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

Vacation Reads by Julie Thompson

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

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

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

Megan Casey reviews For Every Season by Frankie J. Jones

When I pick up a Bella book, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just assign it a rating of somewhere between a 2.5 and a 3.5 and go on to something else. I’m talking about Bella originals, now, not reprints. I usually come around to the hope that I might run into something really outstanding, something that would be a credit to the genre, but the fact that none of the 24 books in my Top 20 list are Bella originals tells its own tale. Of course, reading average or bad books is as much my job as reading good ones. Where does For Every Season fit? Well, it doesn’t; it is surprisingly good.

Andi Kane is at the end of a nowhere relationship when she is laid off her job at the phone company. Tail tucked firmly between her legs, she returns to her parents’ home in San Antonio to get her head together and look for another job. But somehow her grandmother railroads her into looking into Andi’s great-grandfather’s murder conviction sixty-five years previously. This despite the fact that she has no experience in sleuthing and that three private detective agencies have already failed to exonerate him.

One of the good things about this book—and there are may—is the fact that at first, there seems no way in hell that Andi can unearth any new evidence about a crime that happened before even her mother was born. But through diligence, luck, and the help of some new friends, Andi just might manage it. And in a way that is both believable and interesting

In the meantime, Andi has become attracted to the district attorney, who also has an interest in the case. What happens between them is the sub-crux of the story—one that spans at least three generations. It is hard not to like Andi—we have all been at a crossroads in our lives, guilty over our perceived failures and anxious to travel down a new road. The small, fictional town of HiHo, Texas is a hoot, as are a lot of the people in it.

It is a well-written, well-edited, and well-investigated mystery. Bravo to Bella for breaking out of the mold of their own making. Give this one somewhere around a 4 and recommend it to your friends, as I am doing at this moment.

Note: I read what seems to be the first printing of the Bella edition.

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 The Girl in Gold by Beth Lyons

I recently received a couple of review copies of books in which the private investigator protagonist has paranormal powers. The first, Geonn Canon’s Underdogs, has its shape-shifting PI use her powers to do surveillance for a client in the first few pages. Perhaps I should have read on, but using paranormal powers to solve a case—or any part of a case—is verboten as far as lesbian mysteries go. The mystery genre should be a cerebral one—one in which, ideally, the reader can empathize with the detective, weighing clues and solving the mystery concurrently with the detective. Because readers are not canidae, it is difficult to empathize in Canon’s book. In other words, a dog can watch a house without arousing suspicion; a human cannot. So for me, the book became primarily paranormal.

So it was with some foreboding that I began The Girl in Gold, in which 23-year-old part-time P.I. Vox Swift is an elf.

Vox seems to be one of two employees of Boleian Investigations, the other being Boleian himself. She also works as a messenger for a family business called Swift Messengers, which was fortunate, because during one of her deliveries, she becomes aware of a murder. Seems that the victim—dressed loudly in gold—has just been discovered in the library of a famous author. Then, the same day, another girl about the same age and size—her face unrecognizable—is also discovered.

Vox is studying to be the type of magician called a Bard, which is one who sings songs as she investigates, asking the universe as it were, to help in her discoveries. The first time she uses this magic, she is simply trying to ascertain if magic was used in the murder. To me, this was okay—the magics were canceling each other out because, in fact, there was no magic used in the crime. But when Vox questions a maid in the house where the murder was discovered, she uses a charm that causes the girl to spill everything she knows. This was a no-no. It’s not something a human detective could do. So the book can not be truly considered a lesbian mystery. Rather, it is a lesbian fantasy. But I had already read five chapters so I went on. Later, she casts a spell to find a secret door where she can eavesdrop on an important conversation. Shake my head.

The idea of a town that had humans, fae, elves, and dwarves living in relative harmony was a good and interesting one. Vox herself has promise, and her budding relationship with the human paladin Jesskah Morningstar was tantalizing.

Still, in rating the book just for myself and for whoever reads this, just about everything about it gets a 3: the mystery (which everyone solves before Vox dose), the writing style, the relationships, the emotions, and even the universe are all above average, but just barely. It isn’t something I can’t recommend, but neither am I going to warn you away any more than I have. Those readers who specialize in reading lesbian mysteries are going to like it less than those who prefer fantasy.

