Mary reviews A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

Ireland? Ghosts? A hot horse trainer?  What more could you ask for?!

Nora is spending her summer exploring the Irish town her grandparents hail from when she discovers her cottage is haunted by a tragic history. She falls in love with the country and the people, her cousins and new friends (and one friend that could turn into more), but her vacation soon takes a drastic turn. She’s started sleepwalking and having awful nightmares, and she won’t leave the cottage for anything or anyone.

Briana has lived in relative solitude–by choice. She works with horses, a job she’s passionate about, has a few friends, and a family she rarely visits. Ever since an accident years ago that she refuses to talk about, she hasn’t let herself grown close to anyone. All of that changes when Nora moves to town and ruffles her feathers.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t very engaged with this book for the first third. The plot took its time getting off the ground, but once it did, I was all in! The author makes sure to set the stage for what’s about to happen so that once it does, you can’t stop reading. As the paranormal happenings rise, tensions between Nora and Briana, as well as with her cousin, rise as well. The relationships you’ve spent so much time reading about developing are now at great risk, and so is Nora.

The characters felt real and interesting. Nora had a full personality with a character arc that I felt was complete by the end. The same can be said for Briana, who was a nice contrast point-of-view character to Nora as their perspectives on haunted cottage vary more and more drastically as the book goes on. Their romance was soft and a slow burn that also had its hot moments. It was nice to watch them grow closer over the course of the book.

Nora’s cousins and friends Sheila and Quinn were good side characters that felt real and added to the story. It was fun to see Nora explore her Irish roots and grow some new ones in her grandparent’s new town through Sheila and Quinn and other family members she meets along the way.

The paranormal aspect of the story was a lot better than I expected. I thought it would be more subdued, but as the ghost–or ghosts–drag Nora into their past, I was dragged along as well. It was also nicely wrapped into Irish history and I enjoyed how the setting played a character of its own.

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a paranormal mystery with some subdued romance, this is the book for you!

Danika reviews Witches of Ash & Ruin by E. Latimer

Witches of Ash and Ruin by E Latimer

Witches are turning up dead in this small Irish town–and they are following a pattern, one that has been winding through different towns for decades. Two rival covens must make an uneasy alliance to find and defend against this witch killer.

Dayna’s coven is the only place she feels at home. Her father is a conservative Christian who would never tolerate witchcraft, if he knew about it. He cast her mother was cast out for her mental illness, sending her to a Christian camp that she has only recently returned from, a stranger to Dayna. She also deals with somatic OCD, and has been ostracized by her community after being outed as bisexual. Now, the cozy family she has with her coven is being threatened, and she’ll do anything to defend it.

Meiner has been raised by her abusive grandmother, who also happens to be a terrifyingly powerful witch. Now, the King Witch is losing her memory, and often slips into irrationality or moments of delusion. Also taken in by this grandmother is Cora, who was “rescued” from an abusive aunt. She and Meiner used to be close, and even dated briefly, but now they have been pitted against each other for who is most worthy to inherent the coven. Cora will do anything for power, even if it means losing herself.

While Dayna and Meiner are clearly the main characters in this story, and their hate-to-love relationship is compelling, there are more point of view characters included. Dubh is the witch killer, and we see brief, chilling glimpses into his actions and motivations. Cora sometimes gets her own POV, revealing her desperation thinly veiling her vulnerability. We also get Samuel’s POV, who is Dayna’s ex, the Good Christian Boy, and is secretly obsessed with a serial killer.

I found it difficult to get into Witches of Ash & Ruin because of the constant POV shifts: it felt like there were so many starts and stops. I also found it difficult to keep track of so many names all at once (but that’s a fault of mine as a reader). By halfway through, although I didn’t remember all of the side characters’ names, I could appreciate what each POV brought to the story. I did get caught up on Samuel, though, who seemed more like a plot device to show things that the other characters necessarily couldn’t see. On the other hand, maybe it’s not that he’s unnecessary; maybe it’s just that I didn’t like him!

I think this would be a great October read for a blustery evening. There are murders taking place, and a real sense of foreboding. The characters are basically being hunted, and you’re not sure how or when they will be targeted. I was a little bit disappointed with the magic aspect, though: early in the novel, we’re told that the “witchlings” have all been waiting to ascend as witches, when they will get a direct link to their god and gain incredible power, unlike anything they could access before. But although two ascend fairly early on, there isn’t a lot of flashy magic being used until the very end of the book. Ultimately, although I appreciated a lot of this book, I just didn’t connect to it the way I wanted to. I think partly that was because I probably would have enjoyed this more in the fall, closer to Halloween, but also because I was overwhelmed with the amount of characters (everyone in both their covens, plus family members and friends), so I couldn’t remember who some of the major characters were, even by the end of the book. I don’t think that’s a fault of the book, though. If you enjoy dark stories about witches, and are interested in one set in Ireland, give this one a try!

Danika reviews Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Megan Casey reviews The Dead by Ingrid Black

thedead

In a 2013 interview, Anne Laughlin lists Ingrid Black as one of her favorite lesbian mystery writers. It isn’t clear from the interview whether she was aware that “Ingrid Black” is actually two writers—Ellis O’Hanlon and her husband Ian McConnel. Nor is it mentioned whether she was aware that O’Hanlon, a journalist, has written flippant comments about people identifying as transgender.

But having gotten that out of the way, The Dead is a right good serial-killer mystery. Saxon, the main character, writes books on true crime. Like Shiloh in Paulette Callen’s excellent Command of Silence, Saxon has only one name, but this doesn’t seem to hinder her greatly. After all, her significant other—Grace Fitzgerald—is Detective Chief Inspector of the Dublin Police, so Saxon can get away with a lot.

The story begins when a man calling himself Ed Fagan begins murdering young prostitutes and leaving religiously themed notes at the scene of the crime. Trouble is, Saxon knows for a fact that Fagan has been dead for years. In fact, she knew the man well enough to begin writing a book about him. So with the help of two profilers, a medical examiner, and of course her S.O. Grace, she decides to hunt for the killer’s real identity before he kills too many more people.

But maybe it’s me that’s being flippant, because, despite what seems to be a same-old, been-there-done-that plot, The Dead is a wet, cold, and dark investigation. Saxon herself has been numbed by her proximity to death and death dealers. Her point of view is a depressing, introspective, quasi-philosophical one. This is how she describes a crime scene, for instance: “A place where there had been such pain and terror was always afterwards so quiet, and yet it would never be entirely free of its past. Bad things lingered, and it turned those places bad in turn, so that other bad things happened in turn.” This is not light reading and the novel sometimes seems to have as many twists and turns as Dublin has dark alleys.

The writing itself is very good and O’Hanlon and McConnel’s voices blend so perfectly that Anne Laughlin (or any other reader) can be forgiven for not suspecting a collaboration. I hope she can forgive me if I am wrong about suspecting that she patterned the unfortunate ending of her first book, Veritas, on this one. On the other hand, the ending of The Dead is first rate.

Downsides? Well, Saxon doesn’t sound much like the American she is supposed to be–and even less like a Bostonian. She knows that baseball teams field nine players, but most of her expressions are Irish or British. Too, there is no sense of lesbian community here; Saxon’s relationship with Grace could just as easily have been with a man—and vice versa. There is no sex, no romance, not even much touching. It makes me wonder why the authors chose to call either Saxon or Grace a lesbian. Since neither author has evidently had much experience in being a lesbian, why not identify their characters as straight—especially if they are going to act the part?

Despite this, I would give this book close to 4 stars, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, hoping they fix the weaknesses in this one.

For more than 175 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

Marthese reviews The Princess Affair by Nell Stark

princessaffair

“You deserve a princess, Kerry, but a princess who will hold your hand in public” – Harris

I admit that I am not much of a romance book reader, but this summer I was travelling and wanted to read something light that didn’t get me hooked, so I could drop it if I needed to. The Princess Affair, for being a romance story was quite good. I was in the awkward position of liking a few clichés but disliking others and I think that this book, did well with that.

This is a romance story between sporty, nerdy and American Rhodes scholar Kerry and Princess Sasha (Alexandra) from the house of Carlisle. The chapters varied in POVs between them. The Royalty factor is the cliché bit, but I have to admit that I could be a bit of a romantic and the idea of a royal romance story leaves me with a warm feeling. I wanted the story to be realistic; to be romantic because it was do-able and I think this book succeeded in that.

Princess Sasha comes off as pretentious and wild (“the princess seemed wild around the edges”) but there is more to her and she had depth, she’s not perfect but she’s human. Kerry is quite likable and I could relate to her a lot. Sasha and Kerry learned to see through each others’ masks and see the baggage the other one had. I liked the chemistry that the two women had together it seemed genuine. They also talk about their relationship and though at times there are misunderstandings they work for the relationship to work but they have trust issues. Sasha doesn’t think she can have a real relationship while Kerry doesn’t think Sasha will stay with a women for the long run.

A thing that I liked was that they did not have sex from the start; at first not for lack of trying but then they decide to take it slow so it was towards nearly the middle of the book when it happened. It was not insta-love although there was insta-attraction.

As usual, I have a tendency to like side characters. I liked Ian and Harris as characters and what they gave to the plot. I liked that they were gay and their friendship and working relationship with queer women. I also like how Ian warms up to Kerry while still being protective of his charge and how Harris helps Sasha and still being on Kerry’s turf. However, I didn’t particularly like Miranda. In her scene with Kerry in the club towards the end, she was less annoying but I still do not think she was redeemed from haven proven that she was not a good friend to Sasha.

The cherry on top was their trip to (North) Ireland. I was reading that bit when flying to (South) Ireland so that gave it more perspective for me.

In the end I love how Sasha stood up for herself and all she represented. How she stood up for gay rights (though I think she meant this as an umbrella term for queer people considering her previous comments) and learning (dis)abilities. I liked the tidbits of politics and architecture thrown in and media assumptions and affects. It has a good ending I think and worth a read if you want to read a queer women romance.