Megan Casey reviews The Other Side of Silence by Joan Drury

othersideofsilence

Tyler Jones is not the most social person in the world, so when she wins the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for a feature story about spousal abuse committed by members of the police force, she goes into semi-retirement, writing her newspaper columns from home. Because of her urgent concern about violence against women, she also spends time at a crisis center. But although her research and counseling brings her into contact with many forms of violence, her own life is rather uninteresting and predictable. That is until she finds a dead body in the park while out walking her dog.

The characterization of Tyler is very subtle, and we often have to rely on small clues to get a true picture of her. We know that she broke up with her last lover ten years before and that she is more comfortable working at home than at an office. This may be explained by the fact that she describes herself as “hefty,” “robust,” and “fat.” Not in the way a fashion model might think she has to lose a pound or two, but because Tyler is truly overweight. Yet she mentions this only in passing—never dwells on her weight issues. We also know that she is a recovering alcoholic who is often badly in need of a drink. The fact that Drury gives us no backstory on any of this is an omission that might be rectified in the two subsequent books about Tyler Jones.

Here’s another thing we know about Tyler but have no real backstory on: she has little use for men (except for her contact at the newspaper) and blames them for much of the violence that goes on in the world—especially against women. As she says, “I am, with reason, suspicious about men—especially when it comes to violence.” In fact, Tyler makes her living writing about the subject. She produces a weekly column for her newspaper and is writing a book-length oral history. And hey, Tyler is a writer who actually writes. We are not just told about a column, we get to read it, too. Likewise chapters of her book, which are convincing and heartfelt.

So does this mean that men won’t like this book? Umm. Many won’t, but that’s their loss. The history of feminism and the ongoing violence against women is a subject that everyone should take a serious interest in. The fact is, The Other Side of Silence is one of the most well-crafted mysteries I have ever read. It just continues to develop until the very unusual (but maybe not totally unexpected) ending. The fact that Tyler (and Drury, who was the editor and publisher of Spinster’s Ink for 10 years) have an important agenda is all the better.

The plot has to do with Tyler finding the body of a man in the park next to her house. The man happens to be a spouse abuser who once attacked Tyler physically when he found out that she was using her apartment as a safe house for his wife. Who would kill such a man? Everyone? Maybe it was Tyler herself—the police certainly think so. And of course to prove her innocence, Tyler has to uncover the perpetrator on her own. Unlike many books with this motif, however, Tyler’s experience and skill as a reporter gives her the tools she needs to actually investigate in a believable manner.

Oh, there’s a glitch or two, but they are so subtle it would be hard to prove they even exist. I’m willing to let them go and to give this novel a solid 4 stars. It certainly gave me reason to buy and read the other two novels in this series. It is one that should be on most people’s to-read list.

For more than 200 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

Megan Casey reviews Chicken Run by Alma Fritchley

chicken-run

Letty Campbell, ex insurance agent, becomes the owner of a small chicken farm in the small town of Calderton, a half hour outside Manchester, U.K. . When the niece of a neighbor asks her to introduce her shy but recently-out-of-the-closet aunt to the lesbian scene in the nearby large city, Letty finds herself smitten with the woman. But also, through a series of coincidences, she also finds herself hosting a big-bucks automobile auction at her farm.

The most curious thing about this mystery is that is doesn’t seem to be a mystery at all. With only three chapters to go, the only unexplained happening is Letty’s suspicion that someone broke into her house for no reason and stole nothing.

As lesbian mystery novels generally go, the sex in this one is rather tame, with the the horrid word “after,” beginning more than one paragraph. But this is certainly no surprise in a mystery that is generally classified as a cozy. The writing is simply adequate, the mystery kind of nonexistent, and the humor—much praised in the blurb—muted at best.

I’m terrifically glad I was able to get hold of this book so I could judge it for myself. It is one of the few cozy lesbian mysteries and a welcome change from some of the blood-and-guts dramas and high-octane sex I have found in several other lesbian mystery novels. Still, I doubt I’ll go on to the next one in the series. Quite frankly, I didn’t find Letty very interesting. And when your main character is bland, your book tends to be rated less stars they the author might wish. There are four of these “Chicken” novels, all written between 1998 and 2000. I suspect that Fritchley gets into a better stride in the next novel, makes Letty use more of her wits, but that is for another reviewer to decide.

For more than 200 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

Megan Casey reviews Femme Noir by Clara Nipper

femme noir

I read Nipper’s latest book, Murder on the Rocks, before I read this one. That was a mistake, because the two books are so different in quality. In fact, I began Femme Noir thinking that it would be really bad. It is not, although the two books have several elements in common. First, both take place in good old Tulsa, Oklahoma, although Nora Delaney, the main character in Femme Noir is a visitor while Jill Rogers (from Murder on the Rocks) has lived there all her life. Second, both are butchy. Third, both like to play with fire (oh oh; have I just uncovered some symbolism? I wouldn’t be surprised)—Nora has a habit of lighting wooden matches with her thumbnail while Jill snaps a ubiquitous Zippo lighter open and closed throughout her adventure. And both think about sex approximately 40 hours every single day. Both are minorities: Nora is African-American; Jill is Native-American.

Well, the good news is that Femme Noir,is better than Murder on the Rocks, although to actually call it noir you have to alter the word’s definition. It is more in the tradition of books like Jaye Maiman’s I Left My Heart, where the protagonist is called to another city when an ex-lover is murdered. In this case, it is a woman that Nora lived with for three years in Los Angeles before the woman moved to Tulsa. In the course of Nora’s investigation—the police are rarely, if ever, mentioned—she finds out a lot about her ex-lover that she didn’t know.

She also learns about the 1921 Tulsa race riot—which was one of the worst in United States history—in which the most affluent black community in America was burned to the ground, dozens were killed, and hundreds arrested. As Nora’s research continues, she finds reason to believe that her ex-lover’s murder is directly related to that fateful event almost a century earlier. It is an important inclusion, but it is not the only thing that brings this book up above the ordinary. Many of the scenes that include people she meets in Tulsa are fresh and humorous; a scene in an alternative bookstore featuring a lesbian on roller skates is one of the funniest in the literature. And the second half of the book is just plain well written. There is no trace of the unfocused author of Murder on the rocks.

It is not all good, though. Otherwise it would have won prizes, right? It was enough for Nora to look into the Tulsa race riot without having her new white friend Jack go into a tearful, drunken tizzy when he even thinks about it. And Nipper has a bad habit of having her protagonist drop everything to go into an almost pornographic fantasy about Max—her current love interest—although I have to admit that the last time she does this is a hoot. The rest are superfluous and boring. Think about it: reading about sex is not as exciting as actually having it, but reading about someone thinking about sex is another layer removed from the real thing.

There is something about this author that intrigues me. On a personal level, I like the fact that she works for the safety of animals, that she is a roller derby queen, that she feels it is important to let her readers know about the Tulsa race riot—which had been hidden from public knowledge for 90 years—and that writing is the most important thing in her life. I think it is interesting that Nipper—who some might describe as a voluptuous blonde if her pictures do her justice—makes her protagonists minorities. It is even more interesting that the love interests of the both protagonists—Max and Sophie—are not only almost interchangeable, but they are described as voluptuous blondes.

Give this one anywhere between a 3 and a 4 that you wish. I’ll say 3.7. Both of these Noir Series books are currently available as e-books at a very reasonable price.

For 200 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

Megan Casey reviews Mrs. Porter’s Letter by Vicki P. McConnell

 

mrs porters letter

Mrs. Porter’s Letter , published in 1982, is one of the first four lesbian mysteries ever printed—and only the second to develop into a series. It was followed over the next several decades by hundreds of other novels featuring lesbian sleuths. Yet the novel’s influence seems small in comparison to some of f the other early authors of lesbian mysteries, such as Eve Zaremba (who created the private investigator Helen Keremos) and Katherine V. Forrest (whose police detective, Kate Delafield has become an icon). Few critics seem to have paid much attention to McConnell. Either no one was influenced by the book, or no one bothered to read it. What a mistake, because it is decidedly and mysteriously different from almost everything that came later.

The book, featuring fledgling writer Nyla Wade, is on the surface a modern Gothic search for the owner of a desk that Nyla comes to possess, although it has a very noir subplot involving the murder of a prostitute. Most important, though, it is Nyla’s search for her own intellectual and sexual identity. This is very rare in a genre dominated by out-and-out dykes, closeted (like Kate Delafield) or not (like Helen Keremos). Nyla, throughout most of Mrs. Porter’s Letter, is neither.

In fact, Nyla is one of the few protagonists in the lesbian mystery genre who has been married to a man. But Nyla is divorced now and living on her own, getting back into her first love—writing—both for a living and as a creative outlet. To this end, she buys an antique desk, which turns out to contain the spirit and essence—not to mention some love letters—of its previous owner.

Nyla is an intriguing and very likable character with more moxie that I had expected. McConnell, her creator, is adept at showing us her many sides, including very real fears about a single woman living alone in a dangerous city. Luckily, Nyla has a best friend, Audrey Louise that she can discuss things with. McConnell draws Audrey Louise, with her flummox of a husband and three complaining children, with a sympathetic pen. Although Nyla has strong feminist leanings, it doesn’t seem as if she has even given the slightest thought to the idea of identifying as a lesbian—until she actually meets a few.

The novel takes Nyla on a thousand-mile journey to search for the writer of the letters she finds—and to unravel the 30-year history of a hidden love affair. In the process she is finally able to realize why her marriage was not a success and why she has such powerful feelings for a woman she meets in a bar.

Slipshod editing in places is to be expected in early Naiad Press books, but the ones found here rarely detract from the enjoyment of reading. But the lack of seamlessness to the story is another matter. A good—or even a decent and sympathetic—editor, could have guided McConnell through the complex plot and suggested ways in which it would actually achieve more cohesiveness and believability. As it is, the reader gets the idea that McConnell began the novel with no real idea how to end it.

With this and other problems, it can’t be ranked among the best in the genre, but its early publication date makes it a must for students of the lesbian mystery genre. An additional quirk is the fact tat this book and its two sequels are illustrated—probably the only lesbian novels I have seen that are. Sadly, all of McConnell’s books seem to be out of print and unavailable in e-book form. This needs to be corrected.

For 200 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

Megan Casey reviews Ten Little Lesbians by Kate McLachlan

ten little lesbians

There is a lot that can be said about this book, not just about whether it is good or bad, but also about the style of its composition, its history, and its characters. This is true of all good books, of course, but not all books are good.

It is no secret that Ten Little Lesbians is based on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, which was originally published under a name that had more negative racial overtones. I don’t want to go into that here, but Google the book if you don’t already know the story. In Christie’s novel, a number of people are invited to an island resort in order to kill them. Each has a guilty secret

In the more modern, Ten Little Lesbians, the guests are all women who are planning a “Women’s Weekend” at a bed and breakfast many miles from the nearest town. And yes, they all have guilty secrets. The two main characters are Beatrice Stone and her niece Tish. Bea has arranged the trip for two reasons—to get Tish away from her ex before she is arrested (again), and to accompany her friend Carmen, who is trying to get over a bad breakup. The other guests—as well as the inn’s owner and her single employee—of course have their own stories. One  character is blind, one is an ex-con, one is a Mormon, and so forth.