Note: I read a review copy of this book kindly provided in ebook form by 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 The Ultimate Exit Strategy by Nikki Baker

Hmm. This book was published by Bella Books in 2001, which would have made it one of their first publications. This means that for some reason Baker bailed on Naiad, who had published the first three books in this series. Naiad was subsumed by Bella two years later. The copy I read for this review was probably the only printing.

The fourth and last Virginia Kelly mystery takes place in the world of finance. The company Virginia has been working for since college, Whlytebread, Greese, Winslow, and Stoat, is about to be subsumed by a larger firm, Gold Rush Investments. This will make most of the Whytebread employees, including junior partner Virginia, fairly rich when they trade in their old company shares. There’s just one problem: Whytebread’s CEO, Wes Winslow, is murdered just a few days before the merger is scheduled to take place. If the murderer is not found, the deal will not go through. So Virginia sees it as her duty to solve the crime.

Like Baker’s other books, this one is too good to miss. Her flashbacks—often within other flashbacks—are not your basic narrative, but she manages to do it flawlessly—the reader always knows exactly where the story is going. Virginia is her old ironic self and her BFF Naomi Wolf is back to keep Virginia on her toes. To complicate the investigation, Virginia gets taken up with Detective Cassandra Hope, an old flame she would heartily like to rekindle. Then there is her faltering, long-distance relationship with Spike, who we met in Long Goodbyes. Virginia suspects that Spike is using her for her expectations and that Cassandra is using her to solve the case.

The British novelist C. P. Snow was a master at conducting dialogue without using actual quotations. Passages like: James was astonished when I told him that I knew his sister from my days at Cambridge. He told me that he had no idea that I had attended school there. Other novelists have done this as well, especially those that were not very good at rendering dialogue. But Baker goes Snow one better, blending active and passive conversation. Here’s an example in a conversation between Virginia and Naomi:

“I called Spike tonight and I broke up.”  I’d thought it was the best timing, considering Cassandra and all.

“Ok right.” Naomi picked up the mention of Cassandra as if it were a detail she’d forgotten. 

An article should be written on the best buds of lesbian sleuths. Certainly Naomi is at the top of the list, followed by Nyla Wade’s Audrey Louise and Jane Lawless’ Cordelia. Oddly, many of our protagonists’ BFFs are actually gay men (see Barbara Johnson, David Galloway, et al). Whenever Naomi is present, there is a spark—not only in Virginia, but in the story. Yet the reader senses that a romance between the two would be a mistake. In this novel, Naomi is trying to give up smoking, which makes her even bitchier than usual. And, as always, she figures out things just a little before Virginia does.

I have seen a review of this book that complains that Virginia is not black enough for the reviewer’s comfort. It reminds me of another review I read about a lesbian sleuth that was not lesbian enough. Virginia is a product of her time and her culture. She did not grow up in a ghetto, her parents were not divorced, and she completed a good college education. In fact, this is a brilliant portrait of a black woman who is trying to make it in the predominantly white profession of personal finance. The book does not dwell on Whitey vs. Blackie. It dwells on a sensitive and very intelligent young woman trying to survive in a world she has chosen. Bravo.

The Ultimate Exit Strategy is as good as the first three novels in the series, or at least it would have been if not for the sloppy job Bella Books did on both the editing and the proofreading. But the author has to shoulder some of her blame herself for not going over the final galleys more carefully (presuming that Bella provided any). The specter of HIV is thrust into the plot at the last minute and not only was it not foreshadowed, but it seems to come to nothing. Somebody missed something, or a couple of somethings. Like the half-dozen discretionary hyphens that pop up in the text. And the more-than-usual typos. In short, Baker made a mistake changing publishers. Maybe she thought that Naiad’s current editor would not be as good as Bella’s. She was probably wrong. Maybe the relative failure of this title made Baker rethink her aspirations as a writer. After all, she has published nothing else in over 15 years. Yet The Ultimate Exit Strategy does not end like the last book in a series. Like the author, Virginia ends up leaving her Chicago firm. Many adventures seem to lurk in the future.

Will there ever be another Virginia Kelly mystery? Who knows. But regardless, Nikki Baker is wildly underrated and underappreciated. Her books need to come out in new editions, including e-book editions. Give this book—and this series—a near-perfect rating, despite the editorial glitches.

For over 250 Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries