Megan Casey reviews Tank Baby by Iza Moreau

Tank Baby by Iza Moreau cover

The short review is this: “Tank Baby is the first book in a marvelous new series that has the potential to, much like Nancy Drew did for past generations, capture the hearts and minds of young readers searching for a role model.” But because nothing is as simple as it sounds, here is the longer review:

Elodie Fontaine was born in Shanghai and for the first 7 years of her life, was part of her scientist mother’s secret project to see if children could learn computer code as a first language. But Elodie’s mother died before the project came to fruition and Elodie was adopted by the interracial lesbian couple Sandra Croft and Carmah Williams (who are, in fact, the main characters in Moreau’s earlier novel, The 5).

Ten years later, Elodie is a normal high school senior—a member of the tennis team and Math Club. All thoughts of her early childhood have almost disappeared when she begins to get strange messages referring to her mother’s project. Somebody wants the notes for that project and, it seems, will go to any length to get them.

Elodie is intrigued, but somewhat annoyed. The last thing she wants to do is get involved in a mystery that will take time away from her studies, her tennis, and especially her just-blossoming romance with her doubles partner, Kelli Ennis. But when she, Kelli, and their friend Margo are threatened, she has no choice, even though it means dredging up unwanted memories and shuffling through thousands of pages of code to figure out what worth the project might have to anyone.

And so he girls are off on an exciting adventure complete with an attempted kidnapping, threatening email messages and phone calls, and a mysterious death. And, of course, the budding romance. The mystery and its solution are both intricate and compelling; the romance both flirty and touching.

The allusion of Moreau’s series to Nancy Drew is subtle, barely more than a hint, but there is just enough there to imagine that the ghost of Nancy is looking down from a nearby staircase and smiling. Like Nancy, Elodie hangs out with two friends—Kelli and Margo, she drives a snazzy new sports car, solves mysteries, and is seemingly unable to swear. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends except for the dynamic, narrative-driven cover that even has a cameo of Elodie on the spine.

While Nancy, George, and Bess are straight (although I have my suspicions about George), Elodie and her friends are all members of the Gay/Straight Alliance at their high school. Yes, there is some homophobia and yes, there is a coming-out scene, but these are side issues to this novel. Tank Baby is all about the mystery and the relationships between the friends. In other words, it is both character driven and plot driven. A nice combo.

As far as I know—and I am a long-time close observer of the subject—the projected Elodie Fontaine Mystery Series is the first-ever Young Adult mystery series featuring a lesbian sleuth. That in itself is worthy of attention. That Tank Baby is an enjoyable first foray into Elodie’s world is a promise of good things to come. Am we won’t have long to wait for the sequel. In the tradition of the original Stratemeyer syndicate that produced the bulk of juvenile series novels in the early to mid twentieth century, the first three Elodie novels will be released almost simultaneously. According to the author’s blog, the next novel is coming in March and the third in May. I like Elodie and Tank Baby a great deal; but more than that I like the idea of a YA mystery series that LGBTQ youth can call their own.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher through Lesbrary.

Another note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Fighting for Air by Marsha Mildon

Fighting for Air by Marsha Mildon cover

This book is a prime example of why ebook samples should be longer. If Fighting for Air had been available as an ebook when I read it, I would have given up after the ten-percent sample that Amazon offers. At the time, however, there was no ebook—New Victoria came out with one in 2016—21 years after its paperback publication and several years after I read it. So I persevered and was rewarded. Am I rich because of it? No. But I gained something I didn’t have before.

Calliope Meredith is a private detective and former scuba diving enthusiast living in a coastal town in Canada. When she is invited to participate in a dive off Anemone Island, she is at first reluctant because her lover was killed in a diving accident only a year previously. But she is persuaded by her good friend Jay, who is running a diving certification class and wants Cal to help her out. Then the unthinkable happens: one of the students drowns and Jay is arrested for homicide-by-negligence. Unless Cal can prove that the diver, an Ethiopian graduate student named Tekla, has been murdered—and figure out who murdered him—Jay might be sent to jail for life, just as Cal is falling in love with her.

Mildon’s cast of characters is a rich one, with beautiful lesbians a-plenty: Cal, her best friend Danielle, Danielle’s lover Sally, and the likable old Faith, who keeps an eye out for all of them when she can. But many characters makes for many suspects, and one of Cal’s friends may be a murderer.

As mysteries go, this one is better than most, but you may have to do some research into scuba diving for it to ring true. I did, and I learned a lot about how poisonous carbon monoxide can find its way into scuba tanks. In fact, the whole diving motif was extremely well done—accurate and interesting. The author also goes into the theme of activism vis a vis third world countries. It seems that Tekla was a relation of the deposed emperor Heile Selassie, and harbored the grandiose  scheme of returning to his country and taking over power from the military. The history of Ethiopia’s aggression toward the neighboring state of Eritera is also gone into in some detail.

Cal is not a particularly noticeable character. She plods from one suspect to another determined to exonerate her lover even after Jay gives up and resigns herself to prison life. Cal’s status as a P.I. is stated but not gone into with enough detail for us to really believe it. These are a couple of minor but important detractions. A more significant flaw is in Cal’s relationship with Jay. Quite simply, it isn’t written very well. Cal’s previous friendship with Jay is told in asides and occasional flashbacks, not as part of the story line, so it seems very abrupt when Cal touches Jay’s shoulder comfortingly and shudders with sexual feeling. The flashbacks explain after the fact. And because Jay has heretofore been straight, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of foreplay.

Despite the flaws and the non-flaws, give this book an average rating. 2.5. You’ll learn some important things, but you’re not likely to be very engrossed in the story.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

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 Casey reviews She Scoops to Conquer by Robin Brandeis

She Scoops to Conquer by Robin Brandeis

Lane Montgomery is the chief investigative reporter for Louisville’s “reputable” newspaper, The Louisville Daily. Ann Alexander is her counterpart at The Metropolitan Inquirer, a tabloidish rival of the Daily. Lane claims to despise the beautiful but unethical Ann until they find themselves having to investigate what appears to be two connected crimes involving a slain 15-year-old inner-city boy.

The crimes—and the mystery itself—are no joke; in fact, Lane uncovers a serious lack of fairness in her own profession when she notices that stories on crimes against minorities are generally buried deep in the paper while high-profile crimes against whites garner banner headlines. Ditto for the police investigations of same. But when Lane gets a grudging go-ahead to write an in-depth piece on the young man that was killed, she begins to find out a few facts she doesn’t want to know.

The case is a serious one—and dangerous, too, as Lane finds out while doing her research. On the other foot, Lane’s interactions with Ann are not only among the most humorous in lesbian fiction, but the most sensuous as well. Both women are fem—and each tries to out do the other not only in getting her story first, but in insisting that the other is the more beautiful and desirable. Like its near namesake, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, this can be considered at least partly a romantic comedy.

Brandeis maintains her first-person point of view in an interesting, straightforward, and humorous way all at once. Lane is a very likable character and it is a shame that she was not brought back for an encore. It is a point of view that lesser writers, like the more popular Mary Wings or Sarah Dreher, could have learned a lot from. There is some wisdom in the book, too. When Lane speaks about her homophobic mother, her grandmother replies, “Now, I love your mother, but she hasn’t learned yet that a daughter’s love is worth a whole lot more than other people’s opinions.”

And hey, here’s something unexpected. The solution of the mystery is not nonsense as are most other solutions in lesbian mystery fiction (and mystery fiction in general). As I often mention, readers should no longer expect solutions to make sense, but this one does. The only real flaw, I think, is that the author unnecessarily keeps an important interview with a suspect a secret until the end. It mars the ending a little by making it seem rushed. Still, I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Give it a 4.5 or so and put it in your Top 25 List.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

“Everyone was in a state of confusion because the president was insane.”

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry is longtime lesbian author Sarah Schulman’s second dive into the crime fiction genre (her first was The Sophie Horowitz Story). The novel explores the life of an addict, post-rehab, set against the backdrop of the Trump administration and a gentrifying New York City. While the book offers readers an interesting and heartbreaking look into the mind and soul of someone struggling with addiction, the premise of the mystery is weak, the effort to incorporate contemporary issues falls short, and the craftsmanship isn’t strong enough to hook the reader, making it a difficult and less engaging read than I had hoped for.

Schulman begins with several paragraphs about the U.S. under the new Trump administration. This sets the reader up with the assumption that national politics will play a major role in the book, which they don’t. Schulman tells us that “…(Maggie’s) private deterioration mirrored that of her society.” I found this and other passages like it general and vague, with little connection that enlightened the reader about either the protagonist or the national crisis.

After the text about Trump, we soon learn that Maggie is just one day out of rehab, stunned and confused about who she is and how to relate to the world. We discover she has split up with her girlfriend, Frances, and in the process of her deterioration lost the right to see her daughter, Alina; Maggie’s primary motivation is to get her daughter back (“at least visitation”).

Maggie’s former criminology teacher, Mike Fitzgerald, gives her a job at a law firm as a private investigator.  We soon learn that something went deeply wrong in her career as a police officer before she got sober: “It could not have gone worse in the end…It did destroy her life…Now Mike was giving her a second, second chance, this time at surviving.” Later on we learn what had happened and how Maggie’s using contributed to her part in the tragedy.

On Maggie’s first day on the job, a new client, the famous actress Lucy Horne, comes in asking the firm to investigate the murder of bit part actress Jaime Wagner, whom Horne thinks was killed by Wagner’s ex, a stalker. Why is Horne so interested in Mike’s firm and making this problem go away? Because she has a contract with Disney and needs to steer clear of anything remotely shady.

If you can accept this strange premise and focus on Maggie’s journey, you’ll learn a lot about addiction and the mind and heart of an addict. Maggie’s character is a big strength of the book.

At Schulman’s best, she finds gritty details from Maggie’s life in New York that say a lot. About the city’s subway: “She could walk down those scum-and-gum-encrusted stairs…hang onto slimy poles, smash into clueless tourists…sit face front into some man’s crotch.”  “…men handling their own genitals like they were tough tomatoes in fragile skins.” “The smell of her daughter’s waxy ear as she gently cleaned it with a Q-tip.”

Schulman also captures the inner dialogue of a recovering addict well: slogans and values of 12-step programs, defensiveness, blame, and self-centeredness. For example, When Mike introduces Maggie to her new co-workers, he says proudly that “Enid raised four children before acing law school.” Maggie immediately compares this to her own situation: “Maggie felt the truth of her own failure. She’d lost one to custody.”

Another way Schulman shows the effects of Maggie’s addiction is how she organizes the world into good and bad people and how she is victimized: “Everyone else walked down the street thinking of themselves as pure and clean. They had it together because they were better, and the job of people who are better is to point out the ones who are worse and punish them. All of society seemed to be organized like that. Whoever could, would punish. It was linked to opportunity. Like the judge who took away her child, who ruled no visitation. He was fine with treating her so badly, then when he went home, no matter how much pain he had caused, he was better than someone. He was better than her.”

But Schulman also made Maggie complex. For example, she’s skillful in reading group dynamics. At her new job, Enid is “…the group’s emotional moderator…”, “One of those tough old ladies who never said ‘good job’ until she meant it, and Mike desperately needed a bullshit detector.”

Maggie also has a great sense of humor: “’Hi, it’s Maggie Terry. I’m here for my first day.’ Overshare.” “Mike may have been Teflon, but his beleaguered staff was certainly scratched.” When she’s being introduced to Craig, her co-investigator: “Craig looked up and smiled…once the smile was completed, Craig went back to his device, so when Maggie reached out her hand and said hi, he missed it and left her arm suspended in optimistic traction.”

Schulman structures the story of the mystery around the issue of police violence and racism, with the details of the mystery falling flat. White, blonde-haired Maggie was complicit in a police shooting, and she’s clearly in the role of someone with privilege. Although at the very end of the book she makes a shift toward responsibility, there’s no obvious arc to Maggie’s change. Because I’m not attached to Maggie nor is the setup for the assignment compelling, I wasn’t drawn in to the investigation, either as an illumination of social issues or as simply an engaging mystery.

Also, the language in the novel frequently tells when showing would be more powerful. As a reader, I never felt the thrill of being smack dab in the middle of the action and emotion, on the ground and with the characters. Examples:

“There was a weird vulnerability that came from being afraid of everyone, having contempt for them, and trying to help them while also controlling them and wanting their love.”

“Like most of the places that hosted meetings, Saint Veronica’s was old-fashioned, uncool, and a bit decrepit.”

“Lucy had good skin, an expensive body, and healthy hair.”

“When Maggie’s mother killed herself, the housekeeper made her put on her prettiest dress for the funeral, and everyone told her how beautiful she looked. What a stupid thing to say to a little girl whose mother had left her behind.” What could have been a moment to hook the reader into a very traumatic piece of Maggie’s past is lost because it’s told too directly.

Throughout the book, until the very end, Maggie also stays stuck in her blaming position towards her ex. Since we don’t actually meet Frances, or Alina, this soon becomes repetitive and stagnant for the reader. Instead of empathy, I often felt frustrated and wanting some kind of change and improvement in Maggie’s situation.

If you’re looking for an action-packed exciting crime novel, Maggie Terry is likely to leave you unsatisfied. If you enjoy well-crafted books of literary fiction with interesting relationships, in which characters move, change, and affect one another, I would skip this one. But if you’re curious to learn more about the experience of addiction and what it’s like for a smart but troubled lesbian to return to a harsh and chaotic world after rehab, check out Maggie Terry.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.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).

