Guest Reviewer Marieke reviews Summer of Salt by Katrine Leno

[this review contains plot spoilers and discussion of rape]

The first half of this novel reads like a landscape painting and the second half reads like a murder mystery featuring an emotional climax, with a sweet but slightly underdeveloped romance sprinkled throughout. In a town on a small nondescript island, magic and salt are always in the air. Georgina Fernweh is the twin sister to Mary, and she’s the only living Fernweh whose magic has apparently not yet manifested itself. This, combined with the fact she’ll leave the island for the very first time when she turns 18 in late August, means her summer is set for the perfect coming-of-age tale.

The first half of the book mostly concerns itself with worldbuilding and character introductions. While the absence of a strict plot makes for slower pacing, it’s done gorgeously and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the life of Georgie. We get to follow the relationships and quirky behaviours of Georgie and Mary (who could not be more polar opposites), their mother, and the cook (the Fernwehs run a B&B) as they prepare for the tourist season. We meet some minor local characters, some of whom endear themselves immediately (best friend and proud aro/ace Vira) and some of whom leave a bad taste in the mouth (side-eyes Nice Guy™ Peter).

Over the course of the book a sweet romance blossoms between Georgie and Prue (one of the tourists), with some adorable hiccups: while Georgie is out (alternately using ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ to describe herself), she still needs to figure out if Prue is interested in women. Prue explains she’s only known she’s not straight for about a year and she doesn’t use a label for herself, but she’s definitely attracted to men and women. In a lovely montage of Georgie coming out to those she cares about individually, all of them accept her, but she also realises that she doesn’t know what Prue’s life off the island is like. This is the clearest indication that Prue is unfortunately underdeveloped as the main romantic interest.

At the midway point there’s a very stark shift in tone [minor spoilers moving forward] as the island discovers the murdered body of their main attraction, 300-year-old bird Arabella. Suddenly rain won’t stop pouring down, to the point that the weather becomes a character of its own. Mary is acting strangely, and most everybody suspects her of killing Arabella. Georgie teams up with Prue’s brother to prove Mary’s innocence, which makes for a budding friendship. While this half is more action-driven, it never loses the magical tone or the family focus which form the heart of the story. As the murder mystery format dictates, there is a final unveiling, and it is not a pleasant one. I’ll leave you to discover the details in the book, but [major spoiler] Peter raped Mary. [end major spoiler]. Leno treats this topic with great care. It was painful to see Mary turn completely into herself and disappear, so her choice to eventually share what happened to her becomes all the more poignant. As a result, the reader is presented with a bittersweet ending in Mary’s resolution and an open-ended conclusion for Georgie and Prue.

I wish we could have explored the various minor characters a bit more, especially Prue and Vira and the ways they care about Georgie and the island. Still, this does not take away the fact that The Summer of Salt is a lovely book with an oddball murder mystery, vibrant background characters, so many different types of female connections, a great boy & girl friendship, wlw and lesbian and aroace representation, organic integration of magic, and gorgeous worldbuilding.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Megan G reviews Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore

Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore cover

In a Los Angeles train station, a body is found in the trunk of Mrs. Pearl Tild. A body so disfigured, the police cannot even identify its gender. Months earlier, Pearl Tild and her husband Martin are living what seems like wedded bliss. Then, at a dinner party, the mysterious Clare Walsh introduces herself to Pearl as a friend of Martin’s from work. Little does Pearl know that this introduction will irreversibly change the course of not only her marriage, but her entire life.

I’ve struggled with my review for this book almost as much as I struggled with the book itself. The biggest issue I have is the desire to warn about very triggering subject matter within the story, while also not wanting to completely spoil the book for anyone who may want to read it. As a compromise with myself, I have included all the trigger warnings for this book at the end of the review and have done my best to keep the rest of the review spoiler free.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I’d read positive reviews for it before beginning to read it, and I’m always a sucker for a good murder mystery, especially one that manages to surprise me with some of its twists. This one definitely managed to surprise me, but unfortunately it wasn’t really in a good way.

