Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

First things first, to get it out of the way: a delight in certain sorts of campy horror is in me at the bone-marrow level. My mother went into labor with me early, and I came squalling into the world a bit after eight PM on a Friday Halloween, under a full moon. This led to me being raised to be as passionate about the holiday as you might expect, costumes and sweet tooth included. I stand way, way too close to this subject material to be really impartial in any strong sense, and that is going to strongly color this review.

The movie Hocus Pocus was released in 1993, and starred Bette Midler, a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as the Sanderson sisters, cannibalistic, child-stealing witches hanged in the 1600s and accidentally brought back from the dead by the protagonist, Max, a kinda-mansplainy teenager. There’s pretty blonde love interest Allison, sweet but precocious younger sister Dani, and poetically-handsome youth who’s stuck for 300 years in the body of an immortal black cat, Thackery Binx (which is just so much fun to say out loud. Try it).  All the kids have to do is last out through the night, and the Sanderson sisters will return to the grave, but that’s still a lot to ask of a trio of kids when none of the adults in their lives will listen to them. Standard 1990’s movie fare, basically, and though it made a fair amount of money, it didn’t do well in the reviews.  However, its later life on television made it into a cult classic, and I’m pretty sure it’s still running on the Disney Channel every Halloween. I know that I watched my VHS copy of it so many times that it’s got a couple of permanent audio track wiggles here and there.

But while I loved the movie as a young Halloween fanatic, there are two things I identify as that weren’t at all represented in it: 1) a person of color, and 2) queer as the day is long, twice as queer on Sundays.  I have to admit that I probably sympathized more with the counter-culture witches, evil though they were, than with the milkskinned blonde girls or early colonists depicted as the protagonists.  This is all to say that when I heard that the sequel had a black lesbian in it, I made an actual, audible noise, to my cats’ consternation.

The book turned out to be two stories in one cover. First, there’s a novelization of the original movie, and while I admit I didn’t linger here, out of a hurry to get to the good stuff, I was surprised and pleased at several points.  There are things in the original that would put a frown on my face today (casual sexism being the strongest contender), and while the novelization is entirely true to the source material, it also gives us something we couldn’t have in the original: a view into the protagonist’s head, where he editorializes and makes judgments that go a long way toward smoothing out all those rough parts.  At the same time, it still maintains a very 90’s flavor, even in the incidentals, like young Dani swearing to herself that if she makes it out of this alive, she’ll never make her brother watch DuckTales with her again. So if you have the leisure, even if you too have seen the movie a hundred times over, I do recommend giving it a read.  That said, if you’ve seen the movie even once, you can skip to the sequel without missing anything important.

The sequel is unnamed, probably because if they manage to make it into a movie it would just be Hocus Pocus 2 anyway, and it starts on Halloween morning after a 25-year timeskip.  The protagonist is high school sophomore Poppy, Max and Allison’s daughter, who is feeling stifled by what she thinks of as her parents’ paranoia about the holiday. Despite growing up hearing her parents and aunt tell the story of that by now long-ago Halloween, she doesn’t believe it in any visceral fashion. Along with her best friend Travis, and Poppy’s straight-A, totally cool crush Isabella, Poppy more-or-less accidentally treads in her father’s footsteps, and brings the Sanderson Sisters back again, with a twist.  Instead of merely having to make it through the night, they have to defeat the sisters before dawn, or else spend the rest of their lives in a world given over to evil witches.

I genuinely don’t want to spoil you, here.  Usually I’d talk about trigger warnings, about violence or assault or things that threw me out of the narrative, but let’s be honest, this is a Disney novel. The things Disney does that are worth trigger warnings, it usually does by accident, and I’d spill a thousand words of digital ink on those alone.  This novel is deliciously free of such complications.

That said, it was deeper at points than I expected.  If the overarching theme of the original is that scoffing and refusing to listen to others’ concerns will land you in hot water, the second half’s theme is a lot more complex. There are a lot of callbacks to things done in the first half which still have repercussions 25 years later, and a strong understanding that this is the same world. For instance, Max left a bully in the hands of the witches on that Halloween night, and now that ex-bully is the Principal of the school where Max teaches and father of the biggest social irritation in Poppy’s life. If this book is about anything in particular but giving the reader a good time, it’s about overcoming the willful mistakes made by those who came before us, and learning to do better than they.  “You, all of you, despise me for things you believe me to have done—and yet I knew the greatest mark upon my soul was doing nothing at all,” says a character punished for another’s crimes, and that grief reverberates through the centuries until Poppy and Isabella have to learn from it.

How do we make up for what our predecessors did, without at the same time being weighed down with guilt for their crimes? How, in short, do we do better?  The book seems to suggest that the answer is twofold.  First, be willing to recognize those acts in the first place and refuse to repeat them. Accepting that something horrible did happen doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the idea that it will do so again through you.  And second is to eventually be able to allow the next generation to take over.  “What’s the value of youth?” a character chides Winnie Sanderson.  “You were meant for greater things than being young.” Pit that against the ones who want to hold power with their teeth and fingernails if necessary (“Who needs a line of succession when you’re immortal?”) and you’ve got a conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in a greater literary work.

All in all, I gobbled this book like a bag of single-serving Snickers, and I enjoyed every chomp.

Things I liked: Representation! Isabella and Poppy are queer. Isabella and Travis are both black, but really different in personality, without either of them being written in a fashion that struck me as at all stereotypical. Their differences extend even to their conflict-management techniques, with Travis stating that his mother taught him to ignore bullies, and Isabella laughing that hers believes in the power of lawsuits.

There are multiple other people of color as incidental characters who nevertheless are presented with personalities of their own, from a Latinx classmate to their teacher, Miss Chen, with her penchant for black T-shirts. I feel like it’s hinted that one of the young men in their class is interested in other boys, but that’s a squint-and-you-miss-it sort of thing that I might have been wrong about.

I appreciated that Poppy is actually able to learn from the experiences of those who went before her, and while the book necessarily starts with her making the same mistake her father did, she’s able to navigate it more deftly, thanks to being able to draw on his old stories.

I liked that even though this is a YA Disney novel, it doesn’t talk down to the reader. It’s not grimdark and hopeless, it’s not a post-apocalyptic nightmare story, it’s a popcorn novel, but it’s a very fun representation of the genre that respects its reader’s intelligence.

Things I disliked: This is another Disney story with a PoC who gets turned into an animal. I could do with fewer of those in the universe. WoC need to be able to have their faces in view for the representation to be real.  That said, since this is a book and not a movie (for now?) the problem might not be as serious as it is in visual media.

I found myself frowning over the fact that the author’s name appears nowhere on the cover.  I know that this is a thing Disney frequently has done to its creators in the past, traditionally preferring to give generic thanks to their creators instead of specific acknowledgments.  While the author’s name does show up on one single page inside, it would have been nice to see it on the cover, and in at least as big a font as the company’s, as opposed to entirely absent.

And while it’s not actually an outright dislike, it’s just a little odd to have a movie novelization for a movie that doesn’t exist.  I don’t mean that it’s odd to have a new story, but that this reads very clearly like the novel version of a script. There’s a musical interlude, for instance, with lyrics interrupting the action—I’ve never heard the music, so it comes off a little bit like the early-oughts songfic craze that so many fanfic authors were prone to indulging in. But as complaints go, that one’s really, really minor.  I have no qualms about recommending this book to more or less everyone who enjoys reading YA, and recommending it very strongly to anyone who enjoyed the original movie.

Final Verdict: A chipper, Junior Mints-flavored four stars out of five.

Megan G reviews A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Jess Wong is the girl nobody sees, and she’s okay with that. She likes to keep to herself, and to her art. The only person close to her is her best friend, Angie Redmond. Angie sees Jess, even if it’s not the way that Jess wishes that Angie would see her. It’s enough for Jess. Until Angie starts to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school. As Angie’s relationship with Margot progresses, Jess and Angie are drawn into a world of wealth and secrets, of privilege and cruelty. A world where terrible things happen. A world where, suddenly, Angie doesn’t see Jess anymore.

This is a difficult book to review, because, despite its short length, it almost feels like two books merged into one. The first book is about a co-dependent relationship between two best friends, one of whom has a crush on the other. The second is a murder mystery. It just so happens that both books have the same characters.

The first part of the book is told from Jess’s perspective. Jess Wong is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, who paints her relationship with Angie as not only normal, but healthy. The problem is that it isn’t healthy, which I think Malinda Lo makes very clear. Every time Jess thinks about how wonderful her friendship with Angie is, Lo shows her doing something that proves it isn’t. In fact, the co-dependency between the two (but especially from Jess) can be difficult to read at times, as you can tell how much better these girls’ lives would be if the other weren’t in it.

In a way, I sort of appreciated this. I went into this book fully expecting this to be a pining, friends-to-lovers story, with a murder mystery twist. Instead, the twist is that the reader can tell full-stop that these friends should never become lovers, and in fact probably shouldn’t even be friends at all. Some of the things that Jess does when she and Angie fight are a little frightening, but Jess wants us to think that it’s totally okay. It’s realistic in its portrayal of the co-dependency found amongst many friendships, particularly teenage friendships, and like I said, I appreciate that. As well, I can look past the argument that would usually be building in my head (“There aren’t nearly as many stories about queer women as there are about straight women, so why can’t the ones about queer women be happy for once?”) because Malinda Lo has provided us with four incredible, happily-ending stories about queer women. She has proven that she believes queer women deserve happy endings. She now gets the benefit of the doubt that other authors might not.

I don’t want to say much about the second half of the book, because I don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. All I will say is that you should not read this book if you are hoping for a fantastic who-done-it. At its core, this book is about a toxic friendship, and how these types of friendships can shape who we are and the things we do.

As well, I think it’s important to mention that Jess is not only an Asian character, but she is also described as being fat. I didn’t realize she would be when I went into this story, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. I do believe there is a little bit of internalized fatphobia, but never to the point of extreme dieting, or even considering extreme dieting. Just the typical thoughts of a woman who doesn’t quite look like the women who surround her.

Overall, I found this story intriguing and interesting, but incorrectly marketed. Although it is, in fact, a murder mystery, that is not what the novel is truly about. I will say right now that if you go into this novel just for the mystery, you will feel disappointed. This is a story about friendships and relationships, and how easy it is for them to become toxic, even when nobody is going out of their way to make them so. It explores human dynamics deeper than any of Malinda Lo’s previous works and sets itself aside as something new and unique. As that type of book, I recommend it. As a murder mystery, however, I would not.

Megan Casey reviews She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren

She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren cover

This is another winner for New Victoria, made even more impressive by the fact that the author was only 25 when she wrote it. On the surface, it tells the story of Emma Kendrick’s childhood friendship with Natalie Mercer, who suddenly disappeared at the age of eight. Over the years, Emma buried the image of Natalie somewhere deep within her. But when Natalie’s body is found, seventeen years later, Emma’s memories begin to return.

The story is told from Emma’s point of view but from two time frames. In the present, Emma is asked by one of Natalie’s old neighbors to look into her death. So, despite her own reservations and that of her best friend Carly, she begins to ask questions. No, this isn’t a thriller in which Emma eventually and stupidly finds herself alone with a killer. Rather, it is a story of loss and love and friendship and abandonment, as Emma loses first her father, then Natalie, then her girlfriend Judy. Even her friend Carly is thinking of changing jobs and moving to a city far away.

But there are also chapters in which Emma has vivid memories of herself and Natalie in the past: in their hidden fort, playing house, talking of the future, just being together in the cold, lonely world. She begins to remember specifics that she had never thought about before—the fact that Natalie once showed up for school with a cast on her arm, her fright at having to leave her home to visit her father after her mother has remarried, the memory of Natalie leaving the school counselor’s office—memories that make her think that Natalie might have been abused.

Although there are lots of lesbians in this one, there is no romance and no sex; the book doesn’t call for it. There are a couple of glitches that I am mentioning only in the hope that Lauren reads this and corrects them in any new editions. First, there is a page in which Emma remembers her grandfather having a serious talk with her when she was 14. In the next paragraph, she tells her mother that her grandfather died when she was 12. A second glitch is just an omission. Emma meets Pat Carroll, an older lesbian that she has admired for years, not only for her work in the women’s movement but for her startlingly good looks. When Carly tells her that Pat has the hots for Lauren, Lauren simply doesn’t respond. My god, she has to at least have some thoughts about that. For the record, although I pegged the villain on page 22, I did not guess the murderer. But that’s okay, Emma didn’t either.

As far as I know, Lauren, who, like Natalie, was abused as a child, managed to calm her inner demons and live a normal life without having to resort again to literature. Give this one as close to 4 stars as you can without going over. It should be on everyone’s to-read list, although maybe not as high on that list as some others.

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

Another Note: See my reviews of over 250 other lesbian mysteries at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murray

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams by Dax Murphy cover

A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams is a queer Swan Lake retelling, and honestly, it just had to live up to that premise to win me over. I may not be incredibly familiar with the ballet, but I grew up watching Swan Princess constantly. Besides, queer fairy tale(-esque) retellings are one of my favourite things to read. Add to that the beautiful cover and the promise of a positive polyamorous relationship, and I was sold. So I was impressed to find that not only did this satisfy those queer fairy tale cravings, it went beyond that to create an engaging and emotionally compelling story in its own right.

When I think of a queer retelling, I expect it to stick pretty closely to the original, just massaged to include queer characters. A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams shifts the narrative dramatically, however, changing not just the trappings of the story, but the heart of it. Katya, the main character (though there are multiple POV characters), doesn’t exist in the original story. At least, as far as I have gleaned from reading the Swan Lake Wikipedia article, she would have been an anonymous background character at best with no story line of her own. Although the central plot of Swan Lake does carry over to this retelling, the tension of the story comes from Katya’s unique position in this world.

The story alternates between two points of view. They are identified by a simple, stylized illustration at the beginning of each chapter of either a swan (Katya’s chapters) or a castle (Alexis’s). I liked this little details of the design. I’ll start with discussing the queer elements of this story, because… that’s what we’re here for, right? This is a world that is completely accepting of queer people and nonbinary genders. Princen Alexis uses they/them pronouns, and no one is fazed about having a nonbinary heir to the kingdom. In fact, when they attend a ball, they are “immediately greeted by people of all genders vying for their attention.” There are other nonbinary characters who use neopronouns, such as Larde Tanis, who goes by xie. This is own voices nonbinary representation (Dax Murphy uses fey/fem/feir prounouns in feir “About the author” blurb.)

Bisexuality seems to be the norm in this world, or at least not worth remarking on. Katya, Zhen, and Alexis’s mother all show attraction to multiple genders. Alexis’s best friend and guard, Tatiana, frequently mentions her girlfriend, Inna. Alexis’s parents are in a polyamorous triad, with their mother having two partners (the Czar and Lady Natalya). While attraction to multiple genders is unremarkable in this setting, it does seem somewhat unusual to have multiple partners (though obviously not unheard of, because there doesn’t seem to be any pushback to the leaders of the country being in a triad). Alexis’s parents talk about the difficulties and negotiation that they went through to make this a healthy relationship, but it is clearly worth the effort for all three of them, and Alexis is happy to have three parents.

As I mentioned earlier, the queer and polyamorous additions are not the most dramatic changes in this retelling. We begin with Katya, who has no memory when she bumps into Ivan in the forest. He helps get her acclimated, and she stays with him. She learns magic from him. Their relationship builds slowly and turns romantic. It is against this backdrop of trust (and dependence) that the rest of the story plays out. Ivan captures Zhen–Alexis’s fiancee. Their arranged marriage is meant to unite their two kingdoms. (Although this is a fairy tale world, Alexis’s country is clearly coded as Russia, and Zhen’s is coded as China.) Ivan tells Katya that Zhen is a threat to their life together, and asks her to pretend to be captive with her, in order to gain information. Katya is shaken. This is unlike Ivan. As she observes Zhen–and sneaks away to share her findings with Ivan and beg him to explain the situation–she finds herself falling for her.

It’s this tension between Katya, Ivan, and Zhen as well as the triangle between Katya, Zhen, and Alexis that form the core of the book. Katya is torn between Zhen, this new element in her life, and Ivan, the person who she loves and trusts. She wants to believe that there must be a good reason to hold Zhen prisoner, that she must be a legitimate threat, but she also struggles to find that threat in Zhen. At first, I found it difficult to believe that Zhen would be flirting with Katya while she had been kidnapped and trapped in the woods, but Zhen addresses this directly: “Yes, we are trapped. Yes, we are waiting for someone to save us. That doesn’t mean I want to dwell on the fact!”

It’s this internal struggle between Katya’s loyalty for Ivan and her growing relationship with Zhen that really fascinates me, so I do want to discuss some spoilers. I will mark where the spoilers end. 

Initially, I felt that Katya was a passive character. Because she seems to appear out of nowhere as an adult, she can seems naive and inexperienced–quick to believe whoever she is speaking to at any moment. I found it especially hard to believe that she would so easily go along with Ivan’s plan for her to kill the “threats” at the palace. As the story continues, however, I think that shifts. After all, it is ambiguous how much agency she has at first: Ivan has been manipulating her from the beginning, hiding her from her origins, protecting himself by using her. He tells her “Say you will never leave me,” she immediately (involuntarily?) responds with “I will never leave you.”

Katya really has to struggle to accept that despite him being the only relationship she’s ever known, her introduction to love and belonging, he doesn’t deserve her loyalty. The extent of his manipulation is slowly revealed to both us as readers and Katya: not only did her use her in this instance, he has been draining the life from their forest and using her life force to bind Zhen to the lake. It’s despicable, and I’m tempted to question how he can both be this villain and be the person who supported her in the beginning of the book–but that’s not impossible. Abusers can seem loving and supportive when it suits them. They can even justify their actions to themselves that way. And Ivan certainly seems to think he can violate Katya and care for her at the same time: he claims “I loved you, Katya,” with “a mixture of devotion and sorrow in his eyes,” even when she knows the extent of what he has done to her.

An element I really liked was when Katya realizes that she doesn’t owe him an explanation for why she turned against him. It’s such an important moment, to realize that you can’t control someone else’s narrative. Ivan will likely always believe he was in the right. Katya could try to communicate with him, could pour her heart and soul out trying to get him to see how he violated her, how he betrayed her, but it would be a waste. He doesn’t deserve her energy.

Overall, I thought it was a satisfying conclusion. There’s enough loss and struggle to feel realistic, but it manages to be a happy ending anyway. I liked the nod to compersion: “An inkling of a feeling bubbled in Alexis, seeing Katya and Zhen happy, together, made them feel happy, too.” The novel leads us to think there is no way that Zhen, Katya, and Alexis can all three be happy with their situation, but the ending challenges that, showing that relationships can be built in many creative ways and still be fulfilling.

Spoilers end here!

Now I’ll address a few bits and pieces I wasn’t able to work in to the rest of the review! I liked the magic system, which seems to hang together well, and it also introduces a type of magic that I’ve never seen in a book before: nuclear magic! It’s an interesting concept, and the scenes that depict it are striking. I did have some minor issues. I didn’t entirely understand some details of the political plot (how did the son betray the Czar, for instance?), but that’s not my strength as a reader. I’m so caught up in characters that I often miss really obvious plot points. Also, the characters don’t use any contractions in dialogue, presumable to feel more fairy tale-esque, but I found it a bit awkward and distracting. Although I only noticed a handful of typos, one error I saw repeated throughout the book were numerous comma splices (“Leave that to me, I am still Czar.” and “We need to settle this dispute, it’s been too many generations.” for instance.)

Those are some very minor complaints, however, in a story I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the queer-positive fairy tale world, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was only the backdrop for a subtle story about trust, betrayal, and new possibilities. I highly recommend A Lake of Feathers and Moonbeams, even if you’re not familiar with the original story!

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

Alexa reviews Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss

Learning Curves is a 70-page novella with little conflict and a fluffy love story between two women at college. One of them is a Puerto Rican lesbian studying family law, and the other one is a white panromantic asexual woman with ADHD. You shouldn’t expect a huge epic plot: Learning Curves is more about everyday life, college, celebrating Christmas, a huge, loving Puerto Rican family, and two women falling in love.

I admit that I easily get bored if I’m reading a longer book with so little plot, but 70 pages was just the perfect amount to still hold my attention and let me enjoy all the little moments. I loved how overly supportive Elena’s mother was, and I loved the two women cooking and baking together, especially Puerto Rican dishes.

There were so many of these little things that I loved. Cora is bookish and loves reading about “magic, dragons and queer people”. Both women are very casual about mentioning their queer identity, and while she doesn’t elaborate, Cora also mentions how even the community itself can be hostile towards certain identities. There was also a throwaway mention of cocky-gate (controversy over one author literally trying to trademark the word “cocky” in romance novel titles), which made me laugh, although it might have been strange to people who didn’t know what it was referring to.

I did have a couple of issues, or rather some things that I found strange but weren’t necessarily bad. This novella felt like it was written from an outsider’s perspective, which isn’t automatically a problem, but I really would have appreciated more insight into the thoughts and feelings of Elena and Cora, or at least one of them. I also felt like the blurb was very misleading: while the two women go to college and meet at one of the classes they have in common, there is really not much focus on their careers, and basically no mention of either of them not having time for love like the blurb says. Moreover, I sometimes found the dialogue strange or clunky. And finally, this is a minor pet peeve, but there were a few acronyms that were never really explained and as a non-US person whose first language isn’t English, I still have genuinely no clue what they are. I could sort of guess from context, but I generally don’t want to be Googling acronyms while reading a book.

I was originally going to rate this 4 stars, but the ace rep and the way it was handled in the relationship pushed it up. I loved that Elena immediately accepted both that Cora is asexual and that she doesn’t want sex, and it wasn’t an issue for a single moment. It might not be the most “realistic”, but it was really nice to finally read a relationship between an asexual and an allosexual person where the allosexual person is the one who agrees not to have sex instead of the asexual person indulging their partner. Another thing I see a lot is that while the non-ace person agrees not to have sex, they still talk about how this is a huge sacrifice for them, which I find really guilt-trippy, but this absolutely wasn’t the case here.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this author’s works in the future.

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.

Marthese reviews My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross movie cover

‘’Something within me sighed in relief and slotted into place like a bridge completes’’

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross was nothing like I expected. This was a library find and knowing that there was a lesbian movie with the same title, I borrowed it. Only, I had no idea what the movie was about and the book blurb didn’t offer many hints as to what was to come.

The plot follows Mona and Tamsin. Mona’s family own a pub, where she works but she also volunteers at the Fakenham’s estate to look after a horse; which is where she meets Tamsin again. Tamsin is back from boarding school and up to no good. This is perfect for Mona, who is interested in crime and gambling her money. Throughout the book, there are many hints that something will happen that summer and indeed, what happens was shocking.

‘’from the first real moment of our meeting I was already a criminal and she was distinctly witchy’’

Tamsin and Mona do get together. They love booze, dressing up and drama – lots of drama. What struck me was that what they loved about each other the most was probably the drama. They are inherently toxic for each other, and they know it. Tamsin has a superiority complex. She’s critical and cynical. Mona just wants to leave her family and is very jealous and spiteful. Both are alcoholics. Family relationships are an important aspect of the plot. The plot gets thicker when they live in Tamsin’s house alone for the summer.

