Julie Thompson reviews Heart of the Game by Rachel Spangler

Sports journalist Sarah Duke lives for the crack of a bat and a deep hit caught at the wall. After years busting her chops reporting college baseball games on up, dealing with sexist locker rooms, fans, and colleagues, Duke finally scores her dream job: covering the St. Louis Cardinals. At the season opener, she meets a young fan with as much passion for the game as she. Duke also becomes smitten with the boy’s mother, Molly Grettano. The single mother juggles career, family, and the expectations that she deals with from others and herself. While she dances with the idea of dating as a newly out lesbian, Molly’s long hours balancing managerial aspirations at her restaurant job with her two young sons come first.

Throughout the story, the fierce loves that Duke and Molly live and breathe conflict with how they want their romantic dreams to play out. Both women have worked their asses off to get where they are and compromise doesn’t come easy. Duke exudes easy charm and her enthusiasm for baseball is infectious. She breaks down all of life’s ups and downs into baseball terms, which might wear thin for some readers, but comes across as natural for Duke. Molly worries her kids, especially precocious baseball super fan Joe, might get too attached to Duke. The kids are an integral part of the story, not a tacked on afterthought. One of my sister’s recently started dating again and she can attest that it isn’t easy, especially with kids.

Towards the end of the story I wondered if an Happy Ever After was really in the cards. And then, because of Spangler’s skillful storytelling and respect for her characters, I realized that any way it ended would satisfy. As Duke would say, this story reveals more than its box score indicates. Friendship, family bonds, and love resonate in this contemporary romance.

I haven’t followed baseball since the Seattle Mariners’ golden era (1995-2001). Rachel Spangler’s sports romance, Heart of the Game, however, gets me excited for the start of Major League Baseball at the end of March and for local minor league games where every seat is a good one. Fresh cut grass, peanut shells underfoot, and the swell of the crowd, and everyone dancing the latest craze in tandem (the only time I’ve ever seen a thousand people of all ages do the Macarena). What could be better?

For anyone participating in Lesbian Book Bingo, this novel satisfies the Sports Romance square.

Julie Thompson reviews Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes

Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes cover

Just in case you’re unaware, author Jae is hosting Lesbian Book Bingo. There are twenty-five genre categories, including a free square in the center of the board. If you’re like me, some of the squares will challenge you to give books you might otherwise skip over a second chance. Celebrity romances and hospital dramas, for example, aren’t my cup of tea (though I did watch a shizzload of “Primetime in the Daytime” ER episodes between classes and devoured gossip magazines in college).

Aside from the joys of discovering great new books to read, if you participate you could win some sweet prizes! Starting this month and through the rest of the year, I’m going select review books based on bingo categories.

Last month I read Ask, Tell by E.J. Noyes, a romance set in the waning years of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) United States policy, fits snugly inside the camo pocket of the “women in uniform” category. Department of Defense directive 1304.26, E1.2.8 (1993-2011) forbid US soldiers from asking about the sexuality of service members or tell others about their own or others. Prior to this, many people not only received dishonorable discharges from being targeted as gay, lesbian, and queer, they also lost out on future job opportunities and much, much more. The private and public ramifications of being labeled unfit for duty because of their sexuality had far-reaching effects.

One of the reasons that I usually avoid military novels is that I don’t want to read a 150 page plus advertisement for the armed services and that I’ve already watched countless documentaries, mini series, and movies. Thankfully, Noyes has crafted a thoughtful romance about the heavy toll that government policies such as DADT exact from queer service members.

Captain Sabine Fleischer, an Army surgeon, carries on her family’s tradition of military service. Out of range of the brass or colleagues, she lives openly as a lesbian with her supportive family, and her longtime girlfriend, Victoria. On duty, she hides all traces of her personal affairs. The pressure of leading a dual life is palpable throughout the story.

Her current deployment to Afghanistan is spent scrubbing in for surgery, hanging out with her best friend and fellow surgeon, Mitch, or crushing on her superior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Keane. When an unexpected letter from home arrives, it triggers a surge of emotions with few healthy outlets. The novel’s romance, much like the surgeries performed on wounded soldiers, centers on patience and attention to detail as the women navigate attraction in a restrictive environment. Supporting cast of family, friends, and co-workers add depth to the story as it moves between Afghanistan and the US, between difficult decisions, and towards an uncertain future. If you’re like me, the almost snowglobe focus on routine medical procedures and DADT insulates you against the fact that they are in a war zone. Despite the battered and broken people coming through their operating rooms, the last quarter of the novel may take you off guard. Absorbing, moving, and unhurried, Ask, Tell gives readers a hard-won possibility.

Julie Thompson reviews Don’t Date a Writer by Maj al-Yasa

Inspired by a summer spent swirling between Germany, Spain, and Iowa City, Iowa, poet Maj al-Yasa explores the vagaries of love. This poetry collection is organized as a journey in four parts: Unrequited Love (I don’t understand); Requited Love (why you loved me once); Loss (and then let me go.); Vices (Asshole). Or, read more directly together as “I don’t understand why you loved me once and then let me go. Asshole.” In the foreword, al-Yasa ruminates at a bus station about the journey that resulted in these verses. The poems reveal a traveler, warts and all, as she makes her way through different continents, bodies, and memories. al-Yasa conveys a muddled romanticism, optimism, and cynicism, which renews in short cycles: infatuation and hesitation, finally getting what is desired, fleeing from connections like it’s a house on fire, but then loathe to leave.  al-Yasa exudes joyful abandon, insecurity, indecision, and a wanderlust that itches her mind like fiberglass. Despite the collection’s structure, I got the sense as I read that there isn’t a single beginning or end on this emotional journey; there’s just a past, present, and future tense. It also resonates with the sense that adulthood, and other mythical states, don’t exist as such.

A few of my favorite poems blend contrasts. For example, you encounter fragile confidence dressed up in boi-ish bravado, which falters and stammers at the sight of a beautiful woman in “she said nah (freestyle”. There are two acrostic poems that I stumbled upon like Easter eggs. An acrostic poem, for those who may be unfamiliar with this form, uses the first letter of a word in a line to eventually spell out a word. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss them. While I will leave it to you to find them (because that’s part of the fun in stumbling upon them), they stand out because the letters are in bold text. The imagery is straightforward, but at times there are artistic flourishes. “Our Colors” refracts a relationship through a ROYBGIV lens. You may not always like what is reflected in these pages, but it is honest and accessible.

Julie Thompson reviews Mistletoe Mishap by Siri Caldwell

For science professors Kendra and Viv, winter vacation means catching up on paperwork and maybe squeezing in research, too. They’re a long-term couple with a wonderful rhythm, but romance gets buried beneath the layers of routine. Long hours dedicated to the geology and immunology departments at the university plus professional obligations equals short evenings at home. En route to the university one morning, a radio personality fields comments from callers offering advice to a woman interested in pausing her sex life in the months leading up to her wedding. Inspired, Kendra proposes a twelve days of Christmas-style contest as a way of turning around their stagnant sex life. Whoever can make the other orgasm the most by the end of the contest is the winner. Siri Caldwell weaves a satisfying mixture of sugar and spice, wonderful character chemistry, and relatable intimacy fluctuations. I appreciate that neither woman is portrayed as being the “ideal”, as far as sexual expression. It’s an oft written formula that one partner needs to be “fixed” or “brought up to speed” in order for Happy Ever After. Viv isn’t publicly demonstrative with affection, while Kendra, though not Ms. Octopus hands, is a bit more so. When they’re at home, well, it’s not for lack of passion that they’ve been in a dry spell.

Each chapter starts with the current score (i.e. Kendra 0, Viv 0). Chapter beginnings feel like opening Advent squares, the anticipation of what treat awaits adds to the festive atmosphere, though neither woman is particularly religious. Mathematical calculations, strategizing, and other shenanigans add humor as Kendra and Viv establish parameters, and scope out tryst locations. Sex is a large part of the story’s focus, but it’s not the only component of their partnership that the two women explore. For anyone who is or has been in a long-term relationship, physical and emotional aspects ebb and flow over time. The story stays outside of first person point-of-view territory, opting instead for third-person limited on Kendra’s side. As a result, the reader is privy to some of what Kendra is feeling, but much of the couple’s thoughts and feelings become clearer as they get to know each other again.

If you’re in the mood for a heartwarming, sexy holiday story, heat up some peppermint hot chocolate and curl up with Mistletoe Mishap.

Julie Thompson reviews Ripped: A Rapunzel Retelling by M. Hollis

Modern-day fairytale revisions let us see ourselves more broadly reflected. My favorite stories include rows upon rows of crowded bookshelves and women who happen to be in a pickle, but aren’t afraid to ask for help in kicking down the tower’s front door. I also love stories with more than one swashbuckling heroine.

M. Hollis’s Ripped: A Rapunzel Retelling inserts a young princess, Valentina, into derelict tower, nestled deep in the woods. Her father, a warmongering king, treats her with contempt. The death of her mother, the beloved queen, provides an easy excuse to tuck away an unwanted daughter until a suitable sale of marriage is rung up after puberty.

The story follows the fairytale format, but features modern interpersonal and social dynamics. Valentina and Agnes (you’ll meet her soon) are strong women who participate in their own stories and aren’t waiting on a knight in shining Uber/Lyft. It’s a short and sweet novelette of empowerment and love, with a wonderful complement of supporting characters and a taste of life beyond “Happily ever after”. So, get cozy by an early autumn fire with your favorite feline or gal (Gadot) Friday, and a heartwarming foray into once upon a time…

*Double your pleasure: Reading Ripped aloud enhances the experience. These kind of stories are often shared with family and/or friends at bedtime. I still enjoy being read to, whether it’s my partner and I, or with an audiobook on my work commute.

Julie Thompson reviews A Heart Well-Traveled: Tales of Long Distance Romance & Unlikely Outcomes by edited by Sallyanne Monti

A Heart Well-Traveled presents nineteen stories, highlighting the stress and strain, and love and hope between couples physically and emotionally separated by circumstance. Long distance love and all of its baggage (distance, work, social obligations, limited free time) are things with which I am all too familiar, making this collection especially appealing to me.

As these short stories unfold, we travel from big cities to wilderness treks, online encounters and trips across State lines and overseas. They also take numerous chances on affairs of the heart between seeming opposites and the risks associated with starting all over again in new places. This anthology does a wonderful job of illuminating the uncertainty, hesitation, anxiety, as well as the exhilaration, passion, and love these women share. We venture into an uncertain union as Cameron, daughter of Hollywood royalty, and Emily, a Nebraska native attempting to navigate the Hollywood machine, play against type in “Just Like in the Movies” by N.R. Dunham. In “Trail Magic” by Michele M. Reynolds, Nat discovers that faith can become a tangible concept when she stops to pick up a Dove. And a two-year relationship facing a fork in the road between Butte, Montana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

One of my favorite stories, “A Caramel Macchiato with a Friend” by Lila Bruce, takes place between two women who meet at a coffee shop after chatting online for about a year. Remember that X-Files episode, “2Shy” in which women become gelatinous goo after online dating gone very, very wrong? Think of how much heartache (not to mention that whole staying alive part) could have been spared if those women had had a friend standing by with a safe phrase. Lila Bruce’s story is funny, awkward, and cute. Lauren trips all over herself and fumbles her way through her coffee meet-up with Dana in Jerry Lewis-fashion, making what she thinks is the worst possible impression. As varied as these stories are, you’re likely to find one (or two or three) that you relate to in some way. I never did online dating, preferring to read through the Lust and Love Labs in The Stranger. But the swirl of emotions and nerves (and the worries of Katy, Lauren’s friend) resonates with parts of my experiences.

The variety of ways in which these authors define love between women from a wide range of demographics and HEA (Happily Ever After) prevents dull repetition. Overall, it’s a fine romance for hopeless romantics and cautious cynics alike, with plenty of sugar and spice, however (and whenever) you find your sweethearts.

Julie Thompson reviews Freiya’s Stand by Anastasia Vitsky

Freiya’s Stand gives room for queer women to embrace their religious faith, kinky desires, and career aspirations, as well as room for dreaming. Freiya and Sabrina live strictly compartmentalized lives as teachers at St. Agatha of Sicily, a private Catholic school for primary and secondary students, lest anyone find out that they’re dating. Both women grew up in Catholic families and value their faith, even though this sets them at odds with school policy and family. The couple alternates commute routes, maintains a professional facade, and keeps spanking behind closed doors. They also face staff lay-offs, dwindling funds, large classroom sizes, and reduced support for teachers. When the principal mandates all teachers sign a “Covenant of Faith” condemning “perverted sexuality” and other “immoral or unethical behavior”, Sabrina and Freiya butt heads. Sabrina wants to sign the form, but Freiya resists. Most of the faculty eventually go along with it in order to keep their jobs. When Freiya fails to play ball with the new requirements, her life falls under the principal’s close scrutiny.

The novella alternates between past and present, illuminating pivotal moments in the women’s lives that color their relationship, family interactions, and careers. Quick pacing allows Vitsky to move between key events and establish character personalities. Sabrina is an exemplary high school English teacher with exacting standards, both for her students and for her choice of ketchup. Freiya, a new kindergarten teacher, has a soft heart for her students and a penchant for culinary confections. Sabrina’s Gran is the most vibrant and essential secondary character. A full-length novel treatment would give room for fleshing out events mentioned only in passing and for less nuanced characters that seem to exist primarily as plot drivers. Certain elements of the conclusion (the final two to three pages, in particular) feel rushed. It works well, for the most part, as a novella. Overall, Freiya’s Stand is a thoughtful and engaging tale.

Freiya and Sabrina have a consensual kink arrangement. This drives their dynamic at home, as well as how they behave in the wider world. One of my favorite moments involves Shakespeare and spanking. I’ll let that sit with you until you read it for yourself! While Sabrina assumes the dominant role, Freiya is vocal in what is and is not okay. Readers first encounter this aspect of their relationship after they disagree over the “morality” contract at school. Some of the interplay between emotional and physical exchanges becomes muddled as their stress increases. It does not cross over into domestic abuse. However, some readers may find certain passages distressing.

Catholicism also plays an integral part in how the characters view themselves, deal with challenges, and guide their lives. Both women value their faith, but don’t agree on how it intersects with their sexuality and public life. This provides much of the friction between them throughout the story. This is the second story that I’ve read in which the reconciliation of faith and queerness are central themes. The other story (which I definitely recommend) is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown.

LGBT+ folks can still lose their jobs in many states or have limited protections based on sexuality and gender identity. Visit the Human Rights Commission at HRC.org for more information. It is heartening to see local religious congregations marching in support at Pride and to see rainbow flags near the front doors of churches, welcoming everyone.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book edited by Avery Cassell and Jon Macy, Foreword by Sasha T. Golberg

From the publisher of The Queer Heroes Coloring Book (featuring a delightfully bedecked Edward Gorey on the cover) comes Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book, a collection of performers, mechanics, millionaires, and unknowns, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Nineteen artists, including Maia Kobabe (Louise), Avery Cassell, and Jon Macy (X Garage), bring these figures to life. The expressive takes on famous photographs and persons allow you to fill in each image with your own technicolor sensibilities, as well as fill in gaps in your own knowledge of queer history. The more time you spend with the woman or women on the page, carefully selecting just the right shade of purple for a suit jacket, the more time you end up spending thinking about who it is you’re looking at. Who is this defiant individual gazing back at me from a mugshot? What does it mean to find community in a public place, yet remain anonymous to history? I love the assortment of intimate moments between couples; the affability and charm exuded in solo portraits, coming across more as a conversation between the subject and the viewer; and the moments that project calm or exhilaration, and everything emotion in between. In the foreword, Sasha T. Goldberg, offers up her thoughts on butch identity and history. Goldberg acknowledges that the lens of experience and parameters through which she sees this collection and the identities of its subjects, may differ from yours.

Biographies of known persons and historical context for unknown persons, found at the back of the book, provide this collection with extra heft. A few of the images were familiar to me during my own readings of the eras covered here, such as thrill seeking heiress Joe Carstairs and the X Garage she ran with friends following WWI; night club performers, Gladys Bentley and Buddy Kent; and writers Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall. There are a few historical figures that I’m unsure about, though, regarding their inclusion as butch lesbians. For instance, I haven’t found information about Bessie Coleman’s sexual preferences, though I admit I don’t know much about her aside from tales of her aviation prowess. The collection could also benefit from the addition of a book list for further reading. Readers and colorists will better connect with the writers’ and artists’ intentions of honoring these women.

I had a lot of fun (and plenty of hand cramps and that red indent on my ring finger) coloring in Louise and the X Garage crew. Coloring books for adults are seeing a surge in renewed interest, popping up as library programs, meditative exercises, and small gatherings. Does your book club need an excuse to spend afternoons coloring and discussing art and history? The end of the coloring book includes three discussion questions from Ajuan Mance about gender, how artistic visions influence a viewer’s interpretation.

I’ve included a list of titles if you’d like to learn more about these women’s lives or want a more general context of what life was like for queer people during the 1920s-1940s. The list is by no mean comprehensive and the asterisked titles reside on my TBR shelf. You can help grow this list by adding suggestions in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Julie Thompson reviews Floats Her Boat: A Lesbian Romance by Nicolette Dane

Brooke Nilsson is a self-professed, Chicago-based, city girl tasked with selling her parent’s lakeside cabin after her mother’s death. As a child, she and her family would vacation along the idyllic shores of Lake Linnea, Minnesota. While her sister, Clarice, and her parents frolicked and lounged in the great outdoors, Brooke avoided sunlight and buried herself in books.That’s how she chooses to remember her childhood, at least. When she arrives at the cabin, she meets the next door neighbor, Hailey Reed, an Indie singer-songwriter. As they assess their romantic and professional priorities, they start to fall for each other.

The novel blends light summer romance with the weight of a parent’s death and the challenge of reassessing personal narrative. The story’s pacing reminds me of warm, unhurried summer days. Despite Brooke’s initial impulse to prep the house for sale in less than a month, she slips into a life of campfires, glasses of wine, and boat rides, with Hailey’s encouragement. Author Nicolette Dane doesn’t force Brooke to make a life choice by simplifying the virtues and shortcomings of country and city life. This is not a frenzied love affair with two people butting heads before falling madly in love. Rather, Floats Her Boat, combines unexpected romance and life with all of the activities you (might) associate with summers by a lake (or beach or the backyard of wherever).

Though the story is character-driven, it also reflects a strong sense of place. Dane’s depictions of Lake Linnea make me (almost) believe that the electronic pages on my smartphone include smell-o-listen technology. Turn here for rich, sun-warmed fallen pine needles; page here for crisp, early morning country air; and swipe here for extinguished campfires.

Some readers may tire of Brooke’s repetitious internal dialogue. Yet, while Brooke’s thoughts feed on each other throughout the narrative, it still sounds like a natural expression of her doubts. Who wouldn’t feel incredulous that not only is one of their favorite musicians living in the cabin next door, but wants something more than a neighborly cup of sugar? Play it cool, Brooke, you got this.

If you enjoy leisurely, contemporary romances with relatable leads, Floats Her Boat will fit perfectly into your beach bag.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews Translucid: Dragonfire Station, Book 1 by Zen DiPietro

Translucid, Zen DiPietro’s first installment in her “Dragonfire” series, is a riveting space onion. And by “space onion”, I mean that Translucid is a tightly wound mystery, set on board the Dragonfire Space Station. No one is what or who they seem. Chief Security Officer (CSO) Emé Fallon awakens in sickbay with no memory of her personal identity. The shuttlecraft she piloted crashed into the side of the space station: an unusual malfunctioning coil pack, but nothing most crew members would consider anything but damned bad luck. Before her bed stand a distressed Sarkavian woman named Wren Orritz and a Bennite doctor named Brannin Brash (chief medical officer). Fallon’s initial confusion starts to sound like the Cars’ song, “Once in a Lifetime”. Who are these beings and why are they staring at me? Wren, it turns out, is her wife of six months, not to mention a high-caliber engineer on Dragonfire.

The how and why of Fallon’s memory loss are at the center of the action. Personal memories,  gone. In their stead, Fallon relies on instinct to suss out the person she is supposed to be, as well as tapping into the ship’s personnel records to glean whatever tidbits she can. She knows her height, age, noted abilities, and that she is of Japanese descent. Her skills and working knowledge of the ship, her duties, and protocol, on the other hand, reveal themselves to her as situations arise in which she has need of them. And aside from the black swirl-patterned tattoo on her hip, Fallon has no distinguishing characteristics. She has become one of my favorite characters because of her analytical mind, her constant drive for self-improvement, and her stalwart loyalty to her friends. She is also a total badass.

Some of the novel’s most poignant scenes occur between Fallon and Wren as they relearn their relationship. Fallon plays her cards close to the vest and does not readily accept her domestic situation. Indeed, she and Wren don’t share a bed when she returns to their quarters. It’s painful and confusing and awkward. These moments blend Fallon’s pragmatic disposition with a little-seen tender side. Later on, it’s revealed that the CSO’s marriage is improbable in more ways than one.

Fallon relies heavily on her instincts and her work routine aboard the station to uncover her “true” identity, a notion that becomes increasingly tenuous. Who can she trust, if anyone? Can she even trust herself? Was she a loathsome, duplicitous person? What were pre-accident Fallon’s motives and goals? As she and her carefully vetted band of confidantes probe for answers, more questions crop up as a result. The investigation is akin to finding the key for a room, only to find that the room contains more locked doors, that also have locked doors, that also have locked doors.

DiPietro has crafted a richly imagined universe in which species from across the galaxy meet to conduct business and personal affairs. The space station is part of the Planetary Alliance Cooperative (PAC), a large confederation of species. Raised on dreams of interstellar adventure, cooperation, and discovery, via Star Wars, Star Trek, and countless films, this world feels attainable–if just out of reach–for those of us existing in the early 21st century. Among the wondrous entities on board, you’ll find humans; the humanoid Sarkavians, Bennites, Rescans, and Atalans; and the Briveen, a species evolved from reptiles. For Fallon, knowing how to balance protocol and the well-being of the crew and residents with intergalactic multiculturalism is an essential and enjoyable part of her job. Welcoming a delegation of Briveen aboard the station, for example, requires lengthy social rituals. Other intriguing secondary and tertiary characters include Captain Nevitt (Dragonfire), an ambitious professional who does not disguise her disdain for her second-in-command; Brak, a Briveen who specializes in neural implants and travels with the hospi-ship, Onari; and Cabot Layne (Dragonfire), a Rescan who trades in antiquities and hard to find items. There are other figures who play crucial roles, but that information is classified (at least until you read the book!).

The main challenge for me in writing this review was capturing the spirit of the story while not giving away how the mystery unravels, which is key to the story. DiPietro’s writing style evokes vivid imagery. A few, well-placed brush strokes reveal a complex, exciting world in which everyday activities, such as shopping for artwork and eating out at restaurants, happen alongside cosmic diplomacy and neural implants. DiPietro only shows readers only what pertains to a scene or what Fallon discovers. This tight control of information is crucial to maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty. Weeks after reading the final page, I’m still chewing on it. Thankfully, DiPietro doesn’t leave readers hanging. The second installment, Fragments, followed in October 2016 and book three, Coalescence, came out in February 2017.


Until next time, then: “Blood and Bone”!

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)