Nat reviews The Verifiers by Jane Pek

the cover of The Verifiers

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Are you looking for a dystopian mystery in the vein of Dave Eggers’s The Circle, with a high stakes, lesbian Nancy Drew vibe and a heaping side of Person of Interest (where no gays are harmed in the making)? Then this is the book for you, my friend. Part speculative fiction and part murder mystery, Jane Pek’s The Verifiers is set in a world (or future) where matchmaking services are the most common way to find a partner, not entirely unlike current times, though their algorithms and importance in this novel’s society are more extreme. 

The data collected is even more invasive than what exists in our real world, collection that all but completely eliminates your privacy in order to best fulfill your needs. Enter our aspiring dating detective, Claudia Lin, who works for a company called Veracity, every bit as secretive as the CIA. Her job as the newest member of the team is to help make sure that the people on these ubiquitous dating apps are who they actually claim to be. 

Claudia is curious to a fault, a natural problem solver, an avid fan of detective novels, and stubborn enough to get herself into a bit of a situation when she can’t let an unsolved mystery drop. She’s young and sometimes makes questionable decisions. But while there are serious themes explored in the book, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Verifiers is a murder mystery that grows into a twisty, fun house mirror conspiracy where one can’t quite figure out who to trust. 

Pek sweetens the deal by treating you to a a smart, sarcastic underachieving protagonist, one who also happens to be queer and Asian. Additionally, there’s some complex family drama afoot and some social commentary on how technology affects our lives. More of this is explored at the end during the “big reveal,” including a look at how the creators of the technology justify their decisions in the name of providing a greater good. 

The Verifiers made me think of Zen Cho’s writing style in Black Water Sister, both in Pek’s treatment of the main character and in the flow of the novel. There are similarities in the MC’s family issues, though instead of meddling aunties, we have a dysfunctional sibling and mother relationship. There’s an overarching mystery to be solved that transforms the MC in ways that allow her to deal with issues in her private life. Both novels have a steady, page-turning flow and a solid helping of witty, amusing internal dialogue that had me snorting out loud, the same brand of snark that had me chuckling through Cho’s book. If Black Water Sister was your cuppa, you will likely enjoy this as well. 

And back to the sapphic aspect of this book, Claudia is queer (though not out to her mother), but this remains secondary to the story. We do still witness her dealing with issues in her personal life, sexuality included, as she navigates the challenges central to the book. There’s also some exploration of ethnicity and cultural identity in being an Asian American sprinkled throughout. 

This is Pek’s debut novel! And while it’s a standalone, you can’t help but notice that she’s setting you up for a sequel, perhaps even a series. (Fingers crossed that this is true.) I would happily binge watch five seasons of this on Netflix, following our plucky verifier as she solves mysteries each episode within a larger overarching conspiracy, topped off with a slow burn workplace romance. Ahem, JJ Abrams, are you listening? 

Meagan Kimberly reviews They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

the cover of They Never Learn

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Carly Schiller is finally away from her abusive family, but her freshman year at Gorman isn’t going that well either. She befriends and starts to fall for her roommate Allison Hadley and becomes close with Allison’s childhood friend Wes. But when Allison is sexually assaulted at a party and Carly insists on bringing her friend to the hospital and then taking the issue to the school, a rift begins to tear them apart. No one is treating Allison’s situation as she thinks they should, and as tensions rise, it all ends in tragedy.

Scarlett Clark is an English professor at Gorman with an unexpected pastime — murder. Scarlett finds wrongdoers, rapists and all-around creeps to target and bring to justice the way the justice system should have but failed to do. But her most recent kill brings the authorities too close, and she’s found out by her colleague, Dr. Mina Pierce, her victim’s ex-wife. It doesn’t help that there’s a palpable connection between her and Mina.

Almost all the men throughout the book represent the worst of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, so it’s easy to sympathize with Carly and Scarlett as they begin to lose control. The blatant perpetuation of rape culture from authority figures who should be protecting them is infuriating. Wes turns out to be a Nice Guy™, showcasing one of the more sinister types of male entitlement. He believes because he offers Allison and Carly friendship that they owe him a sexual and/or romantic relationship.