While the plot was not what I expected, the writing was great. Some things were executed really well such as the chapters which were all named after a drink or food which was then mentioned in the chapter. If we had to keep in mind the time and place that this book fictionally took place in, the ideas about society and women and the nuclear war (cold war), the ideas presented feel very real. This does not mean that I want to read on how the protagonist thinks that ‘’with a tan and a pair of heavy breasts you need not worry about independence.’’ I am using more quotes than my usual reviews so that you, as potential readers, know what you are signing up for.

The ending was very disturbing, which is why I think this book belongs to the ‘horror’ section. The kind of horrors that are more disturbing because they could happen. This is not a Bury-your-gays book, but the ‘villains’ are queer. I kept hoping for the best and for a while, I thought it would happen but no, it didn’t. Mona and Tamsin liked to power-trip each other and scare each other on the regular.

My thoughts on this book are mixed. On the one hand it was executed half-well. There are still some sub-plots which I feel were left open and not like the main open-end but just left hanging. There was constant mention of one girl that went missing. It’s not explicit what happened to her and I felt like it was a wasted opportunity. Had I known what the book was about, I would have been ready for it, but as it was – I wasn’t. Some words left me perplexed. It took me many chapters to realize that ‘mesen’ meant ‘myself’.

The book offers a lot of introspection and is very depressing. This book has a whole list of trigger warnings. There is a lot of family issues, a lot of body image issues – this book could be very triggering. There’s a lot of body shaming as well and some animal neglect and child neglect. There’s also murder and suicide. There’s a lot of harmful bodily stuff, things that would make medical professionals cringe. There’s a lot of sexism, coming from everywhere, including the protagonists. It does offer a lot of thoughts on women. I particularly liked the message on the bodily fluids. I don’t think it’s something that a lot of writers touch upon and it’s something many people live every day.

In conclusion, while this book is Sapphic, unless you are in the mood for a dark read – don’t read it. Just when I thought there was hope for Mona…there wasn’t. This is the ultimate example of what peer pressure and being caged and  wanting attention and having darkness that is not addressed in a healthy was could lead to. It’s pretty disturbing and I was also not sure if the two protagonists actually loved each other or whether it was a matter of two dark souls meeting and corrupting each other further.

Susan reviews The Scorpion by Gerri Hill

The Scorpion by Gerri Hill cover

The Scorpion is a standalone mystery from Gerri Hill. It follows an investigative reporter, Marty Edwards, who is looking into a suspicious cold case, and Kristen Bailey, the detective assigned to “help” her – or at least, to spy on her for the department. Cue every possible attempt to drive Marty off the case, multiple murders, going on the run…

I did not like this one, which is odd because it is basically the sort of ridiculous action-thriller you can find a thousand of on Netflix, but queer, and I love those. A highly-qualified and under-utilised detective (thanks misogyny) going on the run with an out-of-her-depth reporter sounds exactly up my alley. But there’s just something about the execution. Part of it is that the first third of the book feels like make-work before the real story begins, part of it is that some of the developments feel completely pulled out of nowhere (like Kristen just happening to know a guy with the exact skill-set she needs to solve her problems, who isn’t mentioned at all until she calls him for help! Or the fact that the villain is obvious, because they’re the only named character who hasn’t been accounted for by the end of the book!) Part of it is probably that the romance takes two people who are bad at forming attachments to people, and isolates them even further from literally anyone who isn’t in their romance, which I find deeply unnerving.

But what my main problem with this book is, is that about a quarter of the way through the book, Marty comes out as asexual (in a very cringe-worthy, allo-centric mess of a scene, that includes an allo character asking if she was abused as a child, and how many orgasms she’s ever had, because apparently those are appropriate questions to ask someone you met three days ago). I was tentatively excited about this – except that her arc becomes one of “perhaps she’s not asexual, perhaps it’s just her trust issues.” If it had been portrayed as someone who thought they were asexual realising they were demisexual, this could have been an interesting storyline, but it never mentions that as an option! Much as Gerri Hill’s Hunter series never even mentions bisexuality as a concept, in fact. Plus, it feels very allo-centric in the way that it’s handled, such as the way that it talks about asexuality as perhaps a medical problem rather than an orientation, and the way that it seems to be conflating “doesn’t feel sexual attraction or enjoy kissing and sex” with “has no interest in relationships” feels really weird to me. I don’t know if this was written before the split model of attraction was popularised, but I feel like this book promised me representation that it then went back on. Marty’s confusion and disbelief at discovering sexual attraction was fine, but the way it was presented as natural and finally feeling “normal” was a bit beyond the pale for me.

Basically, it’s reasonably action-filled, but that doesn’t make up for the somewhat weak plot and poor handling of an ace character. I’d give it a miss.

[Caution warning: murder, corruption, references to torture, misogyny]

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.

Mary Springer reviews And Playing the Role of Herself by K.E. Lane

And Playing the Role of Herself by K. E. Lane cover

Caid has landed a lead role on the hit TV show, 9th Precinct, which is a spinoff of another show that stars Robyn Ward. Caid sometimes costars with Robyn and shares her trailer, but is often tongue-tied around the gorgeous woman. However, when changes to the script mean they have to spend more time together, sparks fly and Caid realizes Robyn isn’t as uninterested in her as she seems. But, past demons linger around every corner.

I have had a hard time coming to an opinion about this book. My biggest problem is that I could not understand why Caid wanted to be in a relationship with Robyn. As I was reading, I was often reminded of how incredibly attractive Robyn is. Wanting to be in a relationship with someone who is so sexy and beautiful is completely understandable, but only if it’s understood as a superficial infatuation. I’m not sure what more there was to Robyn’s character that attracted Caid besides that she was dedicated to her career, enjoyed running, and liked to cook for her.

What might be really holding me back from a positive takeaway is Robyn’s emotional immaturity. Again and again, Robyn reacts to situations by running away, projecting onto Caid, and then lashing out Caid. This cycle grew tiresome and I failed to understand why Caid was so forgiving. I think this could have been solved if we could have seen some chapters from Robyn’s point of view. We are only really told about her problems from dialogue and it would have helped to understand her and given her the benefit of the doubt if we could see some of her thoughts or internal experiences.

Another problem I had was that the problems Caid and Robyn had in their relationship were often solved by random plot events. Caid and Robyn would have a problem, they refuse to solve it, so something bad is randomly thrown in with no foreshadowing or build up. This forces Caid and Robyn to get together, Robyn apologizes, and Caid forgives her again.

This is why I have a hard time believing Caid wanted to be in a relationship with Robyn. The woman would not have made the choice to be a mature adult and communicate if random plot events had been thrown at them. Communication is big issue the two have and only kind of gets resolved at the very end. Caid admits they aren’t good at communicating, but neither of them makes a move to try and work through it. Caid is literally afraid to talk to Robyn about important relationship issues because she is so afraid that Robyn will react as she has done in the past. When Robyn finally hears this she is shocked, when she really should not be. At all.

At the end I just felt confused and doubtful about their relationship. It seemed like it would only take a couple months before Robyn decided something scared her and she ran away again. Maybe Caid would give her a bouquet of flowers and Robyn would say, “I’m not used to someone treating me this way! You’re pressuring me into something aren’t you? I’m leaving!”

My point is that Robyn never really seems to grow up, which she desperately needs to do. That’s not say Caid is a perfect angel. She admits to being possessive and jealous of Robyn and her relationship with her best friend Josh.

The story kept me engaged and invested throughout, and the writing itself was excellent. Lane does a great job of sucking the reader into the story.

The most important part of a romance novel is the romance, and at first I loved it. However, by the end I was just reading to see what happened out of a sense of obligation to these characters. Also, the sex scenes. Those were great.

Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.