I found the grammar of the book to be a bit frustrating at times. To be fair to the author, the style invited the use of run-on sentences, but sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was doing it because of the style, or because it was a legitimate mistake. As well, the style itself led to some confusion in terms of where the characters where, and what was happening at any given time. At one point I could have sworn two characters were talking on the phone, and then suddenly they were embracing each other, which was quite jarring. There were several moments that had been thinking, “Wait, what just happened?” and not in a good murder mystery way – more in the “I legitimately feel lost right now” kind of way.

The characters were another thing I found frustration in. This story is largely character driven, with not a lot happening in terms of plot until the very end. I usually adore character driven stories, but that is very dependent on the characters themselves. Here, I didn’t particularly enjoy any of the protagonists of the story (even if, I will admit, I often felt sympathy for the two female protagonists). They all did things I found questionable, all of them used each other in one way or another (some a lot worse than others), and only one character seemed to experience any significant growth throughout the novel. I couldn’t even find it in myself to root for the f/f couple, because both characters acted toward each other in ways that are simply not healthy. Granted, they were the healthiest of all the couples featured in the novel, but I think that says more about how toxic and dysfunctional the other relationships are.

The main thing I enjoyed about the book was the last 50 pages, which I zoomed through and really liked. Unfortunately, I had to slug through about 250 pages of intense internal dialogues and frustrating switches in points of view (for some reason some of Pearl’s sections are told in first person, while the rest of the sections, including some of Pearl’s, are all in third person) to reach those last fifty pages. Even what I liked feels bitter-sweet. And, to top it all off, those wonderful fifty pages ended in a way I never would have expected, and not in a good way. You can look at the trigger warnings below if you’re curious about what happened that turned me off at the end.

I’m sure that there are people who will thoroughly enjoy this book. I’ve read reviews from several of those people. In a way, I almost envy them, because I really, really wanted to like this book. I will say that if you enjoy character driven plots, very morally grey (and some downright evil) characters, and are okay with the triggers listed below, give this book a shot. It might be for you in a way that it wasn’t for me.

Warnings for this book: (MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE WARNINGS) abusive relationships, constant threat of rape, dubious consent, lesbophobia (related to the threat of rape), homophobia, internalized homophobia, mentions of a sexual relationship between an adult woman (over 30) and a 16-year-old girl (justified by the adult woman who shows no remorse in that aspect of the affair), and a dead lesbian (killed in an incredibly cruel and brutal way – off-screen).

Susan reviews Devil’s Rock by Gerri Hill

Devil's Rock by Gerri Hill cover

Gerri Hill’s Devil’s Rock is both the beginning of a new series and the resolution of a storyline from her Hunter series (which I reviewed here at the Lesbrary: Hunter’s Way, In The Name of the Father, and Partners). Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do this review without spoiling some of the events of Partners, so please bear that in mind!

Andrea Sullivan is a small-town police officer, confident that nothing as terrible as what happened to her in LA can happen in Sedona… And then the murders begin, because a serial killer who escaped the police in Dallas is using Sedona as his dumping ground. FBI Agent Cameron Ross shows up with her own set of issues, a kitten, and a motorhome full of FBI supercomputers to help figure out where he’s going to strike next.

The story itself was interesting, and it was nice to get some closure on the case from Partners, but some of the developments specifically about the murderer I just found myself just going “No. She can be serious. WHAT.” at, because they read as soap-opera style out-of-blue tricks of convenience, rather than actually feeling organic to the plot of either book. There are parts that are tense and dramatic, but an equal number that appear to have been set up for things in the sequel (such as mentioning that the motorhome is an electrified mobile fortress, which you’d expect to be tested at some point! But alas, no.) Although, I admit, I did periodically have to check when this book was published, because the idea of having to drive a computer around – not a crime lab, or anything else that would require you to be on the scene, an actual computer – seemed like something out of the eighties.

The thing that probably bothers me MOST about this is the way that Cameron Ross treats Andrea Sullivan. It’s not just aggressive flirting or posturing, although it contains that; at one point, Sullivan says that she doesn’t want to talk about her past with Ross, so Ross not only orders an FBI background check, but taunts Sullivan with it and blames her for it in a shocking display of “well if you’d just done what I wanted, I wouldn’t have invaded your privacy.” She’s like that about their relationship too; Sullivan says she’s not interested in kissing her, but Ross refuses to accept that because obviously she knows better. And worst of all, even though Sullivan repeatedly calls her out as a bully, it’s all for naught, because the narrative consistently rewards Ross with whatever she was bullying Sullivan for! Yeah, sure, Ross apologises, but ugggh. It doesn’t help that after Ross gets the files on Sullivan, Sullivan obviously stumbles across them and reads them (because of course) and the conversation ends with her apologising for invading Ross’s privacy. I get that it could be the narrative trying to model behaviour for Ross, but it was aggravating, and made it hard to accept the romance as a happy thing.

Devil’s Rock is a fine set-up for a new series, but I didn’t enjoy most of the romance tropes it used. That outweighed the mystery aspects, so I don’t recommend it.

[Caution warning: murder, kidnapping, abuse, bullying, mentions of infidelity, mentions of sexual assault, ableist language]

Megan G reviews A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Jess Wong is the girl nobody sees, and she’s okay with that. She likes to keep to herself, and to her art. The only person close to her is her best friend, Angie Redmond. Angie sees Jess, even if it’s not the way that Jess wishes that Angie would see her. It’s enough for Jess. Until Angie starts to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school. As Angie’s relationship with Margot progresses, Jess and Angie are drawn into a world of wealth and secrets, of privilege and cruelty. A world where terrible things happen. A world where, suddenly, Angie doesn’t see Jess anymore.

This is a difficult book to review, because, despite its short length, it almost feels like two books merged into one. The first book is about a co-dependent relationship between two best friends, one of whom has a crush on the other. The second is a murder mystery. It just so happens that both books have the same characters.

The first part of the book is told from Jess’s perspective. Jess Wong is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, who paints her relationship with Angie as not only normal, but healthy. The problem is that it isn’t healthy, which I think Malinda Lo makes very clear. Every time Jess thinks about how wonderful her friendship with Angie is, Lo shows her doing something that proves it isn’t. In fact, the co-dependency between the two (but especially from Jess) can be difficult to read at times, as you can tell how much better these girls’ lives would be if the other weren’t in it.

In a way, I sort of appreciated this. I went into this book fully expecting this to be a pining, friends-to-lovers story, with a murder mystery twist. Instead, the twist is that the reader can tell full-stop that these friends should never become lovers, and in fact probably shouldn’t even be friends at all. Some of the things that Jess does when she and Angie fight are a little frightening, but Jess wants us to think that it’s totally okay. It’s realistic in its portrayal of the co-dependency found amongst many friendships, particularly teenage friendships, and like I said, I appreciate that. As well, I can look past the argument that would usually be building in my head (“There aren’t nearly as many stories about queer women as there are about straight women, so why can’t the ones about queer women be happy for once?”) because Malinda Lo has provided us with four incredible, happily-ending stories about queer women. She has proven that she believes queer women deserve happy endings. She now gets the benefit of the doubt that other authors might not.

I don’t want to say much about the second half of the book, because I don’t want to spoil any of the mystery. All I will say is that you should not read this book if you are hoping for a fantastic who-done-it. At its core, this book is about a toxic friendship, and how these types of friendships can shape who we are and the things we do.

As well, I think it’s important to mention that Jess is not only an Asian character, but she is also described as being fat. I didn’t realize she would be when I went into this story, and it was a very pleasant surprise for me. I do believe there is a little bit of internalized fatphobia, but never to the point of extreme dieting, or even considering extreme dieting. Just the typical thoughts of a woman who doesn’t quite look like the women who surround her.

Overall, I found this story intriguing and interesting, but incorrectly marketed. Although it is, in fact, a murder mystery, that is not what the novel is truly about. I will say right now that if you go into this novel just for the mystery, you will feel disappointed. This is a story about friendships and relationships, and how easy it is for them to become toxic, even when nobody is going out of their way to make them so. It explores human dynamics deeper than any of Malinda Lo’s previous works and sets itself aside as something new and unique. As that type of book, I recommend it. As a murder mystery, however, I would not.

Megan G reviews Far From You by Tess Sharpe

Sophie Bishop was clean when her best friend Mina was murdered before her eyes. She’d been clean for nine months, two weeks, and six days. Not that the police or her parents believe her, especially considering the evidence to the contrary found in her jacket pocket. Everybody thinks that Mina’s death was a drug deal gone wrong, but Sophie knows different. She knows Mina was murdered; what she doesn’t know is why. But now that she’s out of a stint in rehab that she didn’t need, she’s determined to find out.

Published back in 2014, Far From You was not originally marketed as an LGBTQ+ novel. The blurb on the back gives no explicit indication that Mina and Sophie shared any form of romantic attachment, other than a cryptic mention of a “secret” they share. Despite all this, Far From You does not read like a typical “gay plot twist” novel, because that is not the point. Mina and Sophie’s relationship is hinted throughout the book, and explicitly revealed about 40% of the way through. The point of the novel is Sophie trying to solve the murder of the girl she loved. There is no double plot twist where we find out who murdered Mina and that she and Sophie were lovers at the same time. All things considered, it could have been dealt with a lot worse.

Because of the inherent plot of the novel, I’m sure you won’t be surprised by the warning that this book deals with a dead lesbian. It also deals with a character who is a drug addict, having become addicted to pain killers during her recovery from a traumatic car accident, which left her permanently disabled. This second aspect of the novel, while dealt with in depth, does not mention that not all people who take this type of narcotics will become addicted to them (and the author, Tess Sharpe, is aware of this and has discussed it on her twitter). So, if this is a trigger point for you, I would recommend avoiding this novel. Tess Sharpe has also talked about the problematic aspects of the dead lesbian trope on her twitter (though I am having trouble finding the link to that thread right now). Hearing her talk about these issues is actually what encouraged me to give this book a try. Knowing the author is aware of the problematic aspects of her stories makes me more interested in reading them, as I know that any future writing will most likely avoid those same tropes.

A couple more warnings about this novel include some ableist language (mostly spoken by a disabled person about herself), and a lack of diversity in the characters. It is set in a small town, so the fact that nobody’s skin colour is described heavily implies complete whiteness. As well, there are no fat characters, or any character’s that live outside the gender binary. Again, this can be explained by the small-town setting, but still bears mentioning. There is also some explicit violence, and [major spoiler warning] talks of a sexual relationship between an underage girl and an adult. [end spoiler]

I’m a lover of all murder mystery, and that aspect of this novel did not disappoint. I love when I cannot guess who the murderer is, especially since, after all the murder mysteries I’ve read, I tend to suspect everybody. This time, I was caught off guard. The second plot twist was a little less shocking to me, as I felt [minor spoiler warning] that the character wasn’t as developed, and therefore the reveal made less of an impact. Still, Sharpe does a fantastic job of slowly unraveling the mystery, and keeping you guessing until the very last moment.

The characters are fantastic. Fleshed out and flawed. Sophie makes for an incredibly dynamic lead. I was happy that her disability is continuously dealt with throughout the book, instead of shoved under the rug or forgotten. She also makes for a fantastic witness in a murder mystery, considering how unreliable she is based on her drug problems. Of course, if that weren’t the case the police would have solved the mystery a lot sooner, but what would be the fun in that? Also, I find it very important to point out that Sophie explicitly calls herself bisexual, which surprised me for a book that wasn’t originally marketed as queer.

Overall, this book is fantastically written, and provides a host of dynamic (though, admittedly, homogenous) characters. It is emotional and will probably have you reaching for the tissues more than once, as it’s portrayal over the grief of losing someone you love (especially someone nobody knew you loved) is incredibly real. Head the warnings, but if you enjoy YA fiction, and murder mysteries, as well as well-developed bisexual characters (who also happen to be disabled!), then definitely give this book a try. I promise it will make you smile, even as it breaks your heart.

 

Megan G reviews 18 Months by Samantha Boyette

lfriend Lana disappeared. She was found dead several months later. Now, Alissa’s current girlfriend Hannah Desarno has gone missing as well. Not only that, but Alissa keeps receiving mysterious notes; notes that make her think that perhaps Lana and Hannah’s disappearances have something to do with her.

I want to start off by saying that this book is incredibly trigger heavy. First and foremost, there is a dead lesbian in this book, and her death is central to the story. Homophobia is a big theme, and while the homophobia coming from external sources is addressed, the internalized homophobia isn’t. Going off of that, there are mentions of anti-gay camps, and [vague spoiler] Lana’s mother denies Lana’s sexuality after her death [end spoilers]. It’s very clear that Alissa’s mother has some form of eating disorder, and she often fatshames herself and Alissa. There are explicit mentions of sexual assault of a lesbian by a straight man, and a lesbian has several kisses forced on her, most of them by a straight man. A few cases of ableist language. [major spoilers] Someone is drugged several times throughout the book. Also, the only character who is explicitly non-white (at least, as far as I could tell) is not a very good guy. It’s implied that Hannah is black, but he’s the only character who is explicitly stated to be a person of colour [end spoilers].

If you can handle everything mentioned above, then I urge you to give this book a read. My original draw to it was that it was a murder mystery featuring a lesbian protagonist, and both aspects of the story delivered better than I could have imagined. Alissa and Hannah have an incredibly sweet relationship, and it’s clear throughout that Alissa would do anything to get Hannah back. The flashbacks to their relationship are some of the highlights in the book for me. Also, I want to give Boyette kudos for writing the first queer YA novel I’ve read where the protagonist has been in a relationship before. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories about first loves, but I also appreciate the acknowledgment that sometimes your first experiences aren’t with the person you end up with forever, and that’s okay, too.

Now, I don’t want to give away too much about the murder mystery aspect, because I believe it’s something you should read for yourself. All I will say is that I spent the entire book thinking that I knew exactly what was going on, and then when everything came together my jaw dropped. I’m somebody who has read far too many murder mystery novels, so getting my jaw to drop at a reveal is a pretty big accomplishment.  Especially considering that one of the main reasons I read the book as quickly as I did was because I wanted to see if my instincts on the who-done-it were correct (that, and I adored Alissa and Hannah’s relationship and wanted to know as much as possible about them).

Of course, it’s not a perfect book. There are several casual mentions of things that I wish they had gone into further. Alissa has multiple times where she wishes she could just be “normal” ie straight, and while I know there are people who feel this way, it always exhausts me to read about it; especially when nobody ever takes the time to tell her that she is normal. If you’re triggered by any of the things mentioned earlier, I would suggest you give this book a pass; a lot of it is dealt with rather explicitly, while some of the more serious things are sort of brushed under the rug. Still, 18 Months has got one of the most organic f/f love stories I’ve ever read, and one of the best plot twists I’ve read in years.

Danika reviews Murder Under the Bridge by Kate Jessica Raphael

murderunderthebridge

Murder Under the Bridge is a mystery novel set in Palestine. It follows two characters: Rania, a Palestinian policewoman, and Chloe, a white Jewish-American journalist doing activism in Palestine. Although Rania is the main character, we do see a lot from Chloe’s perspective, who is the lesbian character. The mystery at the center of the story is about a young foreign woman found dead near the border of Israel and Palestine. Rania, one of the few women in the department, is forced to work closer with Israeli police than is comfortable.

What I found fascinating about this book was the setting. I haven’t read any other book set in Palestine, and this one felt so immersive and well-researched. It begins with several maps and “a note about names”, and it ends with a glossary. Kate Jessica Raphael is, in her words, “a white Jewish American who spent around eighteen months in Palestine, with brief forays into Israel.” She also spent six weeks in an Israeli immigration prison because of her activism. Although the plot revolves around investigating the mystery, the tension is around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is never a moment of absolute safety or certainty for the Palestinian characters, and the threat of violence or imprisonment is always just around the corner.

In addition to the setting, Rania and Chloe are both very well established characters. They are complex and compelling, and I felt equally invested in both of their stories, so switching perspectives never felt jarring or unwanted. I do wish the side characters got more development, however. There is a large cast of characters that I found myself losing track of (which is likely my own fault–I’m terrible with names), and I felt like Rania’s husband especially was a character that appears often but does not seem to be a round, interesting character. I wanted to see more from him, and from their relationship. Chloe’s love interest was intriguing, but I also wanted to know more about her, and it felt like their relationship popped up fairly suddenly.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, so I can’t speak with authority about how the mechanism of the mystery functioned, but it worked well for me. The chapters are short, so it always felt easy to race through, although I felt like the focus was more on the setting and characters than fast-paced action (which isn’t a complaint).

I think that this is a fantastic read for anyone interested in reading a well-researched novel set in Palestine, and it has definitely spurred me to want to pick up more, especially from a Palestinian author.