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.

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).

Megan Casey reviews Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

This book is interesting not so much for the mystery, which is a bit less than so-so, but for the fact that it was penned by Muller, who, along with P.D. James, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, are often considered the first modern women detective novelists. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) was the first—and likely the best—of these, but only one more Cordelia Gray book followed before James went on to other characters. Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) began the long career of P.I. Sharon McCone, who has now appeared in at least 34 novels. Why is this important? Because out of all of the famous women mystery writers we see on the best-seller lists, including Rita Mae Brown, Patricia Cornwell (both of whom identify as lesbian), Janet Evanovich, and J.D. Robb (who do not), Muller is the only one who has written a novel with a lesbian protagonist. And even here she kind of hedges her bets by giving her a male counterpart, who shares the story and comes to the rescue at the end.

The story goes something like this. Carly McGuire, editor of a small-town newspaper, picks up hitchhiker Ardis Coleman, who is on the run from demons in her past. The two fall in love and set up house together. Fourteen years later, Ardis disappears on the same day that her ex-husband shows up looking for her. The husband, Matt Lindstrom, has been tipped off by an anonymous phone call as to where Ardis has been living for so long and he plans to confront her not only for leaving him, but leaving him to be suspected of killing her and disposing of her body. But when Ardis runs away again, he and Carly are forced to team up to find her—before something really happens to her.

Carly McGuire is not a particularly well-drawn lesbian, so you won’t get much of a sense of the LGBT community here. Still, Carly is a strong, acceptably likeable character. Her erstwhile life partner, Ardis, is less so. In fact, her character flip-flops like a jumping bean without a hint as to what makes her do so. A much-needed backstory is hinted at, but never delivered. The mystery is not badly conceived, but it is pretty badly executed. It involves the three-year-old murder or a gay couple who happened to be friends with Carly and Ardis. In fact, if you can believe it, Ardis wins a Pulitzer in journalism for her in-depth reporting of the murder. Meanwhile, the dastardly mayor is threatening Carly and Ardis with all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things if Ardis doesn’t sell him the property previously owned by the murdered couple—property for which Ardis is the administrator. And property which may harbor a rich vein of gold.

Well, after a great deal of searching and interviewing by Carly and Matt (they have alternate, third-person point-of-view chapters), and two suicides that seem to indicate involvement in the gay couple’s murder, the story seems to peter out in the time-honored fashion of having the killer simply be someone who is insane. The writing is professional, but obviously so. In other words, Muller, who has already written well over 40 novels, has to “research” this one—find out the intricacies of the place, how to be a photographer, and other tidbits. The homework shows. I feel nothing heart-felt here, just surface observations. We know little about even the main characters, such as who their friends are, what they drink, their ages–things that make me suspect that the author didn’t know them either.

I guess the best part of this book—aside from the characters of Carly and Matt—is that the two didn’t get together at the end. But that’s one of those things that, if they had, simply would have taken a full star away from the book’s rating. As it is, the rating doesn’t change. Give it no more than a 2.4 as a mystery, 2.0 as a lesbian mystery. I’d say that if you’re wanting to give Muller a try, start with a Sharon McCone mystery. An early one.

Note: Although this is called the second novel in the Soledad County series, it is the only one in which Carly McGuire is a protagonist. I read the first hardback printing of the Mysterious Press edition of this novel.

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

Danika reviews When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Lesbrarian Jess H. reviews Birds of a Feather by Jackie Calhoun

Birds of a Feather by Jackie Calhoun is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.  And no, I haven’t read The Well of Loneliness.  It is hard for me to think of a single moment of joy in Calhoun’s contemporary romance (published 1999).  I use the term “romance” loosely, because romance seems to be as absent as joy is.

In the story, we follow Joan McKenzie, a divorcee nearing fifty whose first relationship with a woman has ended.  She lives in Wisconsin, works two jobs to make ends meet, and enjoys birdwatching and spending time with her dog Yeller in her off hours.  While she’d like to find love again, she feels conflicted about which woman she wants to pursue and the type of relationship she would like to have.  She is intrigued by enigmatic, bisexual Linda. Sturdy, sporty Liz is a friend of Linda’s who also captures Joan’s attention. And then there is her longtime best friend Diane, who is in a committed relationship with Tania, but for whom Joan has undeniable feelings.

Overall Joan’s life feels stagnant and purposeless, which I initially assumed was intentional on Calhoun’s part.  However, there is no character arc to be found here. Joan remains in precisely the same directionless, unfulfilled place when the novel ends as she was at its beginning.  The extreme stagnancy of Joan’s life translates onto the page and makes for a suffocating, almost hopeless, read. It doesn’t help that Calhoun devotes lots of page time to mundane details such as what people ate, the specific make and model of their vehicles, etc.  It’s a short novel, but I didn’t find it to be a particularly quick read and I had no trouble setting it aside to read other things. The level of dramatic tension is not high.

One of the reasons I was not drawn into the book was because I did not find Joan to be a particularly relatable (or, at times, even likable) character.  I didn’t fully understand the motivations for her actions, and she could be snippy with her friends and downright selfish in her romantic pursuits. I was rooting for her to find happiness, but I didn’t find her to be a particularly engaging character and following her life was a claustrophobic experience at times.

As you can probably tell, I would not recommend Birds of a Feather.  The writing is grammatically sound and the book is readable (I did make it through to the end).  What it is not, however, is enjoyable. Worst of all, it offers what I found to be a dim, gray, bleak portrait of lesbian life.  Readers seeking positive portrayals of sapphic women and relationships should definitely look elsewhere.

(2 stars)

Jess H. is a late blooming Gen Xer who came out in her 30s.  She enjoys reading lesbian literature to further explore her identity, works as a consultant in the IT field, and keeps such a low profile online that she can’t readily be found on social media.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian

Beneath the Silver Rose by T.S Adrian cover
Shadiya is a prized courtesan of the Silver Rose, one of dozens of elegant Sisters who serve the men–though never the women–of the land of Anderholm. Fiercer-tempered than any of her compatriots, Shadiya makes what would be reckoned by many in her position as a mistake; rather than allowing herself to be raped, she kills the nobleman who comes to assault her, catapulting the house of the Silver Rose into politics from which it had long been carefully kept safe. The resulting narrative is full of interwoven designs and intrigues, with Shadiya unwillingly at the center of attention for forces that are more than her match in terms of knowledge and strength. Ancient scholars, abandoned quasi-gods, mortal treachery and plain old misogyny all conspire to throw her off balance–but she’s no layabout, and she’s not afraid to make choices boldly. I appreciated how even though she was not the one with power, other than the power of persuasion and an extreme physical coordination, still she was no shrinking violet. Juggling her need to survive, her longing for her secret and forbidden female lover, and her hopes for the future of her courtesan sisterhood, she must navigate the desires and heavy-handed jealousies of men.
Shadiya goes from one difficult situation to the next, always doing her best to survive it, but increasingly endangered. She takes as lover a fellow courtesan, and the relationship between them is easy and believable, down to the little arguments that they get into now and again. Every choice she makes tangles her further in the web of problems, and it becomes difficult to see how she could possibly escape.
I went into this book trying to keep an open mind. Ever since Kushiel’s Dart was published fifteen years or so ago, there have been more and more fantasy novels with sharp-witted courtesans as their main characters, to the point that tropes of the genre are starting to define themselves, but the subgenre can be a lot of fun in the right hands.. So by the time I was fifty pages or so in, I thought I had this one pegged. Clever, preternaturally physically skilled medieval-European-style courtesan attracts the attention of rich, powerful man, must fight off the jealousy of older women to net him, becomes something greater (and no longer a sex worker: a one-dimensional fantasy novel baseline much like “pauper” or “orphan thief,” something to extricate oneself from), only this time, With Lesbians!
And then, defying my expectations, just when the tension and malice from all sides seemed to be at its peak, the book transformed into an old-fashioned dungeon romp, complete with pitfalls and random-encounter-style monsters. I was delighted. No  longer having to worry about angry machinations from the book’s female antagonist, I found that I was really enjoying the read. The interplay between the characters was quick and believable, and while there wasn’t exactly anything groundbreaking in that section of the book it was still snappy and well-paced. It was the sort of thing you might see in a really good D&D session, familiar but warming in its familiarity. I liked the various uses of magic and illusion, I was hopeful that this was going to continue to be like a classic adventure fantasy (only this time, with queer girls!) and I caught myself thinking that I’d definitely be picking up the sequel, if things continued this way.
And then in another hard turn, the book became ultra-violent within the last short handful of pages, and any joy I had in the narrative was extinguished like a candle. I mentally crossed off pretty much every single female friend I’d been about to recommend the novel to, though I might still recommend it to a male friend or two, with warnings.
This book honestly feels like two disparate novels. There’s the palace intrigue, with violence and stolen gifts and hidden swords and razor smiles, and there’s the bouncy dungeon crawl. Taken separately, I might have been able to enjoy either of them for what it was; the misogynistic world where women are abused without recourse, but where Shadiya could somehow rise above her situation and change things, or the quick-paced but character driven role-playing game novel. But the jarring tone changes from one aspect of the book to the other made it so that when the casual brutality arrived, it was so shocking that it left a terrible taste in my brain. The book ends on a cliffhanger, more or less immediately after this new violence.
Things I really liked: the sex scenes are pretty good, whether f/f or f/m. They’re plentiful, for what that’s worth, but they’re also not the ponderous sort frequently common to would-be literary fantasy; like the dungeon scenes, they’re just fun. I liked that the female characters, of which there are several, are different personalities from each other, with all the ways that they can mesh or grate against one another. I liked that there is clearly no shortage of history and backstory behind the narrative, and the world was so layered that I’m sure I’d love to sit in a pub with the author and listen to her expound on the Things That Were, a few centuries back in the timeline.
Things that I didn’t like:  This is definitely a nitpick, but the naming conventions are a bit distracting. There are names like Deresi and Shadiya, which sound sufficiently fantastic, and then there are names like Aaron and Benjamin. The names which stood out as easily recognizable were Jewish names, and I couldn’t decide if that meant the author was exoticizing the Jewish mythological tradition. Shadiya might be an Arabic name, but the setting is decidedly European. And then there are the names that seem to come from words I’d know, like Sybaris for the captain of the guard for the Silver Rose, and Mienhard, a cruel-faced male antagonist who shows up in the beginning to assault the protagonist.
More damningly, I didn’t approve of the way that the female antagonist, herself merely a pawn to masculine anger and manipulation, was so afraid of aging rather than enjoying the power that can be found in experience. I thought it was a bit unrealistic that she was no longer able to wrap men around her little finger, as there are always going to be young cockerels who want to be taught the ways of the world by a mature woman. And then, finally, I loathed the brutal and frankly gratuitous offscreen gang rape, torture, and probable murder of a childlike character who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a scene horrifically out of place for the tone of the rest of the novel.
Final rating: Two of five stars. Would have been four without the rape.

Mallory Lass reviews Lily and the Crown by Roslyn Sinclair

I couldn’t find a way to write this review without spoilers, so you may want to proceed with caution if that’s a deal breaker. Also, this book wasn’t my jam. Despite featuring one of my favorite tropes (age-gap), being a space opera, and lots of people singing its praises, I couldn’t get into it. Lily and the Crown developed from a Devil Wears Prada AU fanfiction, so that was also part of the intrigue for me.

Lady Ariana “Ari” Geiker is a 20 year old botany prodigy who has turned her quarters into a botanical garden. She is the daughter of Lord Geiker, stationmaster on Nahtal which affords her certain excesses and freedoms. When we first meet her, she is presented as a workaholic with reclusive tendencies. To her surprise, her father sends her a woman slave (captured in a recent pirate raid), who he hopes will keep her company and make sure she eats regularly. Ari can’t bear the thought of having a slave, so she forces the woman to choose a name. “Assistant” is settled on. Assistant is a captured and interrogated pirate slave in her 50’s. Or is she? I think the reader is meant to be in on the fact that she isn’t who she claims to be. She is actually Mír, the ruthless marauding pirate leader.

The setup of this story irked me from the beginning and here is why:

First:

The whole story is premised on the fact that this universe has slaves. The only way Assistant finds her way into Ari’s life is through this ruse of her being a pirate slave turned spoil of war. The fact that there are slaves with no real explanation of why that is a part of this space society bothered me. No one is nice to them except Ari. We didn’t get an explanation as to why there are slaves until 2/3rds through the book, and it wasn’t satisfying:

“Slaves were ordinary people. They came from everywhere—children whose parents sold them out of poverty, people captured during war or raids, people who had gone too deeply into debt and had only themselves left to sell for repayment.“

If slaves were ordinary people, and thus anyone was at risk of becoming a slave, you would think they would be shown more humanity. It just didn’t jive, and I think another plot device could have been used to set this story up. If slavery is going to be worked into the backdrop of a universe, I expect some larger social commentary than “slavery is bad and we should try to abolish it” (which is Ari’s, and ultimately Mír’s position). It’s not enough.

Second:

The reader knows Assistant is not who she says she is, so the entire book is a lead up for that revelation to finally, finally, come to Ari. I just didn’t find the lead up all that engaging. In fact, the last 5th of the book–when that reckoning finally happens–is the best part, and I think if it would have come much earlier, I would have been more engrossed. I am certainly more interested in what happened between the end of the book and the epilogue than I was with what happened between their first meeting and the reveal.

Now, about why it took so long. Sinclair spends a lot of time really hammering home that Ari is just missing the boat. Ari repeatedly brings up that the people around her think she is weird. I was trying to figure out if her social miscues were because she was on the autism spectrum, but in the end, I think she was just sheltered. Her mom died early in her life, and her dad was too occupied with his role as military strategist and consumed with his grief over his wife’s death to raise Ari with any semblance of a normal upbringing. This makes her socially awkward, sheltered and extremely naive.

So while we are waiting for the reveal, Assistant sets out to seduce Ari. I think in part because she is intrigued by her oddities, her enthusiasm for plants, and her obvious intelligence. But I also think coming from the life she did, leader of a massive rebellion, she was bored. As was I. Seduction quickly turned to sex, but I didn’t like how Ari losing her virginity transpired. Assistant pounced on her in the middle of the night after telling her a violent bedtime story that clearly unsettled Ari. Ari’s body certainly responds to Assistant, and she comes willingly. I still feel a little icky about her emotional/mental state before and after. The power dynamic for me is out of whack. Assistant holds all the cards in their intimate relationship, never letting Ari pleasure her. After their first time, they are consumed with each other. Assistant, with taking Ari as often and in every space in their quarters she can, and Ari, with the first person she has ever truly felt cared for her, and who she feels she is caring for in turn by keeping her out of the traditional slave life. She even comes to the conclusion Assistant feels obligated to have sex with her because of her role.

The bulk of the sex between Ari and Assistant was missing all the wonderful negotiation that usually comes with age-gap relationships. It isn’t until the reveal that Ari gets on nearly equal footing with Mír, and then they really shine together. Ari exploring Mír’s body for the first time was a wonderfully written scene. I just wish it came earlier and served as the start of the second half of the book. Ultimately, we discover Ari sets Mír off balance, and that scares the crap out of her. It’s also an exploitable weakness in war.

Despite the deception, once Ari reconciles Assistant and Mír as one in the same in her mind, she still needs something Mír may not be able to give: her love.

Will these two find a way to put their complicated and tangled pasts behind them and find a way to move forward? Will Mír succeed in taking over the Empire? Will Ari stand by her side or go back to her plants? Can they find a middle ground?

Sinclair’s writing is good, and despite not jiving with this story, I would pick up something else she’s written.

Danika reviews Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

 

Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann cover

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this one. Initially, I was really excited to pick it up! A black, biromantic, asexual main character in a YA romance? That is definitely not an intersection often explored. I was looking forward to something fun and fairly light, and initially, I thought that was what I was getting. Alice is an adorable main character. She’s still mostly closeted as asexual, but she’s done a lot of thinking about it. She’s developed a Cutie Scale, which basically measures her aesthetic attraction–not just to people, but to all kind of cute things. (Alice is obsessed with cute.)

I loved Feenie–the grouch–immediately. She hates everyone but her boyfriend (Ryan) and Alice. The three of them live together, and form a tight-knit family. Feenie has always been fiercely protective of Alice, including punching a girl in the face in high school who made fun of Alice for being asexual. She’s rough around the edges, but I was invested in their little family. And–initially–I really liked Takumi as well. He almost seemed too perfect (which they flat-out say in text). It was a promising beginning! But… little irritations started to add up.

They didn’t seem major at first. For example, Alice works at the library, but doesn’t seem to care about it or enjoy it that much. She’s constantly off in a corner with Takumi, not working. Her boss also doesn’t like being a librarian. This is a very minor point, but it was puzzling to me: librarianship is a highly competitive field that doesn’t pay well. How would people who are indifferent to it get in and keep these jobs? And then there were some weird class moments, but that’s eventually addressed (Alice keeps saying that she’s poor and her parents are rich, but that’s not really what being poor is. Alice has a safety net, even if it comes with restrictions she doesn’t want. She equates the idea of being cut off from their money as being disowned.)

Her family is also… Well, they seem realistically complicated, but I can see how Alice was constantly stressing about it. She’s the youngest sibling by decades, and everyone seems to be determined to make her decisions for her. Her mother, especially, insists that she has to go to law school or she’s throwing away her future. Every time she does anything that her mother doesn’t approve of, all of her older siblings call and text constantly to criticize her. There is love there, but it had me stressed out just reading about it.

Soon, even the aspects I was enjoying started to fizzle out (or explode). Feenie went from gruff-but-lovable to downright shitty. Feenie and Ryan are engaged, and although the three of them are theoretically a unit, Alice is often the third wheel. Which is fine, until Alice starts going off with Takumi and Feenie goes into a rage over it. Both Feenie and Ryan seem to expect Alice to constantly be available to them, though that’s not equally true of them.

Spoilers follow for the rest of this review, because I have Thoughts.

When Feenie and Alice finally discuss what’s come between them, it turns into Alice calling herself an asshole and saying she’s been selfish, which is… not what I had been seeing. Although they form a shaky truth, it didn’t feel resolved for me. Feenie stopped being a favourite and instead felt like a toxic, possessive relationship.

And speaking of relationships! I was into Takumi at first because, as stated, he seemed pretty much perfect. Which meant the ending gave me whiplash. On reflection, I realized that I felt like there was no middle to the book. Alice and Takumi get closer and closer, without any real conflict between them until the end. They basically seem to already be dating. So it was a shock to me that when Alice finally (finally) actually asks him out, he spouts off the same ignorant things that we’ve already heard from her previous ex. Takumi–who knew Alice was asexual, who had seemed supportive–says that if she really loved him, she would let him have sex with her. Which is appalling to me. Why would you ever want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to be there? I can understand him saying “I don’t think I could give up sex.” But that was terrible to read. I actually found my eyes skimming over his whole speech, because I couldn’t understand why Alice was going through this again, when it had already happened in the beginning of the book. He did later sort of take it back, but to me, the damage was done. I no longer saw it as a happily ever after, because I didn’t like Takumi anymore.

I did read a review of an earlier draft of this book that clarified some things for me. Apparently in earlier drafts, Takumi was not a saint. In fact, he was downright skeezy at points. And that explains why I felt like there was no middle to the book: originally, it was a push and pull between Takumi and Alice, with Takumi pressuring Alice into things she wasn’t comfortable with. Understandably, that was criticized, and most of that was removed, but that puts the ending in context, as well as their lack of conflict in the middle of the book.

I’m disappointed, because I was really enjoying the read for the first 3/4 of the book, even with the minor issues I had with it, but the ending left my unsatisfied. Takumi went from eerily perfect to (in my eyes) irredeemable on a dime. Alice’s relationships with her family–both by birth and chosen–were still strained. It was far from the fluffy, uplifting ending I was expecting, though I know it was supposed to be a HEA.

I know other people really enjoyed this book, and I can see why. But it left me stressed and sad, which I don’t think was the intention.

Ren reviews Caged by Destiny Hawkins

TW: PTSD, mental abuse, physical abuse, domestic abuse, gun violence, and mentions of sexual assault.

At the beginning of the story, main character Rose is eight years old and recently abducted. Our antagonist Arnold runs a child fighting ring, and Rose makes him money.

The details involving the collapse of the fighting racket, the rescue of the (many) kidnapped children, and Arnold’s arrest are all very vague, but the majority of the novel takes place many years later. Rose (now a high school senior) has recently moved to Ohio following an ‘incident’ at her old school in California. The novel is written entirely from Rose’s first person POV, and in the initial chapters her narration is a little world-wise for an eight-year-old, but it’s spot on for the part of the brooding teenager.

Rose attempts to forge a new life for herself; from her very first day, she’s drawn to Abigale and Lorena. Abigale is an easy-going girl who falls into a natural rhythm with Rose, and Lorena is the instant crush who leaves Rose tongue-tied. Abigale’s friend Cameron is on the wrestling team; when Rose expresses an interest in joining, the wrestling coach forces her to have a private pre-tryout tryout match against Cameron… because there is concern for her safety. Because wrestling is dangerous (for ladies), of course.

The idea is insulting, but Cameron doesn’t stoop to defensive posturing when he loses.  He’s quick to give Rose the credit she deserves for a good fight, and they become fast friends. Life is good for a short time, but Rose soon finds herself spiraling as she tries to move forward without ever really dealing with everything that has happened in her past.

There is a lot to this book that doesn’t make sense: Rose’s parents are killed prior to her rescue, and so she is placed in the care of her aunt. We learn through Rose that Aunt Shannon physically and mentally abused her for years, but Ohio!Shannon has sudden regrets and is committed to being an attentive guardian.

Arnold never actually goes to jail because ‘someone went in his place,’ and no further explanation is given. (Note that this is not a matter of having another human convicted in Arnold’s place; Arnold is sent to jail, and through some wild series of events to which the reader is not privy, it goes unnoticed that he is not in fact the one who arrives at the jail to serve the sentence.)

The California ‘incident’ at the old high school involved Rose accidentally killing someone, but the act is pardoned because of her special circumstances.

The plot is rushed along through coincidence and half the student body is tied to the fighting ring in some obscure manner by the end. But there is beauty to be found in the racial diversity. Rose is black, Lorena is mixed, and many of the characters are pretty pointedly not white.

There is a humorous moment early on in which Rose tries to figure out Lorena’s background; being mixed myself, I have been on the receiving end of the “what are you” question from so many white people, I am entirely unfazed by it. But Rose’s manner of venturing a few reasonable guesses caused a familiar tug of appreciation for People of Colour and their ability to ask the same question in a way that comes across as curious and not rude as fuck.

“Are you Guyanese?” “Which one of your parents is Indian?”

These are assuming questions, but at least there’s a degree of recognition; it doesn’t sound like you’re asking someone about their rescue dog.

Additional Pros:

Rose knows her strengths, and she is unapologetically confident.

The queer content is light, but there is bi and lesbian representation.

Additional Cons:

One of the wrestling team bros is dating Lorena in the earlier chapters, and he regularly abuses her. Because of a ‘lack of proof’, Cameron very problematically extends the benefit of a doubt to Abusive Wrestling Douchebag.

Aunt Shannon makes a dismissive comment regarding her relief that Rose is ‘at least interested in somebody’ after she begins spending more time with Lorena.

Rose dresses Lorena up ‘like a tomboy’ after a sleepover to ensure that Cameron won’t hit on her.

The plot is not particularly well executed, but it shows immense imagination.