As stated before, almost all the men are the worst. The only men in the entire story who are decent are Scarlett’s gay, married colleagues. This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the book, as the only good men are gay is a tired and stereotypical trope.

The way I pitch this book is as the meme, “I support women’s rights, but I also support women’s wrongs.” Even though Carly and Scarlett turn to violence to exact justice, it’s a visceral satisfaction that’s easy to fall into. (spoilers, highlight to read) And while you’re waiting for it all to come crashing down, the unexpected happens: a happy ending. (end of spoilers)

Fargo’s writing is fast-paced and propels the story at a compelling pace. It’s hard to put the book down as you flip back and forth between Carly’s and Scarlett’s stories to see how they converge.

Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault

Susan reviews The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge by Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert

the cover of The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge

Clement Vanderbridge is acting suspiciously; he’s a well-known architect in prohibition-era New York and famously teetotal, but disappears every Friday night only to turn up smelling of alcohol and cigarettes. Fortunately, Stella Argyle and Flora Fontaine are on the case – reporters working for rival newspapers, competing for the scoop.

Or, to put it another way: The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge is a short rivals-to-lovers story from Cat Parra, Erica Chan, and Zora Gilbert, one that races from one speakeasy to the next with charm and glee. The art is great. The characters are super expressive, and the flat colours really make the details of the outfits pop. The flapper dresses! The hats! The butch musician in a suit! Excellent work on all fronts, especially with how much of the comic is wordless montages. The montages are really effective – see also: how expressive Stella is whenever Flora’s ahead of her – but they’re skimming over quite a lot considering how much the creators are fitting into thirty pages. An investigation, a rivalry, a low-key romance, a suspiciously secretive friend group, and a space that’s warm and affirming of queer people in a historical setting? That’s a lot for one comic!

Honestly my only real complaint is that the story is a little light. Again, it’s only thirty pages long, it’s to be expected, but The Elusive Mr Vanderbridge feels like a glimpse into a series that I’d gladly read more of. Flora and Stella are fun characters, and I’m absolutely here for more queer intrepid reporters.

Susan is a queer crafter moonlighting as a library assistent. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for Smart Bitches Trashy Books, or just bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Rachel reviews Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski

the cover of Real Easy

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Readers might know Marie Rutkoski’s work from her young adult Winner’s Curse trilogy (2014-2016) or her more recent f/f fantasy series, Forgotten Gods. However, Rutkoski’s first novel for adults, Real Easy, is a departure from her usual fantasy fiction while still including queer female characters at the center of her narratives.

Real Easy is a mystery/suspense novel set in America in the 1990s. The text centers around Samantha, who has been a dancer at the Lovely Lady strip club for years. Usually, Samantha’s work and home lives don’t intersect—dancers don’t use their real names, and she’s not interested in forming close friendships with her fellow dancers. But when a new dancer starts at the club and struggles to learn the unspoken rules of life as a dancer, Samantha can’t help but step in. One fateful night, Samantha offers to drive the new woman home, and that decision proves to be a deadly one. Soon, Georgia, another dancer at the club, is drawn into the murder and missing person investigation alongside the detectives on the case, and as the list of suspects shrinks, the Georgia and the detectives’ suspicions grow…

This book, although different than Rutkoski’s usual work, will appeal to her fans and new readers alike. Real Easy has all of the perfect elements of a mystery/suspense novel: intercepted women, scarred detectives, and a setting full of eroticism and danger. But these characters are far from cookie-cutter. This novel was emotional and gut-wrenching. You really grow to know and feel for each of the characters in turn, and this novel, with all of its different perspectives, is driven forward by the motivations of the various characters, all centered around a single crime that is close to home for each central character. I found myself gasping aloud, laughing, and even crying while reading this book. Rutkoski’s writing is so vividly constructed and expertly paced. She proves that moving across genres—with all of their individual tropes and expectations—is easily done with a strong character foundation.

The setting in this novel is so vivid and feels incredibly real. It was fascinating to read a story that is, in part, about queer desire set against a place that is steeped in catering toward heterosexist and male conceptions of desire. The setting, coupled with the queer characters, is inherently transgressive and Rutkoski has clearly carefully constructed the novel to highlight that contrast.

