Vacation Reads by Julie Thompson

Part of the idea behind selecting summer reads is vacationing from our jobs, whatever they may be. I’ve already taken my longer vacation, tramping up and down the streets of San Francisco. Now, I squeeze in the odd long weekend here and there, scouring stacks of unread books for the one (or two…or five) that will share the quiet moments with me before bed or as I lounge on the back porch of a cabin rental, surrounded by trees and birdsong. Recently, I stole away into the mountains bordering Canada and Washington State. I managed to pack *only* three reads: Vital Lies by Ellen Hart, Wade in the Water by current United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and a back issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine.

Vital Lies, Hart’s second cozy mystery featuring amateur sleuth and restaurateur Jane Lawless, takes places as far away from sunshine and beaches as you can get. However, if you’re plastered to your couch in a tank top and short pants, a Minnesota winter might be just what you need to cool down. Jane and her best friend, the inimitable, Cordelia, spend the Christmas holiday visiting a friend with a rural inn. It is immediately apparent that someone is trying to sabotage its success, as disturbing incidents occur. On top of it all, Jane must decide whether she wants her English aunt Beryl to come live with her. I read this one out of series order, but I’m glad I chose it for a restive, secluded woodsy weekend. Hart has a great talent for placing readers within the scene, whether it’s among snow drifts, onstage, or at a college sorority house.

All I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon coverAll I Want for Summer by Clare Lydon, the fourth book in her “All I Want” series finds London-based Tori and Holly heading to Brighton Pride to help promote their friends’ lesbian dating app. I downloaded the novella on the 4th of July, eager for a distraction from the incessant booming and crackling of neighborhood fireworks. The women, who are challenging themselves to break out of their comfort zones, end up in involved in a series of misadventures. Holly, however, is a reluctant camper and Pride attendee (for painful reasons that end up playing a role in her holiday trip). Through it all, Tori possesses a sense of determined optimism that no amount of shenanigans can derail. A surprise ending might entice me to pick up the next book in the series, All I Want for Autumn. While I haven’t read the rest of the series, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the novella as a stand-alone. Lydon, who also hosts a fantastic interview podcast called The Lesbian Book Club, sets up character chemistry and offers a peek at Pride at the English seaside that’s a mix of humor and drama. Once Upon a Caravan is another light, quick read from Lydon that also involves trying new things over a holiday.

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Julie Thompson presents A Mother’s Day Booklist Bonanza!

Happy Mother’s Day! In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May. I’m lucky in that I was able to share a whirlwind of a Saturday with my mom recently. We shed the hustle and bustle of city life behind, shopped the outlet mall, and had fun watching Dwayne Johnson save the world alongside his gorilla pal, George, in Rampage. Let’s celebrate the wonderful, complex mothers in all of our lives with a bouquet of books! Mother’s Day has many meanings for all of us and I hope that this arbitrary date is just one of many for you and yours. I’ve assembled a mixture of families that I hope speaks to your experiences and brings you joy whenever you think of your family. This list is drawn from some of my recent favorites. What stories have warmed your heart recently? Let me know in the comments below!

In Our Mothers' HouseIn Our Mothers’ House is an amazing picture book written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco. Told from the point-of-view of the eldest daughter after they’ve all grown up and flown the nest, she remembers fondly the loving and supportive home that she and her adopted siblings experienced in their mothers’ house. Despite a frosty treatment by a homophobic neighbor, the family shares imaginative holidays (see their homemade Halloween costumes!), summer block parties, and a warmth that radiates through all they do. The mothers and children share the deepest sense of family.

All the Little Moments
All the Little Moments by G. Benson – Contemporary romance set in Australia.

Anna, an anaesthetist, steps in to raise her niece and nephew after their parents are killed in a car crash. While she loves them, author G. Benson presents Anna as a complex character who feels conflicted by her distaste for Melbourne, leaving her child-free life behind, misses her best friend/brother, and wonders if dating is at all compatible with her new life.

 

Bingo LoveBingo Love by Tee Franklin, illustrated by Jenn St.-Onge, Joy San – Graphic Novel. Historical fiction/Contemporary romance. Second chances.

This adorable and moving story follows Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray. The women first meet as teenagers at a church bingo game in 1963, but are wrenched apart when their love is discovered. Decades later after marriage to men and children, the two meet again at, you guessed it, a church bingo game. The path to second chance romance isn’t easy, but that just makes it all the more wonderful. Keep a box of tissues close.

Collide-O-Scope
Collide-O-Scope by Andrea Bramhall – British crime series.

I always imagine Detective Sergeant Kate Brannon as Heather Peace’s DS Sam Murray from the television series Lip Service. Gina Temple, single mom with a dead beat mistake of a father for her daughter, manages a campground in a tiny fishing village in Norfolk, England. The two meet in book one of the series. Despite corpses and high stakes, sparks fly.

 

Alice & Jean
Alice and Jean by Lily Hammond – Historical Fiction, 1946 New Zealand.

Alice Holden keeps the home fires burning while her husband is off fighting during World War II. Two small children keep her hands busy, but she can’t stop the fluttering of her heart every time Jean delivers milk to her door. She really does bring all women to the yard. As the women fall in love, small town complications and Alice’s emotionally battle scarred husband complicate matters. Obligation, loss, new love and new beginnings weave a rich tapestry. How many women forged lives anew like Alice and Jean tried to do?

The Fall
The Fall by Robin Alexander, read by Lisa Cordileone – Contemporary romance.

I just had my six month dental check-up. Instead of plopping down and finding romance with the local dentist, and single mom, Sunny Chase, I came away with a clean bill of health for my chompers. Noel Savino has no such problems, though she plays it casual because it’s safer that way, yeah? However, casual nighttime shenanigans are anything but casual where Noel’s large Italian-American family are concerned. Narrator Lisa Cordileone delivers a vibrant performance that enhances the humor and personalities present.

Heart of the Game by Rachel Spangler. Contemporary romance.

Sports journalist Sarah Duke is living her dream: covering the St. Louis Cardinals. On opening day she meets a precocious young fan and his hard-working, newly out single mother, Molly Grettano. FYI: baseball puns abound. If you’re a cornball like me, you’ll love ‘em!

 

 

Additional books featuring mumsy:

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)