Megan Casey reviews Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

This book is interesting not so much for the mystery, which is a bit less than so-so, but for the fact that it was penned by Muller, who, along with P.D. James, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, are often considered the first modern women detective novelists. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) was the first—and likely the best—of these, but only one more Cordelia Gray book followed before James went on to other characters. Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) began the long career of P.I. Sharon McCone, who has now appeared in at least 34 novels. Why is this important? Because out of all of the famous women mystery writers we see on the best-seller lists, including Rita Mae Brown, Patricia Cornwell (both of whom identify as lesbian), Janet Evanovich, and J.D. Robb (who do not), Muller is the only one who has written a novel with a lesbian protagonist. And even here she kind of hedges her bets by giving her a male counterpart, who shares the story and comes to the rescue at the end.

The story goes something like this. Carly McGuire, editor of a small-town newspaper, picks up hitchhiker Ardis Coleman, who is on the run from demons in her past. The two fall in love and set up house together. Fourteen years later, Ardis disappears on the same day that her ex-husband shows up looking for her. The husband, Matt Lindstrom, has been tipped off by an anonymous phone call as to where Ardis has been living for so long and he plans to confront her not only for leaving him, but leaving him to be suspected of killing her and disposing of her body. But when Ardis runs away again, he and Carly are forced to team up to find her—before something really happens to her.

Carly McGuire is not a particularly well-drawn lesbian, so you won’t get much of a sense of the LGBT community here. Still, Carly is a strong, acceptably likeable character. Her erstwhile life partner, Ardis, is less so. In fact, her character flip-flops like a jumping bean without a hint as to what makes her do so. A much-needed backstory is hinted at, but never delivered. The mystery is not badly conceived, but it is pretty badly executed. It involves the three-year-old murder or a gay couple who happened to be friends with Carly and Ardis. In fact, if you can believe it, Ardis wins a Pulitzer in journalism for her in-depth reporting of the murder. Meanwhile, the dastardly mayor is threatening Carly and Ardis with all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things if Ardis doesn’t sell him the property previously owned by the murdered couple—property for which Ardis is the administrator. And property which may harbor a rich vein of gold.

Well, after a great deal of searching and interviewing by Carly and Matt (they have alternate, third-person point-of-view chapters), and two suicides that seem to indicate involvement in the gay couple’s murder, the story seems to peter out in the time-honored fashion of having the killer simply be someone who is insane. The writing is professional, but obviously so. In other words, Muller, who has already written well over 40 novels, has to “research” this one—find out the intricacies of the place, how to be a photographer, and other tidbits. The homework shows. I feel nothing heart-felt here, just surface observations. We know little about even the main characters, such as who their friends are, what they drink, their ages–things that make me suspect that the author didn’t know them either.

I guess the best part of this book—aside from the characters of Carly and Matt—is that the two didn’t get together at the end. But that’s one of those things that, if they had, simply would have taken a full star away from the book’s rating. As it is, the rating doesn’t change. Give it no more than a 2.4 as a mystery, 2.0 as a lesbian mystery. I’d say that if you’re wanting to give Muller a try, start with a Sharon McCone mystery. An early one.

Note: Although this is called the second novel in the Soledad County series, it is the only one in which Carly McGuire is a protagonist. I read the first hardback printing of the Mysterious Press edition of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

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 Casey reviews She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren

She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren cover

This is another winner for New Victoria, made even more impressive by the fact that the author was only 25 when she wrote it. On the surface, it tells the story of Emma Kendrick’s childhood friendship with Natalie Mercer, who suddenly disappeared at the age of eight. Over the years, Emma buried the image of Natalie somewhere deep within her. But when Natalie’s body is found, seventeen years later, Emma’s memories begin to return.

The story is told from Emma’s point of view but from two time frames. In the present, Emma is asked by one of Natalie’s old neighbors to look into her death. So, despite her own reservations and that of her best friend Carly, she begins to ask questions. No, this isn’t a thriller in which Emma eventually and stupidly finds herself alone with a killer. Rather, it is a story of loss and love and friendship and abandonment, as Emma loses first her father, then Natalie, then her girlfriend Judy. Even her friend Carly is thinking of changing jobs and moving to a city far away.

But there are also chapters in which Emma has vivid memories of herself and Natalie in the past: in their hidden fort, playing house, talking of the future, just being together in the cold, lonely world. She begins to remember specifics that she had never thought about before—the fact that Natalie once showed up for school with a cast on her arm, her fright at having to leave her home to visit her father after her mother has remarried, the memory of Natalie leaving the school counselor’s office—memories that make her think that Natalie might have been abused.

Although there are lots of lesbians in this one, there is no romance and no sex; the book doesn’t call for it. There are a couple of glitches that I am mentioning only in the hope that Lauren reads this and corrects them in any new editions. First, there is a page in which Emma remembers her grandfather having a serious talk with her when she was 14. In the next paragraph, she tells her mother that her grandfather died when she was 12. A second glitch is just an omission. Emma meets Pat Carroll, an older lesbian that she has admired for years, not only for her work in the women’s movement but for her startlingly good looks. When Carly tells her that Pat has the hots for Lauren, Lauren simply doesn’t respond. My god, she has to at least have some thoughts about that. For the record, although I pegged the villain on page 22, I did not guess the murderer. But that’s okay, Emma didn’t either.

As far as I know, Lauren, who, like Natalie, was abused as a child, managed to calm her inner demons and live a normal life without having to resort again to literature. Give this one as close to 4 stars as you can without going over. It should be on everyone’s to-read list, although maybe not as high on that list as some others.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this novel.

Another Note: See my reviews of over 250 other lesbian mysteries at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Megan Casey reviews Murder in the Castro by Elaine Beale

Lou Spencer, your normal, tomboyish young Englishwoman, has fled to San Francisco to escape a bad relationship in her home country. Five years have passed, and although she has been celibate the entire time, she has found a meaningful job as office manager for a LGBT Crisis Management Center. But when one of the Client Advocates is murdered in his office after hours, her rather insulated existence is disturbed to the max. All the indications are that this is a random hate crime, but is it?

A literary theory professor I know once said that whether or not a reader likes a novel has little to do with its importance. I don’t like Madame Bovary, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that Flaubert didn’t influence generations of writers. Elaine Beale isn’t Flaubert, yet my friend the professor’s tenet still holds true. I didn’t care for the novel, yet I realize that there are many things unique and, yes, important about it. Let’s start with these.

First of all, this is what I might call a Movement novel: one that chronicles some form of LGBT or women’s politics in the last years of the 20th century. Think of Vicki P. McConnell’s The Burnton Widows, Barbara Wilson’s Murder in the Collective, or Mary Wings’ She Came Too Late. Chronicling the history of this movement is important not only for what the movement accomplished, but because it was so relatively short, coming in with the hippies and out with the yuppies. Beale gives quite a nice description of an office whose purpose is to help gays and lesbians who have been abused on the street or in the home.

The second excellent thing about this novel is the mention of same-sex domestic abuse; Lou has come to the U.S. to escape from her abusive girlfriend.  While many lesbian novels focus on the abuse of a female character by a husband, father, or other family member, few lesbian authors feel comfortable confronting abuse in their own domestic partnerships.

The mystery, too, is an interesting one. I found myself wanting to know who the killer was, although an observant reader could have guessed who the culprit was on page 22

It is a fast-paced novel, moving quickly from one clue to the next. To the author’s credit, she uses similes instead of plain description. Unfortunately, a lot of the comparisons are overstated, such as when, at a local news conference, Lou describes the media as being “like sharks at a feeding frenzy,” or “if I ever became mayor, I’d not only make car alarms illegal, but possession of them punishable by several years hard labor.” Most of these turns of  phrase could have been (and probably should have been) used to better effect somewhere else. Like in a stand-up comic’s routine.

The investigating officer is homophobic to the point of cliché. Although this is not so unusual in lesbian mysteries (see Kate Delafield’s first partner)—or even in real life—it just isn’t very interesting or pleasant to read about them. Unlike Kate Delafield’s partner, who seemed real, with a real family and real plans, there is nothing distinctive about this man, which tells me that the author really didn’t know her characters as well as she should have. The ending, too, is obviously staged for effect, not coherency. Give her a half star for bringing up same-sex domestic abuse, but take it away again because she only refers to it obliquely—she never really takes us as deeply as she might have into Lou’s abusive relationship with her ex.

All in all, there is nothing terribly wrong with the writing, or the characters, or the mystery, or the romance. The writing style and point of view are similar to that of Mary Wings. In fact, Wings also wrote a book with The Castro in the title in the same year as this one. Fans of Wings and Sarah Dreher will probably like this book. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of either. You know how you sometimes meet someone and the two of you—like me and Flaubert—just don’t click? It is the personality of the writing—and necessarily of the first-person narrator—that keep this book from getting more than 3 stars. But that is still a fairly good rating, considering.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this book.

Another note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries