Megan G reviews Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton

Megan hasn’t spoken in months. Not since that horrible day. She worries that if she starts talking, she won’t be able to stop, and there are some things she simply cannot tell anybody. Except suddenly Jasmine moves to town; kind and talkative Jasmine. And for some reason, Megan finds herself wanting to speak again.

This is one of those typical young adult books that those of us who enjoy YA eat up, and those who don’t roll their eyes at. I have to be honest, I think I would have rolled my eyes a bit if the main couple hadn’t been two girls. It’s just that type of YA book.

I mainly picked this book up because the main character’s name was Megan, and I have to admit that I did enjoy her as a protagonist for the most part. She’s obviously very internal, as she doesn’t speak, but Rushton still manages to do a good job of displaying her character through her inner thoughts and her actions. My only frustration about this is that at times her actions can feel random and quite jarring, and are never truly explained beyond the overall theme of “she’s sad and lonely.” These moments seem to be there more for the sake of drama than to truly advance Megan as a character.

Jasmine, Megan’s love interest, is very interesting and enjoyable overall, but at times falls a little flat. Again, this is a very typical young adult book, so of course the love interest at times feels like she’s there for little more than to be the love interest. Still, as far as young adult love interests go, she’s decently entertaining and at least somewhat fleshed out.

All the young adult cliché’s aside (which, honestly, are not much of a deterrent for me, especially in queer YA), the main thing that frustrated me about this book is that there is a background male character who is assumed to be gay, and bullied because of this at random intervals throughout the book. Halfway through the novel the author seems to forget about him, so the last we see of him is him running from homophobic taunts while Megan thinks to herself that she’s glad she isn’t the one being bullied for once. I’m a big fan of mlm/wlw solidarity, and that was severely lacking in this particular book. I almost rather that tiny little subplot hadn’t even been included, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story and just made me feel annoyed.

Still, overall this is a cute and charming little story with a bit of a mystery to it and a sweet wlw love story. It’s a fast read that I think any YA-loving wlw will enjoy.

Mary Springer reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterspoon

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for mentions of homophobia and abuse

The relationship between sapphic women and Christianity is a complicated and sometimes tragic and violent one. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical story based around the author’s life raised by an evangelists in an English Pentecostal community while discovering her attraction to women.

Jeanette is devoted to her religion and the Christian path her mother has determined for her. She’s admired for being a good Christian girl and absolutely faithful to her community. That is, until she falls in love with another girl, Melanie.

Their relationship makes Jeanette so happy she tell hers mother about it, but only finds her mother angry and upset. Up until this moment, Jeanette has been everything her mother wanted her to be, and her mother in turn as loved and supported everything she did (because everything she did was what her mother told her to do). This change is traumatizing enough for Jeanette without what happens next.

Jeanette and Melanie are forced to undergo exorcisms at the church. Melanie, who has always been the more subservient and less confident of the two, repents. Jeanette refuses and is locked in her parlor by her mother. This whole process takes several days and the author does not shy away from it, probably because she experienced something close to, if not that exactly as it was.

Jeanette eventually pretends to repent simply out of a desperate need for food. However, she remains steadfast in her belief that nothing is wrong with her love for Melanie and that she can maintain that love alongside her faith.

Jeanette remains faithful to her religion because of its ties to love. She loves her mother and believes her mother loves her back. She loves the people in her church and up until this moment they have always loved her back. She loved Melanie, and didn’t see how that love was any different than those others felt. Alongside all of this is her, her love in the God of her church and her belief that he loves her back.

Her church takes an opposite perspective, turning to hate her in a snap judgement of her different sexuality. Jeanette finds herself alone, without the love her community that she was so devoted to.

The bravest part of Jeanette is that despite all of this not only does she not stop loving herself, but she never stops being compassionate and kind. She doesn’t let the hatred of her church sink her from her beliefs in her religion or herself.

The book does a great job of showing how the hatred of the Church members is so contrasted by Jeanette, the lesbian’s, purposeful love, kindness and faith. This book was published in 1985, a time when such depicts would have been shocking. The author takes her time to show the community and it’s members, so you grow attached to them alongside Jeanette, and then feel the same pain she does when she is rejected.

The story is empowering in Jeanette and her ability to take everything in stride and continue to love herself and those around her.

Mary Springer reviews Desperate Times by Hildred Billing

Desperate Times by Hildred Billings

This review contains spoilers. I will state when I am about to go into them, so if you want to read the first few paragraphs to get a general gist of the book, you can do so safely.

Romances between two butch lesbians are hard to come by, so when I found this title I thought I had hit the jackpot.

For many lesbians, living in a small town can be a nightmare for dating opportunities. This is the exact predicament Tess and Sidney find themselves, which inevitably ends in them matching on a dating app and meeting up a local bar. However, each posted some misleading pictures of themselves and both are disappointed to find the other is not femme. For these butches that would usually be a deal breaker, but being the only option for each other they agree to a casual relationship. However, what was supposed to be friends with benefits quickly turns into something more romantic, which becomes a problem in a homophobic, conservative town.

I like a love story with some good, old-fashioned angst, and there was definitely plenty of that here. Tess grew up on a ranch raised by her emotionally distant father and constantly surrounded by men. That plus growing up in a small, conservative town leaves her with a lot of walls and issues to deal with.

Sidney herself is dealing with the frustration of moving from a town with a good-sized LGBT+ community, to this area with absolutely nothing. A place where there is literally just one other lesbian in town. She moved there to take care of a historical building and gives her a set amount of time to stick with it before she’ll allow herself to give up.

This was an interesting premise with a lot of potential and for the first two parts of the book, I felt it lived it up to that. However, in the third part things took a dramatic turn that just did not sit well with me.

Spoilers below.

There is a big celebration for the fourth of July. Sidney and Tess meet up and then go back to Sidney’s place where they start to make out and then begin to go further. In that moment, they see two of the old, gossipy neighbor ladies are staring at them through the window. At this point they are let into the house for some reason, proceed to rage and throw homophobic insults at them. Tess starts crying at this, and Sidney scoffs at her.

Now, that alone would be bad enough. To see the person that you’re involved with being outed and then crying about it only to scoff and diminish them – that’s bad enough. It portrays Sidney as having no idea the potential danger this puts Sidney and herself in, and also that she doesn’t care about her at all.

Then, Tess’s somewhat-friend Ray comes in and tries to help the situation. So, Tess just goes up and kisses him on the mouth to prove her heterosexuality to the two homophobes.

So, that happens. I can’t really find the words to appropriately explain my feelings about this. I’m going to assume you can imagine them.

After that, Sidney is removed from her position as caretaker of the historical house. Tess pretty much avoids her as rumors swarm over the town about the two of them.

Then, they just up and get back together. There’s a brief and unsatisfying makeup seen. Neither of the characters really grows or changes in the third part. I never really felt like how they were outed and how terribly it affected Tess what was fully dealt with. Tess never really grew out of her emotionally detached state. To be honest, she came off as a jerk most of the time.

It felt like Sidney was looking down on everyone for most of the book in a snobbish, upper-middle class kind of way. Which, considering the conservative homophobia makes sense. But as someone who grew up in and is unfortunately stuck in such a small town, there are beautiful parts to it that I wish could have been portrayed as well.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book. However, the final one made it impossible for me to give it a positive review. The author has published more books so I might check those out, because the writing is really well done and the initial premise shows promise for future stories.

Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

Mars Reviews “My Mother Says Drums Are For Boys: True Stories for Gender Rebels” by Rae Theodore

In this short autobiographical essay and poetry collection, Rae Theodore offers a frank and panoramic perspective on growing up butch. The titular term “gender rebel” is entirely accurate here as Theodore recalls a childhood and young adulthood where classic femininity chafed. All the outer accoutrements of fashion and stature were as complicated to her as the mental tightrope that so many butches walk, between a female-bodied experience and an intimate mental relationship with the masculine self. In the author’s case, performativity, or ‘walking the walk’ of socially-acceptable womanhood, was never enough, and was made extra complicated by the realization of her own homosexuality after having already married and built a life with a man.

Reading through this piece was a real pleasure. I haven’t read much LGBTQ+ work that centers the butch experience, and I can’t quite express how powerful and charming it felt to read simple anecdotes packing a reflective punch on the heavy burden that gender can be. I don’t know that I expected to identify so much with it either, but I suppose that’s the power of sharing diverse stories. The weaponization of clothing, jealously observing the freedom of boys, childish yearning for a father’s approval of a son, the immediate and intangible connection that a queer gender rebel feels when encountering one’s elders: Theodore recounts this and more in an honest and straightforward manner that keeps readers glued to the page.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever been made to feel ashamed for their tomboyishness, or gender expression in general; to anyone who has ever needed to contain multitudes of softness and hardness towards the world and towards themselves; or to anyone who in any number of ways has ever felt like a late bloomer.

Disclaimer that there are mentions of violence in certain stories, and a lot of working through deep shame and internalized homophobia, especially earlier on. I will also add that while this is a serious (and sometimes very fun) recounting, the book summits with comforting self-actualization, and this butch seems to have attained a really lovely life. In a book like this, the nice thing about a happy ending is that it makes you believe you can have one too.

Top 20 Lesbian Mystery Novels

Did you know that there are over 1000 lesbian mystery titles? Or that there are over 250 authors of lesbian mysteries, more than 95 percent of whom are still alive and writing? It’s true, but many readers—probably most readers—have never read a single book in the lesbian mystery genre. That’s a shame, because some of them are wonderfully written, exciting, educational, sexy, emotionally satisfying, and yes, important.

Let’s go ahead and define a lesbian mystery. First, of course, the main character must be a lesbian or bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship. Second, the main character must investigate a crime or solve a mystery or puzzle that is central to the story line. That’s just about it, although the best of these offer a glimpse into some interesting aspect of the lesbian lifestyle. Protagonists can be private investigators, law enforcement officers, or amateur detectives of any profession as long as they are not werewolves, vampires, or other superhumans.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the thousand plus titles, the following list is an introductory guide to some of the best books in the genre. The list is in alphabetical order—there is no first, second, or third. They range from the highly literary to the pure and simple whodunit. And remember that the books on this list are my personal favorites—someone else’s list might be quite different. (Titles are linked to full reviews, covers are linked to Amazon pages.)

beverlymalibu   caseofthenotsonicenurse   deathtakes

The Beverly Malibu, by Katherine V. Forrest. There are many good novels in Forrest’s Kate Delafield series, but this one, with its motif of  Hollywood persecution during the McCarthy era, is probably the most important. It is also the book in which Kate meets the person she will live with for most of the rest of the series.

The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, by Mabel Maney. Probably not the most literary read on the list, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, with its parody of the Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew girls’ series books of the mid-20th century. Delightful and fun and more than a little silly.

Death Takes a Hike, by Peta Fox. This is the third and (so far) last book in the Jen Madden series. I list it instead of the first two because it takes some time to get to know Jen and figure out what the author is up to. Take note that the series is so filled with rough sex that it borders on BDSM, but Fox is probably the smartest writer in the bunch. Jen is an absolutely wonderful character with a mindset all her own.

goodbadwoman   gravesilence   houstontown

Good Bad Woman, by Elizabeth Woodcraft. A novel about a British barrister who gets involved with a torch singer. This mystery lands firmly in the literary world and includes a very interesting crash course on British law and the way it is handled. Woodcraft’s only other novel, Babyface, is every bit as noir and every bit as good.

Grave Silence, by Rose Beecham. Set near the desert in Colorado, this one is quite a thrilling adventure with characters that sometimes make Erskine Caldwell’s seem tame. The main character, Jude Devine, is an undercover FBI agent sent to the desert posing as a Sheriff’s detective. She essentially answers to no one.

Houston Town, by Deborah Powell. Powell’s superb use of language—and exciting storylines—make this book and its predecessor, Bayou City Secrets, winners on almost every level. A fairly unusual twist in the lesbian mystery genre, this hard-hitting series is set in 1930s.

ileftmyheart   idahocode   keepingsecrets

I Left My Heart, by Jaye Maiman. An honest look at the emotions behind the death of a loved one—and the resolve to find out the reason she died. Its relatively long length (over 300 pages) gives Maiman the opportunity to fully explore the themes of politics, religion, love, guilt, grief, and passion.

Idaho Code, by Joan Opyr. Bouncy story with a young protagonist, quirky characters, a cool girlfriend, and an odd mystery. Delightful, and its 321-page length gives the author room to move about. Beware of the sequel, however, which is a disappointing rehash.

Keeping Secrets, by Penny Mickelbury. This is the first of the excellent Mimi and Gianna series. Although it is a short novel, it introduces the interracial couple of Gianna and Mimi and provides the background for the rest of the series. It is one of the first series with dual protagonists. All four books are excellent.

lavenderhousemurder   lookingforammu   othersideofsilence

The Lavender House Murder, by Nikki Baker. Superior writing, craft, a winning but argumentative best friend, and deep introspection make this a standout. Virginia Kelly is the first African-American lesbian sleuth in fiction and Baker the first African-American Author. All four books in the series are highly recommended.

Looking for Ammu, by Claire Macquet. Not your typical whodunit, as the protagonist starts out simply looking for a friend. She doesn’t even know what a lesbian is until half the book is over, but what writing! A classic noir thriller that should be at the top of many lists, not just lists about lesbian mysteries. Deep and dark, seamy and satisfying.

The News in Small Towns, by Iza Moreau. A very different setting for this series—a redneck town in North Florida where Sue-Ann McKeown and her girlfriend Gina may be the only lesbians. A story with multiple puzzles, this is one of the most literary books on the list, and one of the most enjoyable series.

The Other Side of Silence, by Joan Drury.  The main draws here include the reclusive protagonist, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, and her main interest in life—to expose violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs. It is a powerful feminist mystery with a surprising and unusual ending.

patternedflute   shescoopstoconquer   tellmewhatyoulike

Outside In, by Nansi Barrett D’Arnuk. Compelling, riveting, undercover mystery that takes place mostly within a women’s prison. Honest, real, exciting, and professional. Another mystery where rough sex also has an important part to play.

The Patterned Flute, by Helen Shacklady. Interesting, free-spirited characters, portrayed well in realistic settings and a wild ride that left me on the edge of my seat. I loved the budding romance between the protagonist and her scheming and determined traveling companion.

She Scoops to Conquer, by Robin Brandeis. This is a stand-alone novel about a reporter in Louisville, Kentucky. Its intriguing and educational plot is interspersed with humor as Lane Montgomery and her erstwhile lover and newspaper rival—both serious femmes—duke it out for the story.

Tell Me What You Like, by Kate Allen. Delves into the S/M leather scene in a way that makes you want to know more. Good characters, good puzzle, good everything.

1222   unexpectedsparks   womenwithredhair

1222, by Anne Holt. Exciting, well-drawn, and professionally written and translated from the Norwegian. In this novel, ex-police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is a wheelchair user and is trapped with other passengers—one of them a murderer—in a train station during a horrible snow storm. The previous books in this series may be even better; but this is the only one I have read.

Unexpected Sparks, by Gina L. Dartt. A darling novel set in Nova Scotia featuring two of the best protagonists in lesbian literature: Kate Shannon, a bookstore owner, and Nikki Harris, a police dispatcher. Their courtship makes this novel—and this 2-novel series—special.

Woman with Red Hair, by Sigrid Brunel. This stand-alone novel is set in France and describes—expertly using the unusual third-person-present point of view—the protagonist’s search for her birth mother. Although maybe not as brilliant or groundbreaking as some of the other books on this list, it is certainly not one you can just read and forget.

There are other writers that came close to making this list: Lindy Cameron, Ellen Hart, Vivien Kelly, Val McDermid, Iona McGregor, and Barbara Wilson, but the titles I read, although very enjoyable, fell just short. See my full-length reviews of over 100 lesbian mystery novels—including the ones listed above—at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel

Megan Casey is a small-town librarian whose special interest is reading, studying, and popularizing the lesbian mystery novel. She moderates the Goodreads Lesbian Mystery study group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries