Megan Casey reviews Only Lawyers Dancing by Jan McKemmish

I’ve had to create a new shelf for this one called Lesbian Crime Fiction. There is a lot of crime in this book, and a couple of lesbians, but nobody actually solves a mystery or a puzzle. At least, I don’t think they do. The fact is that Only Lawyers Dancing is so literary that it’s often difficult to follow the thread of the several stories that are going on simultaneously. The author uses first person present point of view not only for Frances Smith, the lesbian protagonist, but also for her co-protagonist, Anne Stevens, a straight woman. And for Anne’s boyfriend Harry, who may or may not be a mobster. But she also goes into third person at times, but told as if one of the other characters is relating it. And stream of consciousness abounds.

Anne and Frances are very old friends from two very different backgrounds. Anne’s father was a policeman while Frances’ was a crime boss. One of he recurring narratives in this book is a crime that took place over two decades earlier—one that eventually led to Anne’s father having a nervous breakdown. But despite the fact that these murders are referred to again and again, they seem to have no relation to the rest of the book, which is mostly concerned with a well-known hit man named Max hiring Anne to make him look good in court. The rest of the book deals with various criminals connected to Max and their relationships to both Anne and Frances.

But McKemmish did not write Only Lawyers Dancing for the plot or the story. She did it because she loved writing and the opportunities it often offers to bend genres. She wrote it because she loved words and the many possibilities they give to communicate ideas in different ways. Think of a hybrid between the prefaces to the chapters in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic movie Blow-Up, and Clare Sudbury’s odd crime novel The Dying of Delight. But don’t really expect things to make sense. The author knows exactly what she is doing and isn’t shy about letting us know it. “The trouble is you keep expecting it to make sense, like a serial moving tortuously slow through the labyrinth of side plots and byways toward an order, a clarity, a closed book.”

In some places the writing is pretentious, in others it is engaging and downright brilliant. Like, “ . . .the new week looms like a mountain in the mist when you’re on a cheap-fare-to-Europe aeorplane and hoping, hoping hoping that the radar works.” But there is murder, embezzlement, theft, and even a kidnapping on the way to denouement. It’s not certain what satisfaction the characters get from all this, but we can only hope they all live happily ever after. I give it 4 stars.

For over 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Danika reviews Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles complex subjects. It immediately reminded me of Radio Silenceanother YA novel that explores race, sexuality, mental health, and adolescence seamlessly. I’m grateful that we now live in a time where queer young adult books have really matured, so to speak. In the days of Annie On My Mind, just being a white teen coming out as gay was scandalous enough, nevermind having anything else going on in your life.

Now, we finally have books that even when addressing the coming out arc can have more complexity and layers. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness.

But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. And it only gets more complicated when they both fall for the same girl.

The blurbs for this title seem to suggest that Suzette and her brother are pitted against each other, competing for the same girl. That’s not accurate. The core of this story is Suzette and Lionel’s relationship, and Suzette wouldn’t endanger that for a crush. So there is a love triangle, but it’s not as dramatic as that would suggest.

I really enjoyed Little & LionIt has a lot of subtle aspects that make the reading experience richer, including microaggressions (whether that’s racism, ableism, biphobia, or antisemitism). For example, I loved when Suzette got frustrated at the double-standard that bi people are not able to have a crush on two people, especially of different genders, at the same time, for fear of being associated with anti-bi stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at a review on Goodreads which played into this and accused Suzette of “emotional cheating,” despite her not even being in an official relationship.

I can’t comment on the mental health representation here, because I don’t have significant knowledge of bipolar disorder, but overall I thought this was a beautiful book, and makes me feel optimistic about the of queer lit, and specifically bi & lesbian young adult books, to know that these sorts of stories are being published. It’s about time!

Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Megan Casey reviews Edited Out by Lisa Haddock

Edited Out by Lisa Haddock cover

It would be easy to just say that this is a really good book and that you should put it high on your list of things to read. but I guess that would be shirking my responsibilities as a reviewer. But if you’ve read any of my other reviews you’d know that several things catch my imagination when I read, three of which are the writing, the plot, and the characters. Edited Out is written in the point of view most favored by lesbian mystery authors, first person past—“I did this, I went there” etc. It’s a good point of view because it brings the character closer to the reader than standard third person limited or omniscient. But it is also an easy POV to make mistakes in because it most easily reveals a character’s personality. And if you don’t like the personality of the main character, chances are you won’t like the book.

I like Carmen Ramirez. She is the daughter of a Puerto Rican dad and a mom of Irish descent. After her mother’s death when she was still a baby, Carmen was sent by her dad to live with her racist, homophobic, and bible-quoting grandmother in Frontier City, Oklahoma—a very thinly disguised Tulsa, complete with a famous evangelist and religious university. Somehow, Carmen has come through her girlhood strong enough to embrace her sexuality and to land a job as copyeditor for the local newspaper. But when she is assigned to work on a story about the murder of a young girl by a lesbian schoolteacher, she must make the hardest decision of her career.

When I first read the description of this book, I was hesitant to open the pages; it was bound to be filled with depressing scenes of homophobia and confrontation. But Haddock manages to turn the story in a completely different direction. Even when Carmen interviews a number of unsavory characters, she does it with such style that even if her questions are not answered, I felt I had nevertheless learned something important.

Like many lesbian detectives in the genre, Carmen is running from a bad relationship (see Claire McNab’s Kylie Kendall, Elaine Beale’s Lou Spencer, ad infinitum). She has been very shy of getting into another until she meets college student Julia Nichols (who reminds me very much of a young Aimee Grant in Katherine V. Forrest’s novels), who identifies as straight. Their developing romance—as well as Carmen’s love/hate relationship with her grandmother—give balance to the book and intersect with the plot in important ways. All the elements combine for an exciting—and hopeful—finish. It’s hard not to credit editor Katherine V. Forrest for the smoothness of this book, especially after having just read several Naiad books edited by others.

There is a lot of religious stuff here but again, Haddock uses the subject as a literary device without actually proselytizing or bashing. Remember that the book is set in Bible-Belt Oklahoma, where churchgoing is as natural as breathing. Does it get a little over the top sometimes? Well, maybe, but there are some enjoyable parts, too, like when Julia argues scripture with her fundamentalist cousin in order to rescue a confused young woman from a room filled with Prayer Warriors. And maybe there are a few too many coincidences in the solution, but hey, doesn’t every mystery have these?

And here’s a question for someone to write an article about: why do so many lesbian mystery protagonists have a gay man as their best friend (not counting their lovers of course)? Carmen has one. So does Bill in Joan Opyr’s books, Lamaar in David Galloway’s Lamaar Ransom, Private Eye, Barbara Johnson’s Colleen Fitzgerald, etc, etc. Is this true in real life? Very few, like Nikki Baker’s Virginia Kelly and Vicki P. McConnell’s Nyla Wade, seem to have same-sex best friends.

Ultimately, Edited Out is a really good book and you should put it high on your list of things to read. In the same league with She Scoops to Conquer, give this one a 4+.

For more than 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Alice reviews Escape to Pirate Island by Niamh Murphy

Escape to Pirate Island cover showing a woman in a flowing red dress looking over the ocean at a pirate ship

This book! I want to take this book, parcel it into treasure map wrapping paper, and post it back in time to my fifteen year old self. Not that it’s a book for teenagers specifically, but it’s the book I craved so deeply back then. I loved it, it really did, and I hope you do too.

The story follows two daring ladies and their friends, the daring, smart smuggler Cat Meadows, and the brave, proud Lily Exquemlin, as they flee the day they lost everything and peg all their hopes on a ship and the hope of treasure. With pirates, betrayal, marooning, and swinging from the high ropes, this book is thrilling. You, my friend, are on the edge of an adventure.

It’s is a well-written tale, with an engaging and distinct cast of characters which all manage to come across and individual, self motivated people, with clear personalities. Perhaps the bad guys are little too bad guy without reason, but it wasn’t something I even noticed when I was reading as my heart was in my mouth all the way through for Cat, Lily, and their friends.

Sadly, despite being a pirate story, there is no apparent racial diversity in the book, and the only disabled character in the book gets killed off nice and quickly to put the main character down the path she needs to for this story to work. This is always frustrating with pirate stories, as pirates came from all corners of the world, and with sea surgeons hacking of every other limb to stop gangrene, there were plenty of seafarers who weren’t as able bodied as the cast of this story.

I grew up on the British coast and this story made me heartsick for the sea, for the promise of freedom that the horizon seems to promise, and why else would you be reading a pirate book? The romance was sweet and standard for a YA, which I feel is where the story tone sits best, but be aware it does have one ‘Mature’ scene. The story celebrates loyalty, yet understands loyalty.

Honestly? Read this story. It’s fun, well paced, well written, you lose all track of the real world when reading it… it’s a wonderful little book. I recommend it for anyone who is fed up of the mundane and wants a swashbuckling adventure alongside a cast of real people whom you’ll feel you know well.

Megan Casey reviews The Slayer by Nadine LaPierre

Whoa. Here’s something I wasn’t expecting. I purchased The Slayer primarily so I could get free shipping for a recent book order. At the time I ordered it, I was not even sure that it was a mystery. The book, when it arrived, was an attractive size and it was well formatted—more accessible for my taste than the often-unwieldy RegalCrest/Quest books. Because it was almost certainly printed by CreateSpace, I assumed it to be self-published (under the aegis of Frisson Books. So far so good.

The prologue—although just as unnecessary as most prologues, was written better and held my interest better than most. Then we meet RCMP Constable Danielle (not Dannie, please) Renaud, who has left her birthplace near Quebec to take a job in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At first blush, she is simply Claire McNab’s Carol Ashton transplanted from Australia to Canada—an incredibly beautiful, statuesque out blonde with a hard-to-match work ethic. But I think Danielle is a more rounded, more-professionally written character than Carol. And she has a good backstory. She has a habit of speaking her ideas into a tape recorder: a convincing and fairly unique motif. So, still good.

In fact, once you get through the first dozen chapters and figure out who the characters are, The Slayer is a pretty remarkable book. On loan from her department to the Special Crimes Unit, Danielle is assigned to look into a cold case—the death of a nurse a year and a half before. Danielle digs into this seemingly impossible-to-solve case and manages to dig up a few new facts no one else had been able to find, while trying to juggle a personal life that includes no less than five women dancing around each other like mating birds. Misdirections abound—but they are misdirections well conceived.

The reader (along with Danielle) learns a lot about forensics and psychology without the author making us think of homework. Danielle’s knowledge of different types of data searches gets a bit forced, but everything else—including a knowledge of veterinary supplies and types of drugs—are spot-on believable. And hey, LaPierre knows her way around the bedroom, too; you can look forward to a couple of delicious sex scenes that are almost worth the price of the book (plus shipping).

The author takes a lot of chances and almost always gets away with what she attempts. The plot often careens like a tilt-a-whirl, but rather than thinking that there might be a method to the madness, I suspect that there is genius in that madness instead. The Slayer is simply one of the most well-plotted books I have ever read. Add this to a plethora of interesting characters and a total lack of typos, and you have the makings of a must-read.

But the book is not all gold and emeralds. It is difficult at times to figure out who is romancing who, a couple of these relationships are not properly brought to a close, there are a few clumsy point of view shifts, needless dream sequences are thrown in here and there, and don’t even get me started on the last paragraph!

All in all, though, it is an exciting and well-written mystery. I recommend this book pretty highly and wish the author would tweak it just a bit. And here’s a clue. Books published at CreateSpace are free to revise and the author doesn’t have to even buy any copies herself. Ditto for e-books. Second edition, anyone? As it is now, I’ll call it 3.7.

For over 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/ or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Danika reviews Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

This is a story that I still miss days after reading it. I was completely absorbed in the story, and I read most of it in one day. Jordan’s double life (disguised as a boy to join an all male capella group), the arts academy environment, and the world of a capella was all fascinating. Add to that Jordan’s struggle to fit into an elite private school on a scholarship while her family struggles to make rent, as well as an ever-more-vicious rivalry with another a capella group, and I was hooked.

I also found it interesting to read a crossdressing narrative that addresses the queer subtext. There is a long history of crossdressing in queer narratives, but usually the queer possibilities are swept under the rug as much as possible. This is a modern crossdressing story that faces them head on. Jordan isn’t trans or genderqueer, but the story acknowledges the existence of trans people, which is the first I’ve seen in this genre. Jordan borrows tips from trans websites and feels guilty about using them. When people begin to find out about her other life, they initially think that she is trans and are accepting about it, but she explains that she is cisgender.

The way crossdressing narratives usually flirt with queerness but ultimately sidestep it is by having a woman fall in love with the woman-in-disguise. The woman thinks she’s a man, so it’s not queer! Once her disguise is discarded, that romance evaporates. Meanwhile, the woman in disguise falls for a guy, but he only falls back once the disguise comes off. [mild spoilers] In some ways, Noteworthy plays into this: a girl kisses Jordan while she is Julian, and she falls for a straight guy while in disguise. The difference is that Jordan realizes through this experience that she’s bisexual. She names herself as bisexual. Unfortunately, the girl she kisses is straight, so there’s no significant F/F romance, but there’s no mistaking that Jordan is bi. [end spoilers]

The only thing that fell flat for me was that some of the members of the Sharpshooters blended together—only a few felt like fleshed out characters. (I did really love Nihal and Jordan’s relationship with him, though.) The author is obviously very familiar with a capella, so some of the details of the arrangements went over my head, but that wasn’t distracting. This was an absorbing, nuanced, and utterly enjoyable read.

Megan G reviews Kiss Me Again, Paris by Renate Stendhal

Never has a memoir enraptured me as completely as Kiss Me Again, Paris. Renate Stendhal reached through the pages and took me by the hand, pulling me back into Paris in the 1970’s and into her skin. To read Stendhal’s account of her life in Paris is to live it. Never has reading a book felt so much like watching a movie. Every intricate detail she dives into came alive before my eyes, not just through her masterful prose, but through the gorgeous pictures scattered throughout the memoir.

Although there are two explicit love stories present in Kiss Me Again, Paris, the implicit love stories between Stendhal and her friends, and Stendhal and her city are the most visceral. Paris is Stendhal’s mistress, more so than any of the lovers she describes, and her love for the city and the life she lived there is breathtaking. I myself have only been to Paris once, but after reading Stendhal’s memoir I feel as though that is not the case. I have never yearned for a city as I yearned for Paris while immersed in this book.

During many scenes depicting Stendhal and her friends, I knew I should feel like an outsider, privy to a conversation far too intimate for my perusal, but that was never the case. I will admit, I had a bit of a hard time keeping track of all the women in Stendhal’s life–which backstory corresponded to which name, and with whom had she slept? Still, the closeness of her tight-knit group of “Sinners”, as they called themselves, made it easy to forget my confusion. Regardless of backstory or personal history, the love Stendhal felt for these women shone through. These are friends who can call each other whenever one is in need, and within minutes they are at each other’s doors. They dance together, they drink together, and they love together. The atmosphere of Paris just adds another layer of decadence to their lives.

Stendhal’s feelings toward the two women her heart aches for in her memoir–a fickle actress named Claude and a mysterious red-headed woman who keeps re-appearing in her life–are the strongest throughout the memoir. She lays it all bare for her audience. Every lustful thought, every prickle of jealousy, every irrational moment of hope or despair. I craved more knowledge on the so-called “Woman in Red”, desperate as Stendhal was to know more, to be near her. As the story unfolds, I often found myself looking up Stendhal and her life-partner Kim Chernin on Wikipedia, hoping to gain even the smallest hint that Kim Chernin was the “Woman in Red”. Unfortunately, I found none, and it makes me wonder how such a deep, wonderful, all-consuming love story could have eventually found its end. I was hooked on Stendhal’s every word, and my heart pounded with every emotion she felt. Her frustration with Claude, yet desire to continue seeing her. Her questions about the “Woman in Red”, her obsession with learning more about her. It was as though Stendhal had a hold of my heart, making me feel all the anguish, hope, and love that she herself felt.

The book is not perfect, of course. It is riddled with casual transphobia that would have been common-place in the 1970’s, but feels rather shocking to read in a book published in 2017. There is, as well, at least one racial slur for Romani people within the text, and a prolonged and explicit scene depicting a girl between the ages of twelve and fifteen being photographed entirely nude.  Still, despite these short-comings, Kiss Me Again, Paris brings the author’s experience to life better than any other memoir I’ve read. The specificity in the detail is astounding, and the decadence in the language will leave you begging to read more.

Kiss Me Again, Paris by Renate Stendhal will be available for purchase on June 6, 2017.

Megan Casey reviews The Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series by Sandra de Helen

The Hounding  (Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series Book 1)

Pastiche: “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work.” For decades, the word pastiche was commonly used to refer to stories about Sherlock Holmes that were not written by A. Conan Doyle. Perhaps the most famous is The Seven-Percent Solution, which was a best seller for Nicholas Meyer in 1974. More recently, Laurie R. King (who also writes lesbian mysteries featuring Kate Martinelli) has created the Mary Russell Mystery Series, which features the iconic sleuth. Holmes also appears in Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series. In fact, Amazon.com lists over 7000 paperbacks inspired by Holmes.

As far as the lesbian mystery genre goes, characters based on Holmes and Watson appear in Nene Adams’ Gaslight Series, Olivia Stowe’s Charlotte Diamond Series, Debra Hyde’s Charlotte Olmes Series. There is more than a subtle similarity to Holmes and Watson in Iza Moreau’s The XYZ Mysteries, with Xande Calhoun as Holmes and her sister Yolande as Watson. There are stories about Holmes and Watson as lesbians and Holmes and Watson as gay. Now, Sandra de Helen has become one of the latest pasticheurs with her series about Shirley Combs and her friend Dr. Mary Watson. In the first novel, The Hounding, neither character is either gay or lesbian, or even hetero. But we’ll get to that in a paragraph or two.

We don’t hear the word pastiche much any more. Today, it’s called “fan fiction.” I suspect that The Hounding began as fan fiction, and perhaps that’s why it isn’t as strong as it could be. For one thing, the author makes over 15 references to Sherlock Holmes himself. A couple of the characters joke about the Sherlock Holmes/Shirley Combs vocal similarity. And the language sometimes is just too Holmesian (despite the story being set in modern-day Oregon) to be anything but fan fiction. Here are a couple of for instances:

“I have been engaged by Miss Goldenhawk Vandeleur to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of her mother, Pricilla Leoin.”

“Only a slight upward movement of Shirley’s left eyebrow would have given away her surprise, and only an observer as keen as Shirley herself would have seen it.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, which may be the newest literary genre. In The Hounding, the writing is strong and the mystery is worthy of the master himself. In short, a woman is mauled by dogs, causing her to have a heart attack and die. But who set the dogs on her and where are they now? Shirley Combs, private investigator and portfolio analyst, takes on the job of finding the answer. But unless an author is actually writing about the real Holmes and Watson, it is not a good idea to stick too close to the original.

There is little backstory about either Shirley or Mary. Both consider themselves asexual and both live alone: Shirley in Portland, Oregon and Mary in nearby Lake Oswego. And neither, unfortunately, seems to have a very interesting personality. Of the two, though, it is Mary—the primary narrator—who has the most promise. It is she who gets an odd feeling when she sees an attractive woman and it is she who continually questions her strange relationship with Shirley. Shirley seems to question nothing.

And I can’t let this review go without discussing point of view. As you will remember, most—but not all—of the original Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated in their entirety by Watson, who sees all and hears all. Holmes includes him in his adventures just so that Watson is in attendance, not only as a friend, but as an observer. De Helen knows this well, but often finds it difficult to insert her Watson into the action, although this action is important to the story. Here’s how Mary Watson explains her ability to do it. Evidently, like Archie Goodwin in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective series, Shirley has a photographic memory and is able to give a thorough account of her outings, as when Mary says, “she dictated her word by word account for me.” Then Mary continues, “I use my creative license to add what I imagine to be the thoughts and emotions of all the players.” She adds later, “It’s easy to imagine what happened next.” This is one of the cleverest point-of-view ploys I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a glitch in the artistry.

But that’s enough skating around. As fan fiction, The Hounding is as good as most–as creative literature, not so much. But despite everything, it is an interesting and well-developed mystery. I recommend it for any Holmes/Watson obsessives.

The Illustrious Client (Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson Series Book 2)

One of the many good things about this, the second novel in the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series, is that it stands alone very well. Conversely, perhaps the best way to review this novel is by contrasting it to its predecessor.

Let’s start with the Holmes/Watson comparisons. In the first book, de Helen refers to the original iconic detective no less than 15 times. Well, guess how many comparisons she makes this time? Answer: zero. What this means is that the author has become more confident in her talents and more creative in her thinking. Ditto about her “explanations” about inconsistent point of view. Although her narrative shifts once or twice from Dr. Watson to omniscient, the author genuinely tries to stay within Watson’s experience. Not perfect, but a vast improvement.

The plot is fairly complex, as was the previous book’s. Shirley is hired to dissuade a famous young pop star, Oceane, from her romance with international playgirl Zaro, who was once (while disguised as a male) a soldier in the Afghan army. But when Zaro is attacked with acid, the sleuth’s job becomes one of finding the culprit. Although, as I said, the story is a good one, the main merit of this book is the growth of Mary Watson. Although in the first book there were a couple of exquisitely tiny hints that Mary might not be quite as asexual as she believes, in this book she discovers, quite by surprise, her lesbian identity. Although from puberty, she assumed she was simply asexual, she suddenly found that “something had awakened in me,” when she met real estate agent Beth Adams. The idea of a romance—maybe even a sexual relationship!—causes her to gush, “I was excited to the point of near-hysteria.” This is really good stuff: details that are all-too-rare in lesbian fiction, although we have all been there.

A touch worth noting, Shirley’s new “administrative assistant” has the greatest first name in lesbian literature: Lix. Hopefully in the next book we will learn her last name and some backstory. And maybe some more about Shirley, too. Or maybe Lix and Shirley will get it on. Whoo weee. I can’t wait. And Lix should get her own series. You heard it all here first.

Finally—and I rarely comment on this—the formatting of the e-book for this novel is the most sophisticated I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot. It may presage the day when e-books can look identical to print versions.

Negatives? Well the POV thing is still a little glitchy, as is Shirley’s lack of real individuality. And now that Sherlock himself is absent from de Helen’s pages, maybe it is time to stray from rewriting actual or nearly actual Conan Doyle titles.

Bottom line, give this one close to a 4; it is certainly worth a read. With the author continuing to hone her talents, I am looking forward to the next one.

For more than 250 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website athttp://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Quinn Jean reviews Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue

Trigger Warning: this novel depicts sexual harassment of underage people by an adult, discussed in this review’s fourth paragraph.

Also spoiler warning for several important plot points in this review.

Stir-Fry is an impressive debut novel, presenting a very relatable and thoughtful protagonist in Maria while also rejecting several tropes usually found in contemporary young adult novels written in the last half century. The novel takes place at the start of 17-year-old Maria’s first semester at university in Dublin after moving from her family’s home in a small village. Maria is dissatisfied living with a conservative, dull aunt in the city and answers an ad from two women seeking a flatmate, finding herself invited to dinner with 20-something students Jael and Ruth. Jael is extroverted, directionless and equal parts obnoxious and charismatic, while Ruth is a reserved but passionate feminist activist, and Maria quickly becomes close to them both after she moves in and naively doesn’t question why Ruth and Jael would share a room and a bed.

For those readers who aren’t aware of how conservative 1980s Ireland was (and the novel never explicitly explains this), it may seem a little far-fetched that Maria wouldn’t twig that her flatmates are lesbians in a relationship, but with the context of a poor, Catholic, isolated country it is distinctly plausible. This context also indicates why Maria would never have questioned her own sexuality before. The author’s presumption of reader knowledge here might make the novel feel a little inaccessible to some audiences at first, but the excellent descriptions of life in Ireland at the time paint a picture of a place where people might be pushed to be so oblivious to their own and others’ divergent sexualities. Maria’s pedestrian conversations with her classmate Yvonne–a friend Maria knows she should have but often struggles to tolerate–provide stark contrast to the vibrant, unpredictable interactions she has with her housemates, and Maria and Ruth both show miserable but resigned commitment to visiting bland family members even when the older people’s narrow ideas about life clash with the young students’ rapidly expanding intellectual worlds. The book makes it easy to empathise with Maria’s constantly changing understandings of who she is, and of the people around her, as the novel goes on and the reader sees her experiences diversify even further.

Stir-fry often feels as fractured as memory with scenes ending at ambiguous moments and skewed indications of how much time has passed. There are frequent disjointed jumps between intense conversations on raining streets to calm lounge room scenes, and Maria seems to change and recognise so much within herself, as do Ruth and Jael, and the novel ultimately only covers three months. Almost no scene in the book ends in a definite or clear manner, with characters’ last lines often leaving the reader with more questions than answers about what they mean. The scene breaks and narrative ambiguity give Stir-fry an unconventional structure and force a different kind of reading to typical young adult coming-of-age novels where characters’ thoughts and feelings are generally more clearly stated. Analysing relationships and revelations within this text requires deep concentration and thoughtful interpretation which is unexpected and rewarding.

One major criticism of the text is that an adult character at least a decade older than Maria makes advances towards her while fully aware that Maria is still a teenager and very unsure of herself sexually and romantically. This would be somewhat redeemable if there was any sort of indication anywhere in the novel that this behaviour is wrong, but it is never implied to be anything more than misguided and insensitive. These scenes toward the last third of the book may be distressing or triggering for some readers, and are certainly a large flaw in an otherwise brave, interesting and creative work.