Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.

Link Round Up: July 5 – 18

This is the Lesbrary bi-weekly feature where we take a look at all the lesbian and bi women book news and reviews happening on the rest of the internet!

Autostraddle posted 8 Books That Feature Queer Jewish Women to Read Right Now.

The Golden Crown Literary Society‘s 2018 Goldie Winners were announced.

The Colette trailer is out and queer! Check it out!

Also, the Miseducation of Cameron Post trailer! So exciting!

               The cover of Terrible Praise by Lara Hayes

Éclair: A Girls’ Love Anthology That Resonates in Your Heart was reviewed at Okazu.

Terrible Praise by Lara Hayes was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Band Vs. Band, Volume 2 by Kathleen Jacques was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Sweet Blue Flowers Volume 4 by Takako Shimura was reviewed at Okazu.

Take My Hand: A Pine Cone Romance by Missouri Vaun was reviewed at Omnivore Bibliosaur.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even  more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitter! We’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

Thank you to the Lesbrary’s Patreon supporters! Special thanks to Jacqui Plummer, Ivy Quinn, Muirgen258, FromTheDustyBookshelf, Kayla Fuentes, Mark, Sarah Neilson, Martha Hansen, Daniela Gonzalez De Anda, Lindsy Lowrance, Amy Hanson, Bee Older, Ellen Zemlin, and Casey Stepaniuk.

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Megan Casey reviews Murder in the Castro by Elaine Beale

Lou Spencer, your normal, tomboyish young Englishwoman, has fled to San Francisco to escape a bad relationship in her home country. Five years have passed, and although she has been celibate the entire time, she has found a meaningful job as office manager for a LGBT Crisis Management Center. But when one of the Client Advocates is murdered in his office after hours, her rather insulated existence is disturbed to the max. All the indications are that this is a random hate crime, but is it?

A literary theory professor I know once said that whether or not a reader likes a novel has little to do with its importance. I don’t like Madame Bovary, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that Flaubert didn’t influence generations of writers. Elaine Beale isn’t Flaubert, yet my friend the professor’s tenet still holds true. I didn’t care for the novel, yet I realize that there are many things unique and, yes, important about it. Let’s start with these.

First of all, this is what I might call a Movement novel: one that chronicles some form of LGBT or women’s politics in the last years of the 20th century. Think of Vicki P. McConnell’s The Burnton Widows, Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective, or Mary Wings’ She Came Too Late. Chronicling the history of this movement is important not only for what the movement accomplished, but because it was so relatively short, coming in with the hippies and out with the yuppies. Beale gives quite a nice description of an office whose purpose is to help gays and lesbians who have been abused on the street or in the home.

The second excellent thing about this novel is the mention of same-sex domestic abuse; Lou has come to the U.S. to escape from her abusive girlfriend.  While many lesbian novels focus on the abuse of a female character by a husband, father, or other family member, few lesbian authors feel comfortable confronting abuse in their own domestic partnerships.

The mystery, too, is an interesting one. I found myself wanting to know who the killer was, although an observant reader could have guessed who the culprit was on page 22

It is a fast-paced novel, moving quickly from one clue to the next. To the author’s credit, she uses similes instead of plain description. Unfortunately, a lot of the comparisons are overstated, such as when, at a local news conference, Lou describes the media as being “like sharks at a feeding frenzy,” or “if I ever became mayor, I’d not only make car alarms illegal, but possession of them punishable by several years hard labor.” Most of these turns of  phrase could have been (and probably should have been) used to better effect somewhere else. Like in a stand-up comic’s routine.

The investigating officer is homophobic to the point of cliché. Although this is not so unusual in lesbian mysteries (see Kate Delafield’s first partner)—or even in real life—it just isn’t very interesting or pleasant to read about them. Unlike Kate Delafield’s partner, who seemed real, with a real family and real plans, there is nothing distinctive about this man, which tells me that the author really didn’t know her characters as well as she should have. The ending, too, is obviously staged for effect, not coherency. Give her a half star for bringing up same-sex domestic abuse, but take it away again because she only refers to it obliquely—she never really takes us as deeply as she might have into Lou’s abusive relationship with her ex.

All in all, there is nothing terribly wrong with the writing, or the characters, or the mystery, or the romance. The writing style and point of view are similar to that of Mary Wings. In fact, Wings also wrote a book with The Castro in the title in the same year as this one. Fans of Wings and Sarah Dreher will probably like this book. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of either. You know how you sometimes meet someone and the two of you—like me and Flaubert—just don’t click? It is the personality of the writing—and necessarily of the first-person narrator—that keep this book from getting more than 3 stars. But that is still a fairly good rating, considering.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this book.

Another note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.

Danika reviews When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri cover

There has been a ton of buzz around When Katie Met Cassidy. Whenever I see this much attention being given to a sapphic book, of course my ears prick up. Let’s face it, queer women books don’t usually get much press outside of a handful of specialized sites (like this one!) When I read an article by this author (“Telling Queer Love Stories with Happy Endings Is a Form of Resistance“), however, I started to get doubtful, even as I added this title to my TBR. Obviously I agree that we need happy queer stories, but reading an entire article about F/F relationships depicted in media without one mention of the genre of lesbian romance was… confusing. F/F relationships with a HEA (“happily ever after”) is the hallmark of the lesbian romance genre, which has been going strong for decades. There are several publishing companies putting out nothing but these titles. So it seemed odd to me to have this author–of the book that has been praised as a lesbian romance you need to read–seem unaware of the existence of this entire genre (or at least to not think it’s worth mentioning).

So I will admit that I was cautious approaching When Katie Met Cassidy. As I listened to the audiobook, my doubts were quickly justified. Despite the praise it’s gotten, this story did not agree with me. In case you aren’t aware, the premise is that Katie is a straight woman (whose fiance recently dumped her) who finds herself falling for Cassidy, a butch, womanizing lesbian. Now, I am all about books that explore sexual fluidity, or coming out later in life, or discovering new labels for yourself. But Katie starts off the story gratingly anti-queer. She cannot stop (mentally) commenting on Cassidy’s masculinity. She critiques her clothes and mannerisms. She immediately assumes that because Cassidy is masculine she must be a lesbian–and laments that being a lesbian would be so much easier. (Despite being shocked that Cassidy has made it so far in their profession while wearing pants instead of a skirt…)

Of course, this is a romance (though not a Romance? This definitely seems to be marketed as Fiction while also being all about the romance), so Katie is intrigued by Cassidy. When she bumps into her outside of the office, she is convinced to go to a lesbian bar with her. Katie assumes that the women there will be “angry” and hypermasculine. All the praise for this book says that it is a light and fluffy read, but I found Katie’s attitudes painful to read about in a queer romance novel. Later, when Katie visits Cassidy’s home and is snooping through her clothes (yep), she continues to be surprised by her owning “men’s clothing,” and is absolutely scandalized when she finds out Cassidy wears briefs. As in, she is so shocked that she thinks I can’t be here. I have to go home. This is too much.

Cassidy feels like a flat stereotype of a butch woman. I was reminded of this tumblr post:

Whenever I hear talk about “stereotypical butch lesbians” I have to remember that I’m operating from a totally different window here because like:

Butch lesbian stereotype written by a straight person: Cold, unaffected, detached, beer-swilling grump who looks out for herself and needs to learn tenderness.

Butch lesbian stereotype as written by a gay woman: Noble and chivalrous goofy nerd who eats chicken nuggets and candy bars, probably cries at Disney movies.

When Katie Met Cassidy is an own voices representation of a lesbian, but Cassidy is exactly that detached butch who needs to learn how to let people in. There is some odd backstory that seems to say that she was in love with her straight best friend as a teenager, and that’s why she’s never let any woman in since then? Of course, Katie–with her charmingly backwards attitudes, who keeps drunkenly asking why Cassidy is gay–is the exception.

I kept getting the impression that this was a lesbian romance from the 80s (other than the cell phones). It’s not that it was bad, it just felt like a lesbian romance that is completely disconnected from the history of lesbian romances and from modern times. The concept of bisexuality is never mentioned.Katie has been dating men her whole life, has never questioned her orientation, was just recently engaged to a man, and now is only debating whether she is gay or not (now that she’s fallen for Cassidy). She basically just looks back and thinks “Oh, I guess I was actually in love with my best friends this whole time and I didn’t know.” Which is fine! It’s fine to have a character date men and later realize she’s a lesbian. That happens! But it’s so weird to me that no one–not the whole bar of lesbians, not Experienced Lesbian Cassidy–mentions that there is an option other than gay or straight.

Ultimately, this is a book about two people falling in love, and between Katie’s prejudice and Cassidy’s flatness as a character, I just wasn’t invested in either of them. There isn’t much of a plot outside of the romance, and that relationship was soured for me–especially in an egregious bit of callousness by Katie late in the novel. It was a quick read (well, a quick listen), but I wouldn’t recommend it. Of course, plenty of people disagree! I know this has been a favourite for lots of people, so maybe check out some of those other reviews, too, if you’re on the fence. If you are one of the people who really enjoyed it, feel free to let me know why in the comments! Everyone has different reading experiences with the same book, so I’d love to see where we differed.

Shira’s fantasy/fairy-tale recs where the girl gets the girl, for those avoiding Amazon either right now or indefinitely

I wanted to make it easier for those of us who are trying to avoid crossing the Amazon picket line during the strike to still find the reading material we crave, where the heiress falls for her dashing female bodyguard, where a selkie gets a crush on the siren who’s helping her rescue her fellow selkie, where a lonely witch and a mermaid recover from their painful pasts by falling in love. If there’s a book you think belongs on this list and is missing, it’s very possible I had trouble finding a non-Amazon version. (Or I just haven’t read or finished it yet.)

I’m starting this post with two published but FREE stories:

“The Cage” by Alyx Dellamonica

Lesbians help keep a werewolf baby safe from anti-werewolf humans

https://www.tor.com/2010/07/28/the-cage/

Reviewhttps://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1503829802

“The Scrape of Tooth and Bone” by Ada Hoffmann

Steampunk with robots and dinosaurs, starring a queer autistic woman written by same

http://giganotosaurus.org/2016/02/01/the-scrape-of-tooth-and-bone/

Reviewhttps://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1548021086

These other ones cost money, but they’re worth it. In the case of the two titles where even the eBook costs $10, if that’s too steep for you, consider looking them up on worldcat.org and using interlibrary loan to bring them closer to you for free, or even suggesting them to your own library as a purchase choice, if that’s a possibility. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the $2 and $3 options that comprise the bulk of the list.

Moon-Bright Tides by RoAnna Sylver

In a world where the moon is gone, it’s now a witch’s job to row out to sea and call the tides. She and a lonely mermaid find each other and it’s so cute I turned into a Lisa Frank pencil case while reading it

https://gumroad.com/l/moonbrighttides

Reviewhttp://lesbrary.com/2018/02/17/shira-glassman-reviews-moon-bright-tides-by-roanna-sylver/

The Terra-Cotta Bride by Zen Cho

An all-female love triangle in the afterlife. Zen Cho is one of my favorite authors; I wish I had more f/f to rec by her.

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/619637

Review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1758073500

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Margerit inherits her godfather’s fortune on one condition: that she retain the young woman he’d hired as his bodyguard. She may also have powers literally capable of protecting the country from ruin. Early 19th century costume drama with magic and lesbians.

https://www.bellabooks.com/product/9781594933806e/

Reviewhttp://shiraglassman.tumblr.com/post/140026499025/daughter-of-mystery-19th-century-german-setting

Note: there are two sequels and they add even more awesome characters, but you can read book one as a standalone and get a complete story. It even mentions on the last page that they were always together. The future books just introduce new lady couples.

Prayer of the Handmaiden by Merry Shannon

A goddess worshipping warrior priestess loves the queen’s chambermaid, but can they be together while protecting the country from spooky threats? (Spoiler: yes. Happy ending for TWO f/f couples in this one.)

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/529644

Eelgrass by Tori Curtis

When her best friend is selkie-napped (you know, that thing where a man takes your sealskin so you’re stuck with him as a human), Efa gets other sea creatures involved to rescue her. This book is a gigantic metaphor about resisting and fighting rape culture, so it’ll take you to some dark places. But the women win and it’s beautiful.

https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/eelgrass

Reviewhttp://lesbrary.com/2017/11/18/shira-glassman-reviews-eelgrass-by-tori-curtis/

Reviewhttps://shiraglassman.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/goddess-worshippy-fantasy-novel-where-priestess-loves-chambermaid-saves-nation/