But except for a tidbit here and there, that’s about as close to Ten Little Indians as McLachlan gets. This is not bad because Agatha Christie is not a very good writer. Ooh, have I touched a taboo subject? Too bad, because although Christie could write an extraordinary plot line, very few of her characters are realistic or interesting. I exclude Miss Marple from this because I kind of like her, but Hercule Poirot was a windy buffoon; even Christie herself disliked him. And the vast majority of her incidental characters are utterly and immediately forgettable. Her prose is generally plodding and dull.

Ten Little Lesbians is a much more enjoyable book than its near namesake. Not only is the writing more lively, but the characters are all more interesting and individual. One of the reasons for this is McLachlan’s use of point of view. The book is made up of seven longish chapters, but each chapter is further divided into sections. And each section has its own point of view character. Chapter 1, for instance has at least one section from each character’s perspective so that we get not only different voices, but deeper backstories as well.

When one character disappears and another is found dead, the fun begins. In fact, the book reminded me as much of the 1986 mystery/horror movie April Fool’s Day as it did the Agatha Christie novel. And the story really is fun, despite the suspense. Tish is a sexy, engaging character and her aunt is a businesslike no-nonsense authority figure who harbors a tragic secret. “Aunt Bea” is pragmatic and philosophic and generally is the one who moves the book along. But it is the divergent lives and voices of the other characters that keep us anxious to follow her.

My one quibble is that I found myself wishing I knew earlier who was gong to end up as the main character. Tish dominates the first two chapters, then her aunt takes over almost completely for the next two. This is not necessarily a fault; after all, a number of series, such as Penny Mickelbury’s Mimi and Gianna Mysteries, are told from two points of view. I just came away with a suspicion that all is not as balanced as it might be. Give this one a 5 on the enjoyability scale and certainly no lower than a 4 in your final rating.

For other 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

Megan Casey reviews Winged Dancer by Camarin Grae

the winged dancer camarin grae

When Camarin Grae wrote the majority of her novels, there was no Amazon, no Goodreads, no peer reviews. The only way for a book to be reviewed was for the publisher to send galleys to periodicals months in advance of publication and hope for the best. Reviews for any work of lesbian literature were not only few and far between, but limited to the few almost-underground lesbian mags available only by mail or through the very few lesbian bookstores that existed at that time.

Scholars of lesbian literature have been slow to recognize—or even unearth—some of the classic works of lesbian mystery. Witness the very few reviews and ratings for brilliant novels like Claire Macquet’s Looking for Ammu, Nanisi Barrett D’Arnuk’s Outside In, or Helen Shacklady’s The Patterned Flute. Like Camarin Grae’s Winged Dancer.

The story begins with a fable. Hundreds of years ago, in a small South American country, several different tribes vied for existence. The cruelest and most powerful of the tribes subsumed or eliminated their rivals until only one of the smaller tribes was left—the Boweso, who escaped to an area impervious to attack. They worked out an egalitarian system of society where all members—men and women—enjoyed equal status. Each year they celebrated life by bringing out a life-sized statue of a winged dancer, fashioned mostly of gold. It is a fable of oppression and power, rebellion and redemption.

The novel itself has a similar motif. Kat Rogan is simply in the wrong place when a dying stranger begs her to deliver a coded letter to his sister in a fictional South American country. On her first day there, she is attacked by a man who wants to not only steal the missive, but rape her in the bargain and she kills him in self defense. But it is hard for a stranger to be believed in a country where abuse of women is almost the norm, and Kat is sentenced to life in a particularly unsavory prison.

Without going into any more detail about the plot, it is important to mention that while in prison, Kat learns the rules of the jungle. She finds herself first a bully (“I came to see others as either useful objects or interfering obstacles.”), then a near-slave (“My job is to perform as you wish, as a finely tuned instrument responsive to each whim you have.”) In other words, she runs the gamut of that power and oppression I talked about earlier. And of associated dichotomies like ethical and unethical, winners and losers.

