mother–Eli always accepts their mother’s apologies after she comes home from the drunk tank, while Anna storms to her bedroom and slams the door–they also have a complicated relationship to each other. They used to be very close, but there’s been distance between them ever since Anna threw out all her soccer gear one night and started dressed in black with no explanation. Now, while their mother is in rehab, they have only each other. And if they’re going to avoid getting split up by foster care, they’ll have to be persistent. (Anna dresses up as their aunt and goes to Eli’s parent teacher conferences.)

Quickly, though, their plans fall apart, and in the scramble and impromptu road trip that results, they’ll learn their family is even more complicated than they imagined.

You can read my full review here.

This post was originally a video sponsored by Middletown! If you want to hear me talk about these books instead of reading it, I’ve included the original video.

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Danika reviews Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

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Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️

One of my favorite things to read about is flawed main characters. Characters who make mistakes–mistakes they really knew better than to make, but they did it anyways. I can’t stand negative reviews of books based on the protagonist having flaws, which is making me want to gather this book up to my chest and defend it from those negative reviews I can see looming. Lee is lost, she’s messy, and she’s hurt people–but she’s also finding herself and trying to work her way through them, and I am firmly in her corner.

Indestructible Object takes place in the summer between high school and university. Lee is an artist from a family of artists, and she has devoted herself to a podcast she makes with her boyfriend called Artists In Love. Her picture-perfect relationship and her passion both shatter simultaneously, though, when he breaks up with her to move to another city for university. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do with herself, and in her panic, she endangers the job she loves (doing sound for a cafe) as well as any chance she had of Vincent and her getting back together.

If the lost job, failed relationship, and finished podcast weren’t bad enough, her parents are separating. They haven’t been properly together for years, but they’re finally moving into separate places, and her mom is travelling while he packs up. That’s when Lee finds three objects that make her doubt the validity of her parent’s relationship in the first place: a passport belonging to her dad that was dated months before she was born, a hidden videotape of their engagement party that can’t find a VCR to play, and a book of poems by her mother dedicated with love to another man. She decides to start another podcast trying to put together the pieces of the mystery of her parents’ marriage. Why did they get together? Was there a fatal flaw to begin with? And if so, can Lee avoid it so she can find real, lasting love?

What Lee isn’t admitting about her relationship with Vincent is that it was never perfect. In fact, she was cheating on him with Claire from the coffee shop she worked at. She’s closeted, and she’s confused by Vincent’s disinterest in sex–it’s not an excuse, but her decisions make sense, especially while she’s struggling to understand herself. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

This could be considered a spoiler, but I think it’s important to note that Lee also realizes that she’s polyamorous and doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship. (She commits to honesty in her relationships going forward, of course!) It’s still very rare to see YA tackle polyamory, so I was happy to see that! (In fact, that’s what convinced me to pick this up in the first place.) My heart hurt for when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I also thought Max’s subplot, the queer friend mentioned earlier, was fascinating. He has two queer parents, one of whom is non-binary, and when he came out as gay, they were–unsurprisingly–supportive, especially of his relationship with an idyllic boyfriend. Now, though, he has experienced sexual fluidity, falling for a girl, and he has picked up a punk aesthetic from her. His parents don’t approve, and he feels rejected now that he’s an “untidy queer” instead of what he refers to as a “Love, Simon gay.” This is a complicated queer story, which I am always here for–especially because I also experienced sexual fluidity after identifying as a lesbian for a decade, and it was a rough transition.

I also really enjoyed that this story is told partly in podcast transcripts, especially because they sounded like a podcast I would listen to. Lee is trying to do an investigative podcast of her own family history, but it isn’t so easy to sum up into a coherent narrative, especially the more she delves into it. It also foregrounds Memphis as the setting, digging into the problems and appeal of this city.

I’m going to leave you with a quotation near the end of the book, so it could theoretically be considered a spoiler, but I love it, so I’m including it.

Hearts are made for this. They’re made to be battered, filled up with big feelings, emptied out again. They’re made to swell and ache and break and piece back together again.

They’re made to be used, even if everything you’re ever going to use them for ends.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Middletown by Sarah Moon

Middletown by Sarah Moon

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Eli and Anna know the routine. The cops come to the door in the middle of the night, Eli tries to look as young and adorable as possible, then Anna puts on eyeliner, grabs a beer from the fridge, and tries to sweet talk them into looking the other way about the two teenagers left alone while their mom is in the drunk tank. Soon, their mom will come home again, all apologies. Eli will forgive her immediately–though she doesn’t really buy the promises. Anna will run up to her room and slam the door. It’s not a great routine, but it is familiar.