I highly recommend Real Easy to anyone interested in queer fiction, mystery novels, or Rutkoski’s other writing. This novel will not disappoint!

Please visit Marie Rutkoski on Twitter and put Real Easy on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Murder, sexual assault, violence, trauma.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Danika reviews Cold by Mariko Tamaki

the cover of Cold by Mariko Tamaki

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I’m writing this having just finished Cold, and I can still feel an ache in my chest. My heart breaks for Georgia and Todd, and all the Georgias and Todds.

This is a YA mystery told from two perspectives. Todd is a young queer teen who was found dead in a park, and his ghost is observing the attempt to solve the mystery of his death. Then there’s Georgia, a queer teenage girl who is also observing the fall out from Todd’s death. Originally, I thought this would be about Georgia investigating and finding Todd’s killer, but it’s not so much a fast-paced mystery as it is a slow unfurling of what lead up to that night.

This is a quick read: it’s under 250 pages, the font is large, and the sentences are short. Georgia’s chapters especially are written like a teenager’s train of thought. It has a lot of short sentences, with some odd asides or comparisons–which felt very accurate to what it’s like to be inside a teenage brain. It’s an atmospheric, absorbing read.

Both Georgia and Todd are outsiders: queer, nerdy kids who aren’t accepted by their peers. Todd learns to mask himself, to play down his intelligence and any characteristics that might out him. Georgia stays on the fringes of her class, but she’s recently become close with Carrie, who used to hang out with the popular girls, and who Georgia has a big crush on. Perhaps Georgia can subconsciously relate to Todd, or maybe it’s because she watches a lot of CSI, but she can’t seem to stop thinking about him and his death.

I think this would appeal to younger teens, because it is easy to read in the writing style, but it also discusses rape and a (hypothetical) sexual and/or romantic relationship between a gay teacher and gay student. Todd’s chapters also follow police main characters, which is a significant portion of the story, if you’d rather not read about that.

As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just a story that includes homophobia; it’s a story about homophobia, so do be prepared for that going in.

I’m having trouble writing about this story in depth, because I don’t want to spoil anything, and it is primarily a study of these characters and their relationships to each other. Don’t go into this expecting a fast-paced mystery or a horror type of ghost story, but do expect a moving portrait of these characters and their place in the world.

I feel so deeply for these characters, and how Todd hadn’t yet had a chance to really live as his true self. It made for a melancholic read, but it just shows how skillfully it’s been written. If you’re ready for a story that will make your heart ache, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews Murder Most Actual by Alexis Hall

Murder Most Actual cover

Clue is my all-time favourite movie, and I’m a sucker for any kind of snowed in story, so when I heard the premise for Murder Most Actual, I was immediately hooked. It follows Liza and Hanna, who have booked a getaway in a fancy hotel in the Scottish Highlands to try to patch up their marriage. Liza’s true crime podcast has recently taken off, which has left them less time to spend together. Now, they seem to constantly be bickering, especially since Liza feels like Hanna can be overbearing as well as judgmental of her passion for true crime. Hanna booking this trip without asking her didn’t help. But what is supposed to be a romantic getaway quickly turns dark as a guest turns up dead—and that’s just the beginning. Liza dives into trying to solve the mystery, but Hanna would rather lock the two of them in their room until the snow clears and they can escape.

I completely understand the Clue comparison: this is a murder mystery that is more wacky hijinks than serious drama. Many of the characters are over-the-top, including a femme fatale seducing everyone in sight and a private detective who speaks in a thick (fake?) French accent and refers to himself in the third person. There’s also more direct references to the game, including chapter titles that follow the format “[Character] in the [location] with the [object]” and characters being associated with colours (the colonel with mustard yellow, for one).

The writing also reminds me of the wit and weirdness of Clue dialogue. Hanna remarks, “It’s like she’s come to a costume party as the abstract concept of heteronormative sex.” An awkward moment is described as: “the words still hung in the air like really unwelcome snowflakes.” All together, these elements make it feel like a murder mystery party performance.

