Mary Springer reviews Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

This review contains spoilers.

Given that this was written in 1872 by a presumably heterosexual cisgender man, I was not expecting a happy ending. This is the story of a lesbian vampire preying on an innocent young woman and being killed by said young woman’s father and her father’s friends (yes, all men). This isn’t a particularly feel-good type of lesbian literature, and it’s not even particularly well written.

So, why did I read it? Well, I enjoyed the YouTube web series modern adaption of Carmilla, which does have a happy ending for the lovers and doesn’t bury the gay. So, I wanted to see where it came from and it was interesting to see how they adapted the characters. Instead of an old castle, she lives in a dorm room. The main character, Laura, had a nurse and tutor who in the YouTube series were adapted into the RA’s for her dorm.

I also wanted to be more aware and knowledgeable of literature that includes women who are attracted to other women, in relationships with women. Not only did this count towards that, but it is a somewhat well-known part of lesbian novel history (no matter how terrible it is for representation).

Those were the reasons I went into it and I wasn’t planning on getting too involved, as I was also expecting to be bored by the old writing style. However, I quickly found myself engaged and interested in the plot and the characters. I actually did enjoy the story and was hoping (despite already knowing the ending) it would turn out at least semi-okay for the characters in the end.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and would recommend it if you want to see where the Carmilla webseries comes from, or just to read an early lesbian vampire novel. However, you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t find it here.

Danika reviews Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino cover“A new magic has entered the realm of the Sidh–and its name is rock n’ roll!”
Gossamer Axe front cover blurb

I will admit that I picked this up primarily because of the cover. A woman in high fantasy/ancient Celt robes, hair billowing behind her, playing an electric guitar? Add in the cover blurb (and the promise of queer content), and I was on board. Because I bought it mostly for cover appeal–I collect lesbian pulp, so I clearly have a weakness for ridiculous covers–I didn’t rush to start reading it. Instead, I waited for a time when I felt like reading something fun and a little bit silly. Unbeknownst to me, Gossamer Axe takes its rock n’ roll Celtic fantasy premise very seriously.

Christa is a woman who grew up in ancient Ireland. She was an expert harpist, but when she attempted to learn from the Sidh–a fairy-like magical race–she and her lover got kidnapped into their unchanging realm as punishment for her hubris. Christa escaped, but she wasn’t powerful enough to bring her lover with her. Now, she bides her time in modern (80s) America, trying to improve her musical/magical prowess enough to rescue her. She finds possibility in an unlikely place, trading her harp for an electric guitar, and forming a girl band to collectively stage a final battle.

While  still think the premise sounds kitschy–Ancient Celt harpist rescues her girlfriend from a timeless dimension using the power of rock and roll!–the book is not light or silly. It deals with heavy subject matter. A lot of it. Child rape/incest, someone dying of AIDS, homophobia, racism (including slurs), misogyny, abuse–to name a few.

But it’s also about chosen family, healing, and rebirth. Christa is bi, and where/when she grew up, two women falling in love was a little unusual, but unremarkable. Only the Christians disapprove of their relationship. Although she is living in 80s America now, she carries with her the confidence and power she learned in her youth. While all the women in the novel deal with misogyny, Christa acts as a source of strength for them. A note, though: the girl band mentioned on the back cover of the novel doesn’t get together until more than 100 pages into the book. It is a bit of a slow build. They do form of the heart of the book, though. They are very different people, but they become a kind of family.

I especially appreciated the friendship between Christa and Monica, which does not begin from a very promising place. There’s a sort of unquestioning sisterhood formed here that I love, and that seems rooted in its 80s feminist context. Christa shares her beliefs with her friends, and even if they aren’t converts, they draw strength from it. Christa believes that all women are priestesses, and she uses her rituals to remind them of their own capabilities.

Despite the dark subjects covered, at its core, Gossamer Axe is about persistence and healing. Although the characters go through incredibly difficult things, they are able to survive it, and to re-emerge as new people. This was not the book I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. If you can handle the subject matter (and are okay with this being very 80s), I recommend it. I will be checking out more from this author (silly cover or no).

Mars Reviews Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Content warning for child abuse, alcoholism, incest, domestic violence, dissociation. 

This review does contain spoilers.

Tanya Marquardt was sixteen years old when she ran away from the home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and assorted siblings in the small Canadian town of Port Alberni. Her flight was strategic, timed right for when Tanya became of age and would no longer be legally bound to her parents’ whims. Her departure began an alcohol-fueled odyssey to manage high school, homelessness, and attempts to process the trauma of a childhood riddled with emotionally manipulative parents and domestic abuse. As young Tanya spirals out, crashing on couches and beds by cashing in on the sympathy of friends, the one constant in her life is a deep love of Shakespeare, and it is that thread that leads her out of the fray and on to calmer waters in her life.

This book is chiefly the honest account of the author’s life detailing a young girl’s family dysfunction and subsequent spiraling out. By fifteen, Tanya was already an alcoholic, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a scene in which she is not chain-smoking. Her unresolved trauma and rebellion against the authoritarian antagonist figure in her life, her mother, eventually leads her to just outside Vancouver, where she says she is living with her formerly abusive alcoholic father but is actually with friends exploring the big city and its underground goth and kink scenes. In these places, she finally finds a home and a tribe to call her own, and through the act of performing and belonging, she finally finds a way back to herself.

I admit that I had a hard time reading this memoir in a number of ways. As an adult, it was hard reading about the struggles young Tanya faced and the many moments where the adults in her life let her down. It was additionally challenging because as a reader, it was hard to know how to feel about the adult figures in Tanya’s life. With young Tanya, in one breath readers experience the psychological warfare her parents commit using her and her siblings as pawns for their own selfish campaigns, and in the other, adult author Tanya chimes in with a throwaway comment about how she loves her family. The result is just one out of a few cases of whiplash, as this story reads more like a history (which, to be fair, this is a memoir) rather than a clearly delineated narrative. It makes for a confusing and sometimes meandering read.

Of particular note for our readers is that while the author self-identifies as a queer performer and playwright today, aside from a passing interest in a female friend at a high school party and mentions of bisexual friends engaging in a few same-sex relationships, all romantic interests and sexual identities explored in this book are presented as heterosexual and cisgender.

Quinn Jean reviews Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

[warning: this review references sexual harassment, bullying and victim blaming as depicted in the novel]

If you’ve ever wanted to read an intersectional feminist lesbian love story about teenage girls pulling off a political art hoax, then this is the book for you. In all seriousness, this is a brilliantly written novel about two very flawed, very likeable young women who don’t yet know all that much about themselves or each other until they cross paths at a pivotal time and end up starting a social movement in their repressed private girls’ school. Will is an artsy, middle-class, highly-politicised loner who despises being at Rosemead Grammar, while Harriet is a rich, high-achieving, athletic do-gooder who is disappointed that the school she adores so much is letting certain issues slip through the cracks. Somehow they find each other in the mess that is high school, realise they’re the perfect team and create an alter ego (Amelia Westlake) through which they can express their critique of various toxic cultures at Rosemead.

Despite their compatibility as artists and social commentators, Will and Harriet butt heads on basically everything and can’t seem to figure out why they’re so obsessed with each other. Certain friends and family act throughout as foils to Harriet and Will’s self-deceptions about each other and their own self-images and the book doesn’t hesitate to point out hypocrisies, privileges and moral corruption inherent in every area of both girls’ lives, including in well-meaning projects like Amelia Westlake. Both lead characters begin to talk frequently to themselves and others about ideas around ethics and politics, and Harriet and Will’s bond feels genuinely deepened and complicated by getting to know each other and themselves on this journey. It is relieving that neither Harriet nor Will are under any illusions about their sexuality, though, and both have been comfortably out since well before the novel’s events take place. This saves extra room in the book that might have been spent on a coming out narrative to instead be devoted to humorous arguments and unambiguous sexual tension. Additionally Will’s inner monologues as she begins to realise her feelings for Harriet are solid gold and relatable for any stubborn young woman who surprised herself by realising she’s falling in love.

Amelia Westlake largely deals quite well with sensitive issues like bullying, racism, classism, homophobia, and white privilege, and for the most part does the same with sexual harassment. However, there is a series of scenes where one character encourages another to come forward with a complaint as a way to help others. In these interactions it is implied by the other person that the victim being spoken to has a responsibility and shares culpability if another person is harassed because she has not spoken up. This verges dangerously on victim blaming. It is not clear if the author believes this is the appropriate attitude to take when advising victims. Regardless it is a concerning depiction and one to be aware of when choosing whether to read this book. Additionally though there are prominent non-white characters in the book, the cast is still almost entirely white, cisgender and abled while the text is mostly about privilege, power and politics. These are not necessarily incompatible elements but it would have been good to see more representation of marginalised peoples in a book so deeply concerned with empowerment and justice.

Rebecca reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Tamsen Parker’s If I Loved You Less is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. While I love the well-written setting, the plot and characters are underwhelming and the unconvincing romance is so slow burn that it’s practically non-existent.

Theo lives in the beautiful paradise of Hanalei Bay with her overprotective father. She spends her days running her family’s surf shop, surfing, and spending time with baker Kini who runs Queen’s Sweet Shop. Theo’s life is wonderful and she’s not interested in marrying or settling down. But, she loves playing matchmaker for others. When a new friend arrives, Theo is determined to find her a perfect match. As Theo’s scheming spirals out of control, she realizes that she’s in love with Kini and may lose her to someone else.

The setting is so vivid and beautifully written. I also love the inclusion of Kini’s bakery and the delicious Hawaiian food that is mentioned throughout. I didn’t mind having to constantly Google the names of dishes and terms because I appreciate the exposure being given to indigenous Hawaiian life. I also really appreciate the diversity. Although Theo is white, Kini is native Hawaiian and Theo’s friend Laurel is of East Asian descent.

Theo is selfish and pushy. However, I didn’t hate her because she is lively and well-meaning at times. I’m disappointed that she doesn’t grow. Although there is a turnabout at the very end, it feels unnatural because she never really attempts to change. Although I do like kind Kini, I wish she was more developed. She just seems to be there to bake and give advice to Theo. Additionally, the other characters lack personality and are completely forgettable.

The book really fails to live up to its summary. It mostly focuses on heterosexual relationships and any actual romance between Kini and Theo only happens within the last few pages. But, it is a faithful retelling of Emma. However, certain outdated plot points do not translate well. This novel also doesn’t improve on aspects of the original story that didn’t work. The plot is slow and uninteresting. There are several twists that are insufficiently resolved while the underdeveloped characters often act implausibly. Theo’s friendship with her childhood friend Austin is unrealistic. Although she hasn’t seen him in decades, she is obsessed with the old-fashioned belief that they will be best friends and get together because their fathers liked the idea of them as a couple.

The romance between Kini and Theo is unconvincing. The familial nature of their relationship is constantly reiterated as Kini often acts like a mother or an older sister to Theo. Although the age gap isn’t an issue, their supposed interest in each other is puzzling because Theo is immature while Kini is wise and reserved. They have no chemistry together. Furthermore, Theo only realizes that she is in love with Kini near the bitter end of the book. Parker rushes towards a happy ending without sufficiently building a tangible romantic connection.

Moreover, while I understand that sexuality is fluid and labels can be restrictive, readers may find certain aspects of this book problematic. The way that the book handles Theo’s sexuality and her obsession with Austin as a potential future husband can be reflective of the stereotypical belief that lesbians simply haven’t found the right man yet.

I was really disappointed with If I Loved You Less. While I love the beautiful Hawaiian setting, the plot dragged and the unconvincing romance is almost blink and you’ll miss it. The book had a lot of potential but it just misses the mark.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Link Round Up: October 9 – 27

Lesbrary Links cover collage

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!

Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across by Mary Lambert cover   QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology edited by Raymond Luczak cover   Queers Were Here by Robin Ganev and RJ Gilmour cover   Far From You by Tess Sharpe   Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cover

Autostraddle posted

GLBT Reviews posted Around the Samovar: Tracking LGBT Russian Histories.

LGBTQ Reads posted Happy National Coming Out Day!

The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire Part One cover   Lava Falls by Lucy Jane Bledsoe cover      Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald cover   Love at Last Call by M Ullrich cover

Women and Words updated their Hot Off the Press and Upcoming page.

Ylva Publishing posted When Fanfiction Writers Go Pro – Lesbian Novels Inspired by Fanfiction.

“PREVIEW: THE LEGEND OF KORRA: RUINS OF THE EMPIRE Continues the Saga” was posted at The Beat.

Lava Falls by Lucy Jane Bledsoe was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Love at Last Call by M. Ullrich was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

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, FromTheDustyBookshelf, Kayla Fuentes, Muirgen258,  Mark, Sarah Neilson, Martha Hansen, Daniela Gonzalez De Anda, Amy Hanson, Bee Oder, Ellen Zemlin, Hana Chappell, and Casey Stepaniuk.

Support the Lesbrary on Patreon at $2 or more a month and be entered to win a queer women book every month!

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

“Everyone was in a state of confusion because the president was insane.”

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry is longtime lesbian author Sarah Schulman’s second dive into the crime fiction genre (her first was The Sophie Horowitz Story). The novel explores the life of an addict, post-rehab, set against the backdrop of the Trump administration and a gentrifying New York City. While the book offers readers an interesting and heartbreaking look into the mind and soul of someone struggling with addiction, the premise of the mystery is weak, the effort to incorporate contemporary issues falls short, and the craftsmanship isn’t strong enough to hook the reader, making it a difficult and less engaging read than I had hoped for.

Schulman begins with several paragraphs about the U.S. under the new Trump administration. This sets the reader up with the assumption that national politics will play a major role in the book, which they don’t. Schulman tells us that “…(Maggie’s) private deterioration mirrored that of her society.” I found this and other passages like it general and vague, with little connection that enlightened the reader about either the protagonist or the national crisis.

After the text about Trump, we soon learn that Maggie is just one day out of rehab, stunned and confused about who she is and how to relate to the world. We discover she has split up with her girlfriend, Frances, and in the process of her deterioration lost the right to see her daughter, Alina; Maggie’s primary motivation is to get her daughter back (“at least visitation”).

Maggie’s former criminology teacher, Mike Fitzgerald, gives her a job at a law firm as a private investigator.  We soon learn that something went deeply wrong in her career as a police officer before she got sober: “It could not have gone worse in the end…It did destroy her life…Now Mike was giving her a second, second chance, this time at surviving.” Later on we learn what had happened and how Maggie’s using contributed to her part in the tragedy.

On Maggie’s first day on the job, a new client, the famous actress Lucy Horne, comes in asking the firm to investigate the murder of bit part actress Jaime Wagner, whom Horne thinks was killed by Wagner’s ex, a stalker. Why is Horne so interested in Mike’s firm and making this problem go away? Because she has a contract with Disney and needs to steer clear of anything remotely shady.

If you can accept this strange premise and focus on Maggie’s journey, you’ll learn a lot about addiction and the mind and heart of an addict. Maggie’s character is a big strength of the book.

At Schulman’s best, she finds gritty details from Maggie’s life in New York that say a lot. About the city’s subway: “She could walk down those scum-and-gum-encrusted stairs…hang onto slimy poles, smash into clueless tourists…sit face front into some man’s crotch.”  “…men handling their own genitals like they were tough tomatoes in fragile skins.” “The smell of her daughter’s waxy ear as she gently cleaned it with a Q-tip.”

Schulman also captures the inner dialogue of a recovering addict well: slogans and values of 12-step programs, defensiveness, blame, and self-centeredness. For example, When Mike introduces Maggie to her new co-workers, he says proudly that “Enid raised four children before acing law school.” Maggie immediately compares this to her own situation: “Maggie felt the truth of her own failure. She’d lost one to custody.”

Another way Schulman shows the effects of Maggie’s addiction is how she organizes the world into good and bad people and how she is victimized: “Everyone else walked down the street thinking of themselves as pure and clean. They had it together because they were better, and the job of people who are better is to point out the ones who are worse and punish them. All of society seemed to be organized like that. Whoever could, would punish. It was linked to opportunity. Like the judge who took away her child, who ruled no visitation. He was fine with treating her so badly, then when he went home, no matter how much pain he had caused, he was better than someone. He was better than her.”

But Schulman also made Maggie complex. For example, she’s skillful in reading group dynamics. At her new job, Enid is “…the group’s emotional moderator…”, “One of those tough old ladies who never said ‘good job’ until she meant it, and Mike desperately needed a bullshit detector.”

Maggie also has a great sense of humor: “’Hi, it’s Maggie Terry. I’m here for my first day.’ Overshare.” “Mike may have been Teflon, but his beleaguered staff was certainly scratched.” When she’s being introduced to Craig, her co-investigator: “Craig looked up and smiled…once the smile was completed, Craig went back to his device, so when Maggie reached out her hand and said hi, he missed it and left her arm suspended in optimistic traction.”

Schulman structures the story of the mystery around the issue of police violence and racism, with the details of the mystery falling flat. White, blonde-haired Maggie was complicit in a police shooting, and she’s clearly in the role of someone with privilege. Although at the very end of the book she makes a shift toward responsibility, there’s no obvious arc to Maggie’s change. Because I’m not attached to Maggie nor is the setup for the assignment compelling, I wasn’t drawn in to the investigation, either as an illumination of social issues or as simply an engaging mystery.

Also, the language in the novel frequently tells when showing would be more powerful. As a reader, I never felt the thrill of being smack dab in the middle of the action and emotion, on the ground and with the characters. Examples:

“There was a weird vulnerability that came from being afraid of everyone, having contempt for them, and trying to help them while also controlling them and wanting their love.”

“Like most of the places that hosted meetings, Saint Veronica’s was old-fashioned, uncool, and a bit decrepit.”

“Lucy had good skin, an expensive body, and healthy hair.”

“When Maggie’s mother killed herself, the housekeeper made her put on her prettiest dress for the funeral, and everyone told her how beautiful she looked. What a stupid thing to say to a little girl whose mother had left her behind.” What could have been a moment to hook the reader into a very traumatic piece of Maggie’s past is lost because it’s told too directly.

Throughout the book, until the very end, Maggie also stays stuck in her blaming position towards her ex. Since we don’t actually meet Frances, or Alina, this soon becomes repetitive and stagnant for the reader. Instead of empathy, I often felt frustrated and wanting some kind of change and improvement in Maggie’s situation.

If you’re looking for an action-packed exciting crime novel, Maggie Terry is likely to leave you unsatisfied. If you enjoy well-crafted books of literary fiction with interesting relationships, in which characters move, change, and affect one another, I would skip this one. But if you’re curious to learn more about the experience of addiction and what it’s like for a smart but troubled lesbian to return to a harsh and chaotic world after rehab, check out Maggie Terry.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

 

Megan G reviews Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore

Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore cover

In a Los Angeles train station, a body is found in the trunk of Mrs. Pearl Tild. A body so disfigured, the police cannot even identify its gender. Months earlier, Pearl Tild and her husband Martin are living what seems like wedded bliss. Then, at a dinner party, the mysterious Clare Walsh introduces herself to Pearl as a friend of Martin’s from work. Little does Pearl know that this introduction will irreversibly change the course of not only her marriage, but her entire life.

I’ve struggled with my review for this book almost as much as I struggled with the book itself. The biggest issue I have is the desire to warn about very triggering subject matter within the story, while also not wanting to completely spoil the book for anyone who may want to read it. As a compromise with myself, I have included all the trigger warnings for this book at the end of the review and have done my best to keep the rest of the review spoiler free.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I’d read positive reviews for it before beginning to read it, and I’m always a sucker for a good murder mystery, especially one that manages to surprise me with some of its twists. This one definitely managed to surprise me, but unfortunately it wasn’t really in a good way.

I found the grammar of the book to be a bit frustrating at times. To be fair to the author, the style invited the use of run-on sentences, but sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was doing it because of the style, or because it was a legitimate mistake. As well, the style itself led to some confusion in terms of where the characters where, and what was happening at any given time. At one point I could have sworn two characters were talking on the phone, and then suddenly they were embracing each other, which was quite jarring. There were several moments that had been thinking, “Wait, what just happened?” and not in a good murder mystery way – more in the “I legitimately feel lost right now” kind of way.

The characters were another thing I found frustration in. This story is largely character driven, with not a lot happening in terms of plot until the very end. I usually adore character driven stories, but that is very dependent on the characters themselves. Here, I didn’t particularly enjoy any of the protagonists of the story (even if, I will admit, I often felt sympathy for the two female protagonists). They all did things I found questionable, all of them used each other in one way or another (some a lot worse than others), and only one character seemed to experience any significant growth throughout the novel. I couldn’t even find it in myself to root for the f/f couple, because both characters acted toward each other in ways that are simply not healthy. Granted, they were the healthiest of all the couples featured in the novel, but I think that says more about how toxic and dysfunctional the other relationships are.

The main thing I enjoyed about the book was the last 50 pages, which I zoomed through and really liked. Unfortunately, I had to slug through about 250 pages of intense internal dialogues and frustrating switches in points of view (for some reason some of Pearl’s sections are told in first person, while the rest of the sections, including some of Pearl’s, are all in third person) to reach those last fifty pages. Even what I liked feels bitter-sweet. And, to top it all off, those wonderful fifty pages ended in a way I never would have expected, and not in a good way. You can look at the trigger warnings below if you’re curious about what happened that turned me off at the end.

I’m sure that there are people who will thoroughly enjoy this book. I’ve read reviews from several of those people. In a way, I almost envy them, because I really, really wanted to like this book. I will say that if you enjoy character driven plots, very morally grey (and some downright evil) characters, and are okay with the triggers listed below, give this book a shot. It might be for you in a way that it wasn’t for me.

Warnings for this book: (MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE WARNINGS) abusive relationships, constant threat of rape, dubious consent, lesbophobia (related to the threat of rape), homophobia, internalized homophobia, mentions of a sexual relationship between an adult woman (over 30) and a 16-year-old girl (justified by the adult woman who shows no remorse in that aspect of the affair), and a dead lesbian (killed in an incredibly cruel and brutal way – off-screen).

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Woman Who Tried To Be Normal by Anna Ferrara

The Woman Who Tried To Be Normal by Anna Ferrara cover

I read a very great deal, but I’m kind of like a butterfly; while there are some things which will always draw my attention the most, I flit around quite a bit otherwise.  When The Woman Who Tried to Be Normal landed in my inbox, I was intrigued to see that its protagonist was a synesthetic woman.  I freely admit that I opened it strictly on that basis alone.

Synesthesia is basically a cross-allocation of the senses. While there are a lot of different expressions of the phenomenon, and I’ve never met two people whose responses are the same, it works more or less like this: a syesthete might see the bright blue color of a bus driving down the street and because of experiencing that color they also hear a sound, or even music.  They might taste a flavor and see shapes in the air, or feel sensations traced on their skin. One of the most commonly-recognized forms causes the person to perceive colors when they see letters or numbers;  if you’ve heard just a little about synesthesia, that’s probably the form you know. I’m drawn to stories about synesthetes because I’m one myself, and it’s always interesting to see the difference between how non-synesthetes and synesthetes write about the experience.
That said, this was an odd novel, and I’m still chewing on it.
The premise is that it’s 1975, and Helen Mendel, Stepford-wife wannabe, is doing her damnedest to come off as normal.  Every action she takes is calculated, down to the tiniest tics of her facial expression.  She feels no emotion beyond irritation shading to anger, and she doesn’t fit in with the “normal” wives in the suburban neighborhood her husband has just moved her to. But she has a goal: blend in and find out what her husband is keeping from her.  Her next-door neighbors are the family of his best work buddy, and the story is in particular concerned with Ethel, a Valium-addicted alcoholic who hates life and whom Helen blackmails and seduces in short order.  Their husbands are airplane engineers–supposedly–and both of them are stereotypical in their demands for sex, dinner on the table when they walk in the door, and unquestioning wives with smiles on their faces.  The skin of “normal” life is very thin over horrors everyday and extreme.
There are no sympathetic characters in this novel, with the possible exception of Gigi, Ethel’s nanny.  The men are all brutes, Helen is an emotionless, manipulative automaton, and Ethel pinwheels between sexually demanding and vicious with no seeming reason. Ethel’s baby appears in the story mainly to cry and irritate the adults in the room, Gigi’s husband only exists so that she has someone she needs to be saved from. The whole comes off largely like a forcefully-arranged stage play where one character freezes when the spotlight is on another, or like a box full of windup dolls. There’s an implacability to the way that they go through the motions, not one of them seeming to enjoy anything for more than a moment, all the smiles coming off as soon as the attention passes to someone else.
It is definitely horrific in ways great and small, from Helen’s repeated quiet attempts to make scrambled eggs to her husband’s specifications to sudden ultra-violence. There is a sense throughout the entire work that she is alien, is other in a way that makes her inhuman. But it isn’t until the climax that it’s revealed why–and the more seemingly mundane part of that revelation distressed me a little.  You see, besides the poorly-camouflaged synesthesia, Helen is autistic.  This, explains the narrative, is the reason behind her emotionless manipulations, her dispassion and total lack of attachment to almost anyone or anything. I am not autistic, and so far as I know I have only one relative on the spectrum, but I’ve had more than enough autistic friends to know that this isn’t right.
The synesthesia is also portrayed inelegantly. My own form of it is not one that gets written about a lot. It’s mild, and not usually visual (though once, when an industrial fire alarm went off directly above my head, my vision filled with glorious expanding silver geometry).  Usually it’s that I smell and taste things which aren’t there for other people to perceive. Everyone I am close to has a scent, and their voices have a color–but I don’t *see* the color so much as know it is part of the person I’m talking to. The sound of an ice skate cutting fresh ice tastes like cherry hard candy, for instance, and my partner smells like snow clouds, and my old friend Gin’s voice has almost precisely the color of light through a good whiskey.  But the thing about all of these impressions, all these bits of knowledge, is that they’re not interruptive.  This is not a disability, and it doesn’t impact daily life negatively. And I’m not just speaking about my experiences, here. Many people don’t even realize that they have synesthesia until they’re adults. I was in my twenties before I found out that walking under the stars doesn’t taste like spearmint to everybody. When it’s how it has always been, there is no need to talk about it, and so there’s no way to know that anything is unusual. But Helen’s synesthesia, descriptions of which constantly interrupt the storytelling, are definitely what I would class as a disability. It blinds her, it fills her ears with raucous trumpets and gunshots and her mouth with foul flavors. Bluntly, it’s not the synesthesia I, any of my siblings, or any other synesthete I have ever met experiences. It seems likely to me that Ferrara did some research about synesthesia, but probably didn’t consult anyone who actually lives with it.
This work had some of the benchmarks of a self-published piece without a paid editor. There are a handful of grammatical errors which probably would not have survived a professional second pair of eyes, as well as a tendency to repeat the same verb or phrase too closely, sometimes twice in two sentences. The pacing is strange, from slow-motion sameness to a host of quickshot dramatic events in the last quarter of the piece.  But it must also be said that a lot of self-published works are in genres or portray characters which would not find mainstream publication, so I tend to consider these errors and issues to be basically the entry fee to getting to read imaginative fiction.  So while I wouldn’t use those problems as an excuse to write off the book on its own, one should go into reading it expecting them.  And honestly, it was thinking about that that ultimately led me to a better understanding of the book.  I went to the author’s homepage, where there’s a brief description of the characters’ appearances as she imagines them.  Discussing the husbands, she says “You can think James Stewart or Gary Cooper or whichever traditional American man you can envision, though I know you probably won’t even bother…” and I realized all at once that this book is more or less stripped down to just the parts she wanted to write, anything she considers superfluous consigned to the wayside. It doesn’t matter what the men look like, they’re only here to drive the angst  and get in the way of the porn. It doesn’t matter where that container of acid came from, or where the clean room with genetic experimentation tools might be, it doesn’t matter what their husbands are actually up to.  Like a nightmare, only the high points are important. To that end, if you’re looking for a beach read  that doesn’t have the hero riding in to save the day of the heaving-bosomed heroine, or maybe a book where the day isn’t saved at all, this might be for you.
WHAT I LIKED: The relentless pressure and horror of the situation was, to me, pretty believable for the era. It was nice to see any representation of synesthesia at all, even if so unrealistic.  There were some really fun ideas now and again. It’s not common to see an author really commit to such an unlikable main character, so I had to tip my hat to her for that.
WHAT I DISLIKED: The thing which knocked me out of immersion in the narrative worst was that there were many instances of what John Scalzi refers to as Flying Snowmen.  For me these were events and actions which were scientifically impossible in a way I found very distracting. I don’t mean the genius, the telekinesis, the super senses.  I don’t even mean the obviously magical element of her being able to fly for no stated reason but that she “figured it out.” I’m talking impossible like the way it is repeatedly noted she can move “at the speed of light,” the real-world physical consequences of which would be catastrophic to her body and, well, the planet. She’s capable of things which if possible at all would require a great deal of time in a clean lab, but no such place or expenditure of time is ever hinted at. A single container of fluoroantimonic acid “three times the size of a bullet” is sufficient to dissolve an entire human corpse in moments, and so on. This strained my willing credulity a bit too far.
CONTENT WARNINGS: Infant death. Repeated instances of violence against women, brief mentions of horrific childhood and institutional abuse, possible rape, murder, desecration of a corpse, gore and temporary dismemberment, drug abuse, fat-shaming from the POV character. Sexually explicit.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: The mundane setting, 100% unreliable narrator and sort of creeping, inexorable dissolution of normality into something much darker reminded me a little bit of Violet LeVoit’s spectacular and very-recommended horror “I Miss the World,” available in electronic format from Kingshot Press and Amazon.
 FINAL SCORE: 3/5 .

Alexa reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Theo Sullivan lives on an island like paradise with her slightly overprotective father, content with how things are. The community in Hanalei is tight-knit: everyone knows everyone, outsiders rarely stay for long, and nothing can really remain a secret. Personally, the island setting and its descriptions were my favourite part of the novel, as well as the descriptions of food and sweets. I could really feel the freedom and the sense of paradise, the lazy, slow way of life, that might seem boring to some, but it’s perfectly enough for Theo. And yet, this book really wasn’t what I expected based on the blurb.

First, let me talk about our protagonist, Theo. I loved that she defined herself as queer because her identity is complicated – she mostly likes women, but she’s not against maybe being with men, and she keeps a metaphorical little gate open for one man in particular, which is eventually explored in the book.

Despite this, I found Theo an incredibly unlikeable character at first. Her personality seemed to consist of butting into everyone else’s business, and trying to influence their lives in a very invasive way. Now, an unlikeable protagonist in itself is not a problem, but in a romance, it makes it pretty difficult to root for her. Since the blurb mentioned that Theo’s meddling will eventually get her in trouble, I was waiting for the inevitable character development. I also liked that her behaviour was continuously called out, mostly by Kini but also sometimes by other characters. Although after a certain event Theo realises she messed up and genuinely tries to make up for it, I still caught her saying or doing things that made me cringe even towards the end. There was definitely some character development, but sometimes it felt like as soon as she took a step forward, she took at least a half back.

Still, what really surprised and even frustrated me wasn’t Theo’s character. It’s the fact that the whole “Theo realises she’s in love with someone just as that someone is about to get together with someone else” only happens towards the very end of the book, and it felt like it was solved really quickly. More than that, the last section of the book feels like a series of plot twists and revelations thrown together without time to really resolve any of them. When I finished the book, there were several plots with side characters that either came out of nowhere, or weren’t resolved properly, and just left me with many questions.

In the end, I enjoyed this book (or at least most of it, before the rushed ending) but not for the reasons I expected. I loved the interactions between the side characters, Theo’s friendships, her character development even if I felt it was lacking, the plot twists that surprised me (the one that made sense, at least), and the island scenery. But this wasn’t the book I expected based on the blurb, and what I expected to be the central conflict was pretty much one confession resolved in one chapter, so I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated.

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.