Except that this night, something changes. Their mother has gotten her second DUI in about a month, and there’s no looking the other way. She has to go to rehab. But her being in rehab means social workers, and foster care, and splitting Eli and Anna–Peanut Butter and Banana, as they call each other–apart. They’re determined to find a way to stick together, including Anna pretending to be their aunt taking care of them. But the longer they have to keep up the act, the more it seems like their luck is about to run out.

Middletown is a YA novel from the point of view of a 13-year-old. Eli is struggling through middle school. She has to two great friends, Javi and Meena, but she doesn’t feel like she really fits in with them. Meena is gorgeous and has a picture-perfect home life. She’s also straight, and Eli has a hopeless crush on her. Javi is gay, obsessed with Drag Race, and he’s the principal’s son. They both have big, vibrant personalities, and Eli feels like she doesn’t belong with their duo. When she’s not around them, she’s bullied for being too “boyish”–and she can’t say they’re wrong. She doesn’t exactly feel like a girl or a boy. Or maybe she feels like both.

When her mom goes to rehab, she’s left with just her sister at home. Anna and Eli used to be inseparable, but Anna has changed. Once a girly soccer star, now she’s withdrawn, angry, dresses all in black, and she threw out all her soccer gear one afternoon without explanation. They need each other and they love each other–but they’re kids. Anna tries her best to take care of Eli, but they’re playing an impossible hand. They need to find money for groceries and rent, make food for themselves, keep the house livable, and not let on to anyone that they’re doing it alone. That’s not even mentioning trying to process their anger and pain at their mother’s neglect.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is the nuanced portrayal of addiction. Their mother hurt them, but she’s also not a villain. She’s a flawed person who also loves them deeply and has done a lot of good, courageous, and selfless things in her life. She’s just dealing with addiction. It also emphasizes that addiction is hereditary. We see the damage addiction can do, but we also see examples of recovering addicts and how that damage can be repaired or at least worked through. There are no easy answers, and people aren’t treated as disposable for struggling with addiction.

Of course, you’re reading a Lesbrary review, so there is also significant queer content here. Eli likes girls–Meena in particular–and is also questioning her gender. She’s still young and figuring herself out, so we don’t get any solid identity labels, but I imagine she will grow up to identify as non-binary. One of my favorite moments of the book is when Eli and Javi go to a production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. They both dress in drag, and it captures the magic of first encountering a queer community. It gives Eli a glimpse into an expansive future that will embrace whoever she ends up being, and I think that’s an incredible experience in any queer person’s life.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the second half was my favorite, which involves a road trip and discovering family secrets–including more queer content. I love the complicated, resilient family portrayed here. They don’t always know what to say to each other, they can accidentally (or impulsively) hurt each other, but they love each other and try to be there for each other.

Read this one if you like: complicated, flawed, and loving families; road trips and family secrets; queer community and resilient friendships; characters questioning their gender; sneaky revenge on misogynists; or nuanced portrayals of addiction.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Carolina reads A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

“Dark Academia” is a cultural trend sweeping Tumblr and Tiktok, an eclectic sub-community gauzed in stark, academic aesthetic and darkly gothic themes. On any dark academia moodboard, you can find androgynous tweed suits, dark libraries, sepia-tined cigarette smoke. However, the trend has little place for female characters or sapphic relationships, as it primarily focuses on classical homoeroticism. A Lesson in Vengeance eschews the male-gaze and is a wildfire of sweeping speculative historical fiction embedded in a thrilling, sapphic magic mystery, becoming my go-to dark academia recommendation. 

One year ago, Felicity Morrow’s girlfriend, Alex, died under mysterious circumstances at the hallowed Dalloway School, a boarding school for gifted girls built upon the bones of the Dalloway witches, five girls part of an occult 17th century coven whose strange and inexplicable deaths haunt the campus. Now, Felicity is back at Dalloway, torn between putting the past behind, or discovering the truth behind Alex’s death. The choice is made for her by the enigmatic Ellis Haley, the newest pupil at Dalloway, who draws inspiration for her best-selling novels through an extremist take on method-writing. When Ellis decides to write about the Dalloway witches, she and Felicity become intertwined with the past when they decide to replicate each of the witch’s deaths to uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago, and reveal the darkness that lies in their hearts.  

The vintage, macabre aesthetic of the novel is incredible, full of immaculate detail and atmospheric writing. Lee was also sure to include nods and winks to the literary canon of female horror through references to Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi and others, providing built-in book recs for those interested in female-led horror. The novel also is not limited by the young adult genre, as it is constructed with just the right amount of gore and suspense needed for a perfect horror story. Our main character, Felicity, is as thrilling and twisted as any Amy Dunne or Tom Ripley; a new sapphic star of the thriller world.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted feminist thriller about the lengths one would go through to survive. Lee takes dark academia staples, such as mystic rituals gone awry and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and imbues them with their own wit, style and uniquely queer flavor, creating a new home for sapphic women in the genre. Also, do yourself a favor and follow Victoria Lee on Tiktok, they’re a delight. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy!

Content Warnings: substance abuse, trauma, death, gaslighting, mental illness, violence, gore, neglect, animal abuse

Danika reviews Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar

Hani and Ishu's Guide to Fake Dating cover

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You might remember Adiba Jaigirdar from her previous book, The Henna Wars! This is another YA romance between two teenage girls of colour, set in Ireland, and I liked it even better than her debut. Humaira (“Hani”) and Ishita (“Ishu”) are the only two brown girls at their all girls Catholic high school. Because they’re both Bengali, they’re often lumped together–but they’re nothing alike. They speak different languages and have different religions, for one, but their personalities are what really separates them. Humaira is a social butterfly who tries to fit in and be well-liked. She’s out as bisexual to her parents, who are both supportive–she feels like she can tell her mom anything. She’s Muslim, but she doesn’t feel like her friends understand or completely accept that about her. Ishita is… prickly. She’s sometimes caustic. She’s an academic overachiever trying to live up to her parents’ impossible standards. She has no interest in cultivating friendships at school and is uninterested in what her classmates think of her. She has big goals she’s laser-focused on.

When Humaira comes out to her friends as bisexual, they’re dismissive. They argue that she can’t know unless she’s dated/kissed a girl. Humaira surprises herself by insisting that she is dating a girl: Ishita. Her friends hate Ishita, and Humaira and Ishita hardly speak, but she’s determined to try to sell this so that they won’t question her identity. When Humaira asks Ishita to go along with it, she agrees, but on one condition: Humaira helps Ishita become popular enough to win the Head Girl election, which will look good on college applications.

This is a classic fake dating romance between two girls who weren’t exactly enemies before, but definitely fit into the “opposites attract” category. I liked how distinct their personalities were and how they end up complementing each other (but not before clashing first). While their romance is the focus of the plot, it’s Jaigirdar’s depiction of being a Bengali teen in a very white high school that caught my attention the most. Both Humaira and Ishita deal with everyday racism and microaggressions, but they deal with them in very different ways. Ishita seems to tune them out, or prefers not to consciously think about them. Humaira reacts with anger and frustration at the system. The school administration demonstrates blatant (racially biased) favoritism that made me angry just to read about, but that’s accepted as a fact of life.

One small note is that I appreciated that this book starts with content warnings, which I hope is becoming a more common practice. Overall, I thought this was even stronger than The Henna Wars. Both main character feel three-dimensional and fully-realized, and it was entertaining to see how they tried to adapt to each other and work together. If you’re a fan of fake dating or F/F YA, definitely give this one a try.

Danika reviews Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

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Lara has come back from the summer with a new look and newfound confidence. It’s paying off, because the guy she’s been obsessed with for all of high school is flirting with her! There’s just one problem: Jasmine just walked through the door. Jasmine, the girl she spent a confusing, steamy summer with. “Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?”

This is a great story about a main character who is questioning her sexuality. She’s only ever been interested in guys, and she and Jasmine never really talked about what they were. Was it just… fun making out? Or was there something between them? When their summer ended without answers, she thought that was it. But now she facing her in the halls and there’s none of the ease there used to be–just awkwardness and miscommunication. Even when she’s with the guy she’s been pining over for years, she can’t stop thinking about her.

The timeline rotates between the past, starting with Lara and Jasmine’s meeting, and the present. Because so much of the present storyline is dealing with the tangled emotions of what happened between them, it still manages to feel suspenseful and intriguing. The tension between them in the present is intense–they’re both acting like nothing happened, but their chemistry is undeniable. (I kept thinking about “Strange” by Celeste: “From strangers to friends, Friends into lovers, And strangers again…”)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was that Lara is the kind of character I usually read about in YA. She’s part of the “popular” crowd and is conventionally attractive (thin, perfect skin, and now blonde). She’s the best friend of the most popular girl in school–who can be a bit of a jerk, but also isn’t a monster. Her friends feel like real people (one runs a podcast where she investigates mundane mysteries, like who the school librarian is secretly dating), but they also feared enough that seats open up at the football game wherever they want to be.

I initially felt some resistance to Lara–do I want to really want to read about an attractive, popular teenage girl spending the summer having beach parties or by the pool? (Of course, this is ridiculous: I’m 30. It’s not like I’m relating to the teenage protagonist no matter their social status. I’m just accustomed to YA starring the misunderstood/nerdy/loser/underdog/etc character.) She pretty quickly won me over, though. Lara is trying to figure herself out–not just her sexuality, but who she is outside of her friend group or obsessive crush. That summer allowed her to try on some independence, and she isn’t ready to give it up.

I really enjoyed this book. It got me thinking about how bisexuals experience heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. That’s usually only discussed in terms of lesbians, but Lara is so clearly trying to act out the image of a perfect heterosexual relationship (dating the quarterback, dreaming about being prom queen) without actually engaging with her own emotions. Is she attracted to Chase? Or is she attracted to the title of being Chase’s girlfriend?

Both Lara and Jasmine are Jewish, and there are some cute moments with them bonding over that, even though it means different things in their lives. In some ways, this was a painful read–I so wanted Jasmine and Lara to talk and face their feelings, but that would require them to be different people. The story is about Lara puzzling through her emotions and their significance, so I can’t hold that against her!

Adler so perfectly captures hormone-drunk, confusing, sun-drenched summer relationship feeling. Also, I had to laugh when when Lara talks to 1 (one) bisexual and says, “Well, I don’t have the same experience, so I must be straight.” Relatable content. If you’re looking for a great bisexual and/or questioning YA, I highly recommend this one.

Shannon reviews She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

She's Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard

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As the weather begins to warm up here in the midwest, I find myself in serious need of books set during the warm summer months. There’s something so magical about long days spent in the sunshine, even if the characters’ daily activities aren’t ones I’d recommend. Books set in the summer just have a certain kind of hypnotic feel, and it’s exactly that feeling I was searching for when I picked up She’s Too Pretty To Burn, the latest novel by Wendy Heard. It’s a young adult thriller with charismatic characters and a swoony romance, and I devoured it in a single sitting.

Veronica is a photographer living in San Diego with her mother. When we first meet her, she’s pretty bored with life, hanging out at a party she’s not enjoying and just wishing for something exciting to happen. She loves photography, but even it isn’t providing her enough mental stimulation to fight off her feelings of boredom.

Then, she meets Mick, a complicated and beautiful young woman who seems to speak right to Veronica’s soul. The reader knows pretty early on that Mick is a troubled character, but Veronica doesn’t pick up on this for quite some time. She just knows that she’s captivated by Mick, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with photographing her, even though Mick herself hates having her picture taken.

Mick’s home life isn’t the greatest, so spending time with Veronica serves as a sort of escape for her. The two begin spending all their free time together, and it’s not long before Veronica introduces her to her good friend Nico, an activist with a passion for performance art. He’s a couple of years older than Mick and Veronica, definitely more worldly than them, and he has a plan he thinks will shake up the city in some necessary ways.

At first, Nico’s plan seems harmless enough, but as time passes and Mick falls deeper under his spell, things take a dangerous turn. Veronica, desperate to make it big as a photographer, doesn’t notice the danger Mick and Nico are putting themselves in right away. Will she figure things out in time to stop something catastrophic from happening, something with the power to affect the trajectories of all their lives?

She’s Too Pretty To Burn is pretty dark, definitely not a good fit for those looking for a story on the sweeter side of the young adult spectrum. Their are some blurred lines when it comes to consent here, and readers who are triggered by discussion of abuse might want to do additional research before picking this up.

The characters aren’t all good or all bad. Instead, they exist in that big gray area that makes them super relatable but also difficult to categorize. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite, since each is incredibly well-drawn. They all make bad decisions at times, but then, that’s a regular part of being a human being, and something I definitely want in my fiction. Perfect, cookie-cutter people aren’t all that interesting to read about.

I enjoyed watching the relationship between Mick and Veronica blossom. The author does a phenomenal job showing how complex love is, especially for teenagers who are working hard to figure their lives out. Certain scenes between the two are poignant and beautiful, while others serve to amp up the tension of the overall story.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced novel that’s dark and twisty and filled with characters who remind you of people you’d meet in the real world, you could do far worse than She’s Too Pretty To Burn. It’s probably not a book that will appeal to every reader, but it landed firmly in my wheelhouse and I’m so glad I gave it a try.

Mo Springer reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda LoAmazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Lily Hu has always been at least somewhat aware of her attraction to women. But after seeing a lesbian novel in a store, a poster for a male impersonator, and her classmate Kath in the Telegraph Club, she knows she has to be honest with herself. However, this honesty and living with it even what small amount she thinks she can afford, could put herself and her whole family at risk. But 1954 America is not only discriminating violently against gay people, but also Chinese people, who are at risk for deportation as well. But Lily wants to have a life of her own, to date who she wants, and to be happy with Kath.

Lily is a dynamic character who you sympathize with and understand very well at every point in the story. She’s mature for her age because she has to be, but also is a teenager who is experiencing so many firsts while also under immense pressure that no teen should have to bear. Through her, we get to see a large cast of characters similarly feel real and complex.

In particular, I really loved how much we got to see of Lily’s family and how each member stood out with their own needs, wants, and opinions. The chapters from the point of view of her parents and aunt were great to see the background of Lily’s culture, family, and how all of that has led to the current situation.

Kath and the women Lily meets at the Telegraph Club similarly feel real and complex. Lily has to deal with finding a queer community for the first and also with the reality so many of us face: not everyone in the community will be your best friend, or even your friend at all. There is a unity we see in the people who go to the club, but Lily stands out as the only Asian American there.

Lily and Kath’s relationship is endearing and cute, and I found myself cheering them on, but also biting my nails in anticipation of what happens next. Her relationship with her best friend Shirley was also a roller coaster ride of emotions that created a mirror to her relationship with Kath.

This is one of those great historical novels that don’t make you feel like an outsider looking in, but does a great job of engaging with the reader so that the time period feels natural. I loved learning about the history of this time and place, but also never felt like I was being lectured. This story is incredibly immersive, and you forget you haven’t actually been there.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in sapphic romance sent in 1950s America.

Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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.

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Danika reviews Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley

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Tamsin is a 17-year-old witch who was banished from her community of witches when she was 12, for committing the worse of magical crimes. Worse, she was cursed, and now she can’t feel love unless she takes it from others. Without love, she can’t see colors, taste food, or feel warmth. When the townspeople fall ill or are in need of big magic, they come to her and offer up their love for their children or spouse in exchange, and she carefully rations that small store of emotion. Wren is a source: someone made of magic, but who can’t use it herself. She would be an incredible book for witches, but she’s kept herself hidden–her brother was killed because of the actions of a witch, and her family fears magic. After her mother died, she’s been stuck taking care of her sickly father, though what she really wants to do is go to the Witchlands and nurture her power. When a magical plague ravages the queendom (including Wren’s father), they team up to try to stop it.

This is a high fantasy story with big, world-ending stakes–but more importantly, it’s a slow burn sapphic romance. Tamsin and Wren have a perfect grouchy one/sunshine one dynamic. Tamsin is jaded, haunted by her past, and literally incapable of love or positive emotion. Wren is bubbly, naïve, and distractible; she sees magic everywhere. They seem like opposites–but in reality, they have most of the same motivations. Tamsin has a martyr complex; Wren is self-sacrificial to a fault. They both have spent their lives living it for others, only to be punished for it. Wren has tried to be the “good girl” her whole life, always making herself small; Tamsin was the star student, a rule follower. In the present day, neither of them thinks they are worthy of happiness.

Together, they have to journey to Within (aka the Witchlands) to begin their hunt for the witch responsible for the dark magic that is causing havoc–the same Within that cursed and banished Tamsin 5 years earlier. I really enjoy “quest” stories that involve a fantasy travel journey, and I loved seeing Tamsin and Wren clash as they tried to get through it together. I only wish we got a little more of their travel Within (where there’s walking cottages and all kinds of weird stuff), but I recognize that probably wouldn’t fit the pacing.

While there is a high fantasy plot here, including magical duels, family secrets, and a world in the balance, it becomes obvious that the heart of this story is the romance between Wren and Tamsin. Wren is frustrated to find herself falling for someone who a) is incapable of loving her back, b) is going to take her love for her father from her as soon as Tamsin completes her end of the deal, and c) is kind of a jerk to her. [spoilers] I loved the element of Tamsin beginning to see flashes of color in Wren. Never has “Your hair is red” been such a swoon-worthy statement. [end of spoilers] In addition to the grumpy one/sunshine one trope, there’s also a “there’s only one bed” moment! Classic.

I really enjoyed reading this romance unfold, seeing Tamsin take down some of her defenses and despite herself begin to see the world through Wren’s eyes sometimes. It’s also about complicated family dynamics and how to see people complexly, even the people closest to you. I know a lot of people will also appreciate that this is set in a world without homophobia: the prince has rejected men and women suitors, and there are same-sex couple side characters introduced with no more fanfare than M/F couples. This is an absorbing read that I can’t wait to see people fall in love with.