Promises, Promises by L-J Baker

A lesbian parody of Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons, with two f/f couples getting a happy ending. Lots of fourth wall breaking zaniness and characters with names like so and so “the Off-White”

https://weightlessbooks.com/fiction/novel/promises-promises/

Reviewhttps://shiraglassman.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/promises-promises-three-lesbians-on-quest-in-sword-and-sorcery-parody/

The Gift of Your Love by Kayla Bashe

A lonely young expat with magical powers is rescued by other magical people from her country and joins them in their fight against magical criminals. Includes some mental illness depictions written from the inside.

https://lessthanthreepress.com/books/index.php?main_page=product_bookx_info&cPath=92&products_id=1611

Reviewhttp://lesbrary.com/2018/05/19/shira-glassman-reviews-the-gift-of-your-love-by-kayla-bashe/

and, if you are so inclined, my own —

The Olive Conspiracy by Shira Glassman

A young lesbian queen has to save her country from an international plot to sabotage their agriculture, with the help of her found family including a dragon, a witch, a warrior woman, and the queen’s devoted, creative wife, of course. Includes two f/f couples who stay together (the other couple are farmers.)

https://gumroad.com/l/tSekI

Marthese reviews A Royal Romance by Jenny Frame

‘’Duty and service come first’’

I have a soft-spot for queer royalty romance books. I have said it before and I stand by it. When I discovered A Royal Romance by Jenny Frame, it was an immediate add to my TBR. When I saw there was an audiobook, I took the opportunity to honour one of my New Year’s resolutions. The audiobook is narrated by Lesley Parkin, and let me just say that the voice was fantastic.

Set in the future, Frame’s A Royal Romance follows Princess Georgina (soon Queen) and Beatrice Elliot, a Republican charity worker. Georgina is the first openly gay monarch and the first woman to be first in line before her brother. The royal family were (almost) all a delight; they were so supportive of Georgina – although as head of the family, they rely a lot on her. Who will she rely on?

Beatrice and George meet after Georgina becomes Queen. On her road for coronation, George wants to support one main charity – to give them patronage and exposure. She chooses Beatrice’s charity for their great work and Bea, as the regional manager, is the only person who can take her around the country on site visits. This sets some sparks flying. They clear things enough to be able to work together, but the class and cultural divide is ever-present, and it doesn’t take much for hostility and misunderstandings and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy to take over. A lot of misconceptions have to be cleared up first.

Bea is refreshing to George. They both challenge each other to think in a different way. It’s a monarchy match, especially because George has to marry and she prefers to marry for love…she just has to convince Beatrice.

Sarah and Reg Elliot, Beatrice’s parents were also a delight. It’s the kind of family most people dream of.

The ending of the story was action packed. Some tragedy and lots of celebrations.

The world building in the book was deeply researched and it shows. I learned a lot of new things about monarchy and places. There were a lot of staff positions, creating this intricate web of people surrounding the royal family, although at times I felt there were too many people involved. There were also a lot of traditions (George is old-fashioned) and protocols (much to Beatrice’s annoyance). All this added up for the story to feel realistic.

While I enjoyed the story I felt there were some things that could have been better. There was the generic discourse of ‘gay or straight’. Moreover, despite the story being set in the 2050s, it’s still ‘man or woman’. I would like authors that acknowledge other sexual and/or romantic orientations and a diversity of genders! I also had minor problems with lack of explicit consent or delayed consent.

I also felt that their relationship moved too fast. Granted, there was a timeline and it’s not like they could afford to have privacy, but Bea’s character would have at least said something.

The narrator was great. Parkin gave different voices to each character and distinguished them from the narration voice. At times, I forgot it was just one person. My only issue was with the Belgian accent but accents are very hard to replicate. George’s voice is very poised, whereas Bea’s voice is saccharine sweet.

Despite loving royalty in books (they spice things up), I’m much more of a presidential republican but the reasons given in the book for Monarchy actually made sense and I went on the journey with Beatrice.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It entertained me during many hours on the bus. The struggle for Georgie’s and Bea’s relationship was real. I would recommend to romance lovers, monarchists or British lovers. This is a perfect beach (or cozy) read.

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Susan reviews Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Reiss

Space Battle Lunchtime is a two-volume graphic novel by Natalie Reiss, about Peony, a baker who accidentally ends up being an emergency replacement for a cooking show… In space?! Cue sabotage, drama, rival shows with distinctly more cannibalism, and trying to work space ovens.

This is super charming and funny. Peony is both competent and confident in her baking skills, and I loved getting to see her do well even though she was in completely unfamiliar territory. I was so invested in her doing well, which meant that the first couple of issues where she was floundering while surrounded people who just assumed she knew what was going on were very frustrating for me. I know, I know, it’s a trope, but it’s a trope that I hate. But “winning over the cast and crew so they help you” is also a trope and I was so happy to see it here, especially because of the way that the relationships build. Peony is so nice and so confident and just wants to beat everyone fair and square, yay! The way that her relationship with Neptunia comes together works perfectly with that – there’s awkwardness and rivalry and Peony putting her foot down to make sure they can work together, but also sweetness and daring rescues and both of them being supportive of each other and each other’s feelings!

The art is really, really cute and bright and colourful, and the designs of all of the aliens are distinctive and interesting. I especially love the way the Natalie Reiss contrasts appearances and personalities (such as the cute magical girl fox, who is sure a character), and the way that it introduces background details that further the plot and the world building, I thought that was really clever and well-handled. (… I’m sure it’s fine that Cannibal Coliseum, the rival cooking show where contestants literally cook and eat each other, keeps showing up in the background. That’s probably not relevant.)

But of course, what is a cooking comic if there isn’t rampant sabotage, and the ways that the sabotage is revealed is really cool. The reactions especially are great and fun, and the way that Peony and Neptunia deal with the end of the story is great. It was cool and believable and I enjoyed it. … Although I got to the epilogue stories and was suddenly REALLY CONCERNED for the side characters! My only real complaint is that the first volume ends on a massive cliffhanger, so it is worth getting both volumes together if you’re going to get them!

I really genuinely enjoyed this. It’s cute, it’s funny, and seeing Peony rising to her challenges is great. If you like cooking shows, bright and happy graphic novels, and/or ridiculous space drama, this is absolutely your thing.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Vacation Reads by Julie Thompson

Part of the idea behind selecting summer reads is vacationing from our jobs, whatever they may be. I’ve already taken my longer vacation, tramping up and down the streets of San Francisco. Now, I squeeze in the odd long weekend here and there, scouring stacks of unread books for the one (or two…or five) that will share the quiet moments with me before bed or as I lounge on the back porch of a cabin rental, surrounded by trees and birdsong. Recently, I stole away into the mountains bordering Canada and Washington State. I managed to pack *only* three reads: Vital Lies by Ellen Hart, Wade in the Water by current United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and a back issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine.

Vital Lies, Hart’s second cozy mystery featuring amateur sleuth and restaurateur Jane Lawless, takes places as far away from sunshine and beaches as you can get. However, if you’re plastered to your couch in a tank top and short pants, a Minnesota winter might be just what you need to cool down. Jane and her best friend, the inimitable, Cordelia, spend the Christmas holiday visiting a friend with a rural inn. It is immediately apparent that someone is trying to sabotage its success, as disturbing incidents occur. On top of it all, Jane must decide whether she wants her English aunt Beryl to come live with her. I read this one out of series order, but I’m glad I chose it for a restive, secluded woodsy weekend. Hart has a great talent for placing readers within the scene, whether it’s among snow drifts, onstage, or at a college sorority house.

All I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon coverAll I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon, the fourth book in her “All I Want” series finds London-based Tori and Holly heading to Brighton Pride to help promote their friends’ lesbian dating app. I downloaded the novella on the 4th of July, eager for a distraction from the incessant booming and crackling of neighborhood fireworks. The women, who are challenging themselves to break out of their comfort zones, end up in involved in a series of misadventures. Holly, however, is a reluctant camper and Pride attendee (for painful reasons that end up playing a role in her holiday trip). Through it all, Tori possesses a sense of determined optimism that no amount of shenanigans can derail. A surprise ending might entice me to pick up the next book in the series, All I Want for Autumn. While I haven’t read the rest of the series, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novella as a stand-alone. Lydon, who also hosts a fantastic interview podcast called The Lesbian Book Club, sets up character chemistry and offers a peek at Pride at the English seaside that’s a mix of humor and drama. Once Upon a Caravan is another light, quick read from Lydon that also involves trying new things over a holiday.