Through all of her prison experience, Kat works on decoding the letter she received from the dead man—the solution of which would get her out of prison. It is an intriguing code referring to the original Boweso legend, which brings both stories together in a very satisfying way. It’s hard to find anything bad to say about this book. The puzzle is original, the action palpable, the romances titillating, and the relationships between characters realistic and totally human.

If Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has been resurrected to be the darling of lesbians the world over; if Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland has been injected into college Women’s Studies classes, then Winged Dancer deserves its place in the pantheon of minor American classics.

For more than 200 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

Megan Casey Reviews In the Game by Nikki Baker

 

in the game nikki baker cover

Virginia Kelly is black. This is significant because it makes her the first African-American sleuth in lesbian fiction. Likewise, Nikki Baker is the first African-American author of lesbian mysteries. This makes In the Game an important literary event. At a mere 171 pages, this is one of Naiad’s shortest books, and it is also one of their sweetest.

Living in Chicago, where she got her MBA, Virginia Kelly has a well-paying job, an intelligent lover, and two good friends in Bev and Naomi. She certainly seems to have a good life going, but when Bev’s lover Kelsey is murdered near a lesbian bar, a pall is cast over them all. Naomi is worried about being outed if it becomes known that she associated with lesbian Kelsey. Ginny is worried that Bev will be charged with the murder and hires a lawyer to defend her. I guess that’s enough plot, because, although it is a good one, that’s not what makes this book outstanding.

Nikki Baker is one of the few authors who can outwrite her editor Katherine V. Forrest (Kate Allen is another). There is little poetic language or ethereal descriptions here; rather it is Ginny’s internal thought processes that put Baker in a class by herself. She waxes almost philosophical in almost everything she thinks about—from the presence of black women in high finance to love. And add chaos to that list: “Maybe craziness and order chase each other through our lives like seasons.” Ginny’s girlfriend Emily, like Gianna Maglione in Penny Mickelbury’s fine series of novels, is a white woman, so In the Game has another important racial element to it as well. In fact, black woman/white woman couplings seem to be a motif in Baker’s fiction. Another motif is that Ginny works in finance, an unusual profession for a black woman in the early 1990s—and don’t think that Ginny doesn’t obsess about that choice and about how she actually fits into a white, straight, world.

It is interesting that Ginny’s friend Naomi Wolf has the same name as the feminist author of The Beauty Myth, which came out in the same year as this book. Coincidence?

The only nitpick I can find in this book is that Ginny’s actions sometimes don’t live up to her thoughts. Not only does Ginny’s friend Naomi guess who the murderer is way before Ginny, but most readers will probably guess as well. A slight fault, and the only one this nitpicker can come up with.

Truthfully, it is hard to find a rating high enough for this book. Certainly it is as good as anything Naiad put out. And for it to be one of the first 50 or so lesbian mystery novels ever to be published speaks highly of the author and her editors.

For 200 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

Megan Casey reviews When the Dancing Stops by Therese Szymanski

when the dancing stops

This is advertised as a different kind of lesbian mystery, and it is. Brett Higgins is a young woman from the wrong side of the river in Detroit, who manages to work her way up to becoming the manager of a sleazy porn operation that has sidelines in drugs, lap dancing, and intimidation. She is as butch as they come, and as fearless. She also has a taste for 17-year-old babydykes.

If Brett doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic character it’s because she isn’t. And if the setting seems gritty and unappealing, it’s because it is. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Szymanski is making it as difficult as she can for the reader to like Brett and her job—and also that she seems to enjoy making the reader squirm. Well, an old professor of mine once told me that just because a certain book might not be to your liking doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’ve never quite agreed, but in this case, she might have a point.

For one thing, the author’s use of roving third-person point of view is one of the best I have seen—it may even be considered omniscient, which is the hardest POV to work with. The reader experiences what is going through the minds of several characters, but you are never confused about who is doing the thinking. She also limits herself to the points of view of only the important characters—which might seem a no-brainer, but evidently is not. The book is tough and honest and gives us a view of a world we rarely see in lesbian mysteries–or anywhere.

The problem is, though, I just don’t like Brett Higgins. The fact that she can get any lover she desires irks me, but I know enough about human nature to realize that this is not impossible; not even implausible. Many of my friends have gone off with people that I can’t for the life of me respect. It happens. But when Brett gets the hots for Allie Sullivan I can only watch with dismay, because Allie is one of the only halfway sympathetic characters in the book. I watch the relationship unfold with the eyes of a disapproving mother.

Along the way, Brett’s best friend and ex-lover are both murdered. Later, her boss it also murdered—allowing Brett to take over his shady business. She vows to find out who murdered them, but at the same time an obsessed cop with a vendetta against Brett vows to prove that Brett herself is the killer.

The book has twist after twist and a fairly surprising ending. Yet the climactic scene is not rendered very clearly and is improbable and forced. Yet none of this really maters—most denouements in mysteries are implausible, and we know which way this one is going to go anyway, even if the author has to transform the personalities of all the main characters midway through the book for it to happen. Everybody ends up questioning their life choices at the same time. Well, call it growth if you like.

As an intellectual, I would give this book a 3.5 or a little higher. As a reader, less than 3. As Allie’s mother, I am going to have to call my lawyer and have a new will drawn up. The original Naiad book was republished by Bella with 100 fewer listed pages. I’m sure it would be interesting to see if the book has changed much and to see how Brett fares in the next book under different circumstances. But I fear I am going to have to learn these things second hand.

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

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

Megan Casey reviews Torrid Zone by ReBecca Béguin

torrid

In the early days of modern feminism, when women were wimmin (or womyn), girls were grrrls, and men were the enemy, Ida Muret joined seven other communal lesbians on a collective farm in central Vermont. They called their group Blue Corn. Their goals were many, but boiled down to living self-sufficiently off the land and away from patriarchal oppression of any kind—social, religious, or political. They succeeded for ten years, until tragedy came to break the group up for good.

Seven years later, Ida is working as a ranch hand and stone builder when 19-year-old Viv Lovejoy—a victim of sexual harassment at her college—needs a safe house for a while. Ida, a loner by choice, unhappily agrees to take her in. But it turns out that Viv is also writing a paper about women’s collectives in general and about Blue Corn in particular. And Viv whines and harangues Ida until Ida agrees to tell the younger woman her story. And what a story it is.

“We were all into being lavender Amazon wimmen with labryses between our bare breasts” Ida tells Viv in a voice that is almost post-apocalyptic in its regret and sadness. And “You must understand, we didn’t have TV spoiling our visions!” And in Ida’s brilliant point of view, author Béguin segues into the saga of Kite, Spence, Rune, Kristy, and the others as they farm their land and try to sculpt, paint, write, and love in their spare time. We get to know them all intimately. On one level it is Ida’s chance to unburden herself of many of her secrets; on another it is the chance to introduce feminist history and philosophy to the new generation of lesbians that Viv represents.

Torrid Zone has many meanings in this book. It is, for instance, the name of Ida’s wood stove, which she salvaged from Blue Corn. It can mean great sex or a hot day in the fields. It is the term one of the Blue Corn members gave to the collective because they were “hot shit” because they had created a utopia. But most of all, I think it represents Ida’s memories of that ten years with her friends—a busy, creative, and sometimes disruptive time that she has held inside her for too long. Viv is a breath of relief, she brings new excitement to Ida’s life, not only in her research, but in her own adventure, which comes to an exciting head at the conclusion of the book.

But whatever meaning you take from the title, The Torrid Zone is one of the most interesting, well-written, and important books in both the mystery and utopian genres. Ida’s voice is unique in the literature, her story inspiring and enjoyable. Give it as close to a 5 as you can without going over. It is a book that should be in anyone’s Top 20 list. It is certainly in mine.

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