There’s an interesting contrast between this theatrical setting and characters with the sometimes painfully realistic depiction of a marriage on the rocks. The know each other deeply and care about each other a lot, but every disagreement is connected to every other argument they’ve ever had. There are layers of subtext to conversations. They walk on eggshells and take offence easily with each other–while also being protective of the other to anyone else. I think it worked well to ground the story and it gave it stakes, even when the murders don’t have that same gravity.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, partly because I don’t pick up on the little details that would allow me to piece the mystery together. When I do, I tend to not try to solve it and just allow myself to be immersed. So I can’t really evaluate how well the mystery element worked, but I will say that I didn’t see the ending coming. It isn’t a neat and tidy wrap up at the end: it’s messy and human.

There were lots of elements I loved about Murder Most Actual, but I did feel like the middle dragged a bit. I was expecting to rave about this, but I didn’t connect quite as much as I expected to. That’s an intangible, vague complaint though, and I still liked it overall. It was a fun read during December (even though this is actually set around Easter!), just as the snow started coming down!

Note: this is a Kobo exclusive title, so you won’t find it on other platforms.

Nat reviews The Headmistress by Milena McKay

The Headmistress cover

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The first thing you should know before you start The Headmistress is not to make assumptions. You may think a book involving Three Dragons Academy is set in a fantasy world and might contain, well, dragons. You may assume a book called The Headmistress will be a kinkcentric read. (Ahem, as in, “yes, mistress.”) You may even approach the truth, and expect this to be a straightforward romance with a thawing ice queen and a bit of an age gap. But even then there will be a few surprises waiting for you. 

Our story takes place in the modern world, on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. I should mention that in the first few chapters I struggled to reconcile the language and cadence used by the characters, which read to me as British English, with the locale. After a while, you just roll with it. Sam Threadneedle is our protagonist and a bit of an underdog. A closeted math teacher at a conservative girls’ boarding school, her life up until this point has been cautiously lived, until a spontaneous one night stand with a beautiful woman in New York City brings it to a record scratch interruption. 

Enter Magdalene Nox. She’s a total character who should have her own walk on music, and while some might find her extreme “villainous” nature off-putting, I personally think her entrance is where the book hits its stride. She’s Cruella de Vil meets Miranda Priestly, and just so you know, you’re all fired. Headmistress Nox, hired by the scheming school board, is about to turn Three Dragons school back to its Puritan religious roots, and ushers in a hurricane of conflict.

Professor Threadneedle was not prepared to see the woman who changed her life again, much less at her own school. What’s worse is that this woman, who’s been haunting her every waking moment since their encounter, is also threatening her livelihood. McKay does a great job with her use of flashbacks to “the night that changed everything.” We see the chemistry between Sam and Magdalene immediately, and having those little vignettes is key to how we view their relationship in the present. 

One of the big tropes in the story is the age gap. Despite more than a decade between them, digging deeper into our main characters we find that they have a lot in common, especially in their search for home and acceptance. Sam was an orphan found on the steps of the school where she teaches. Magdalene may as well have been, considering her transient upbringing, facing rejection and struggling with her identity. Both women are closeted for their own reasons, both seek solace in Three Dragons, as well as each other. 

I spent much of the book rooting for Sam and Magdalene, but let’s not forget about one of the most important secondary characters–the cat. Willoughby the cat has his own icy veneer, and like the Headmistress, this orange tom bows to no one. As Willouhby and Magdalene interact, we see her humanity and vulnerability through her cold facade. 

McKay also expertly weaves a subtle thread of mystery into her story, involving threatening notes and dead rodents, escalating to attempts to harm one of our main characters and those she cares about. She steadily raises the stakes while giving us small breakthroughs in our main characters’ relationships. You can have a little snogging as a treat!

I also love that McKay includes a dynamic trans character, Lily, who serves a more complex role in the story than just being a foil for Sam and Magdalene. She even has a girlfriend! Milena McKay checks all the boxes for me in The Headmistress. Romance. Mystery. Betrayal. A handsome cat. A big reveal and a dramatic climax. And our underdog swinging her way to the top.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews A Queer Death at Secret Pearl by J.C. Morgan

I have to admit, “cozy mystery set at a lesbian retirement community” was a tagline I could not resist. A Queer Death at Secret Pearl begins with Judith moving into Secret Pearl and immediately meeting an aggressively welcoming Cynthia, who attempts to take her on a tour, but is so high that she gets them lost until the golf cart battery runs out. The chapters rotate between different point of view characters, most of whom are as eccentric as Cynthia. There’s the “resident slut” whose purpose in retirement is to get all the sex she missed out in her closeted youth, a hypochondriac lamenting her inevitable demise (despite being fit enough to fight off an intruder with a shovel), a grouchy butch who goes by “Wheezer,” and more. Judith is a subdued, bookish retired veterinarian with a collection of abandoned animals she’s taken in–including a vulgar parrot named Hannibird Lector–who is reluctantly pulled into this community’s adventures, and surprises herself by enjoying them.

While there is a mystery element to this, I wouldn’t say it’s the focus. This story is much more about the shenanigans this wacky group gets into, including naked therapy, swimming with manatees, and playing with a ouija board. Oh, and a lot of sex. With the amount of sex talk and sex scenes included, you’d think it would be erotica, but they’re handled in a matter-of-fact way for the most part, not lingered on.

Of course, as the title suggests, there is a death at the beginning of the novella. While a wine and cheese tasting party was underway (which most of the residents found much too fancy and brought beer to instead), Betty was found dead in the bathroom, naked and sitting on a toilet. While this is a retirement community, she was relatively young and healthy, so the women begin to gossip about the possibility of murder, and immediately the taciturn Wheezer is the main suspect–mostly just because she doesn’t get along well with the people accusing her.

I expected this to be a mystery, with Judith investigating, but the death is mostly taken in stride. The coroner’s report is delayed, so no one knows for sure if there is anything suspicious about her death. It’s mostly just a recurring piece of juicy gossip, with people taking stands for or against Wheezer. There are occasional scenes of looking for evidence or puzzling things out, but they aren’t the focus.

This is a short, entertaining read with a lot of humor. It sometimes feels over-the-top in its goofiness (the police especially are cartoonishly incompetent), and there isn’t a lot of space to give most of the characters depth, but it’s light and silly, and I appreciate a story like this because there are so few books about older lesbians, especially ones that embrace sex.

There are two points that grated on me and I think were unnecessary: two characters talk about their “spirit animals,” and another character calls herself a “part time lesbian” and “a little bisexual.” It seems weird to me that the community (especially since it apparently includes hundreds of women, though we just meet a handful) wouldn’t exclude bisexuals or that Brenda wouldn’t just call herself bisexual.

Despite some minor issues I had with it, I really enjoyed reading it, and I’d like to see more stories set at Secret Pearl! I can imagine these characters stumbling into a lot more sticky situations in the future.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn, illustrated by Claire Roe

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

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Madison Jackson started as an intern at The Boston Lede, fetching coffee and grabbing quotes for senior writers. But she finds herself thrust into the spotlight when Dahlia Kennedy, a prominent socialite charged with a gruesome murder, latches onto her. Madison must decide how far she’s willing to go and how much to trust Dahlia to get her shot at becoming an ace reporter.

The story starts strong, pulling the reader in with the mystery. A constant back and forth of whether or not Dahlia actually committed the murder creates a palpable tension that moves the mystery forward. But about halfway through, the push and pull without any clear evolution in sight for the characters becomes tedious. After so much buildup on the mystery, when the truth comes to light, it’s more a relief than satisfying.

While the overall plot falls flat, Dunn does capture the newsroom politics well. It’s the nature of these dynamics that define Madison’s character development throughout the story. She starts as a typical, shy intern and it seems like she’s going to make a name for herself. But the path she takes to do that leads to selfish decisions that hurt others, making her a rather unlikeable character.

Unlikeability in a character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but between her devolving character arc and the tiresome plot, it doesn’t leave much for the reader to root for. Especially because most of the characters are unlikeable. The diversity of supporting characters made the story feel real, but there was very little to like about most of them.

The artwork helps keep the story moving even after the pacing starts to fall short. Vibrant colors make every panel pop on its own. And yet it has a style that still feels very noir, keeping in line with the mystery genre.

Bury the Lede is a solid 3 stars because it did keep me entertained for the most part.