Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]

Bee reviews Die For Me by Luke Jennings

Killing Eve: Die For Me by Luke Jennings

SPOILER WARNING

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, transphobia

Being a Killing Eve mega-fan since season one began, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading the books. I picked up Luke Jennings’ series at just the right time – only a couple of months before the release of the third and final book, Die For Me. Codename Villanelle and No Tomorrow were unbelievably enjoyable for me. Although very different to the TV series, they retained a different kind of charm: slightly trashy thrillers (in the best possible way), filled with designer brands, designer sex, and designer murder. I had the best time reading them, and when the end of No Tomorrow saw Eve jumping on the back of Villanelle’s motorcycle and the pair of them riding off into the sunset together, I was practically salivating for the final installment. I preordered Die For Me, and eagerly awaited its arrival. When it came, I devoured it immediately. And I was disappointed.

There were certain things I was expecting from this book, based on the previous ones. I wanted sensuousness. I wanted desire. I wanted absurdly and wrongly hilarious kill scenes. I wanted the passionate explosion that could only come from Eve and Villanelle’s final collision after their sizzling mutual pursuit. I wanted haute couture and fast cars and spies, lies, and intrigue. What came instead was what can only be described as an abusive relationship. Where previously Villanelle and Eve were matched in their pursuit of each other, playing out an ouroboric cat-and-mouse, this third book casts Villanelle as deliberately cruel, bullying, and emotionally abusive towards the woman she claims to love. It is true that Villanelle – or Oxana, the name she reverts to in this book – is a psychopath. Her feelings for Eve are constantly in question, by both outsiders and Eve herself. But she expresses enjoyment of bullying Eve; she calls her vicious names; she flies into rages and then acts cold and distant; she flagrantly cheats. Through it all, though, Eve makes excuses for her, and clings to her attraction. I wasn’t expecting Villanelle/Oxana to do a complete one-eighty and transform from calculating killer to doting girlfriend. They do say that psychopaths readily manipulate people’s emotions, even those who they know care about them. But even so, it was jarring and uncomfortable to read Oxana treating Eve so horrendously, and for Eve to defend her – again, and again, and again. It is a familiar abuse narrative, one that is harrowing to hear about. It made for distressing reading which drastically shifted my perspective: I no longer wanted Oxana and Eve being murder wives. I wanted Eve to get away.

What made it even more distressing was that the final sixty pages of the book delivered one hundred percent on what I wanted. I got an absurdly funny murder, some entertaining banter between Oxana and Eve, tenderness and sexiness, and a high-stakes assassination plan. The ending is utterly perfect. Or, it would be, if not for the entire beginning and middle of the story. It feels like a completely different book, focused on a completely different relationship, with a completely different tone.

There were other facets of the book that I enjoyed. I loved that it permitted its women to be dirty, messy, violent. I do love a story about feral women. They sometimes don’t shower, they revel in the sourness of each other’s bodies, they get bloody. I liked Eve’s character arc as she comes to embrace the parts of her that are more like Oxana than she wants to admit. I liked how fast-paced the overall plot was, with the right amount of action to maintain interest. These qualities aren’t enough to surpass the genuine distress I felt over Oxana and Eve’s relationship, especially as they were glimmers of what this book could have been.

Another point to make is about Charlie. Charlie appeared in the previous two books as Lara, Villanelle’s lover and fellow assassin. Eve experienced considerable jealousy over their relationship. In Die For Me, it is revealed that “Lara” is non-binary, and has chosen the name Charlie. Charlie’s pronouns are they/them. It is something I would normally be excited about – there aren’t enough non-binary characters generally, and a kickass non-binary assassin? Amazing! Fantastic! Incredible! However. There is something slightly off in the way that Charlie is written and written about. Eve, as the narrator, always uses the correct pronouns and name. And it is obviously realistic that of the people who Charlie interacts with, not all of them respect their identity and their pronouns, and they have to deal with that transphobia. But when Charlie corrects these people, it is almost a punchline. The phrase “PC language” is used multiple times. There is something well-meaning in Jennings’ use of correct terminology, but it all feels a bit Googled. One of the characters makes a joke about being woke, and it sort of comes across that this is what Jennings is trying to prove. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but I really do feel that there is something in the tone that suggests the reader is supposed to find Charlie a little ridiculous.

The Killing Eve books were always, for me, a separate entity to the show. I was never expecting the same level of sexual tension, nor the true ambiguity of both Eve and Villanelle’s characters. I wasn’t really expecting the same depth. But I really did enjoy the first two books, as quick thrillers told with humour and exaggeration. They were fun and wild romps. This third book was not that. I believe it needs a very strong content warning for anyone about to read it. The realism of Oxana’s abuse is confronting and horrible. There is nothing cartoonish or exaggerated about it: there are people living that reality. Even the supposedly uplifting ending was not enough to wash that taste from my mouth. I suppose all I can do now is wait for Killing Eve season three, and hope that the show strays as far from the books as possible.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

 Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

The city didn’t care. It lay serene as they all loved and teemed and scrambled and strove.

Loud Pipes Save Lives is a thriller with a noir feel, following a New York cop, a vigilante women’s motorcycle club, and the many people tangled up in the ensuing investigation. From the beginning, I was pulled in with the writing, which reminded me of an old noir mystery: Sparr’s partner is described as a “blond, butch slab of a woman.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, though: Sparr is moved to another district to try to track down the motorcycle club that has been beating down acquitted rapists and abusers. We’re soon given the points of view of these women, though, so the reader is fully informed of what’s really happening. The real mystery–and the reason Sparr has been relocated–is to investigate the seemingly closed case of her father’s death.

There are a lot of pieces to this story, and it demands the reader keep track of a large cast and their relationships and dealings. There are political machinations, family secrets, romances, and, of course, a motorcycle gang (sorry–motorcycle club). I lost track of how many points of view we get in this story–at least seven? By the fifth point of view change in a row with no repeats, my head was spinning. On top of the POV characters, there’s just a large cast in general: I found myself having to search my ebook multiple times to remember who people were, and some characters felt like they could have been cut out with no consequence for the plot. The frequent POV shifts also made me feel less connected to the characters, because I didn’t spend much time with any one of them. Sparr seems like she should be the main character, but I didn’t feel like I really knew her. The POV shifts also lessened the suspense, because we see almost everyone’s perspective.

It’s a shame to spend so little time with them, because this a diverse, interesting cast! The motorcycle club in particular is made up of many women of different races, nationalities, and orientations, and there are multiple major characters with disabilities. They are often complex and flawed–there are no perfect people here. This adds to the noir atmosphere: there are no clear winners, and justice is murky and undefined. It doesn’t have a catharsis of the good guys beating the bad guys and everyone riding off into the sunset. Instead, we have to sit with the grey areas and complexity.

One aspect I wish we could have spent more time on is the romance between Lily Sparr and Miri. They are partners in the force, and they act just like a couple. They want to be together all the time. They go to each other for comfort. They stay at each others houses. They dance together. But they’ve never pursued anything romantic. [minor spoilers:] It turns out that they are likely both asexual–that word isn’t used, but the text is explicit that neither of them is interested in any sexual acts. [end spoilers] This makes for a sweet couple of scenes, but it is a very minor part of the book. I can actually imagine this volume being expanded into a series, so we could get more of this romance and other characters’ development. There is so much that is touched on, but it competes with the many other aspects of the story.

Ultimately, I appreciated the pieces all working together to bring this story to life. The writing was precise and included some memorable lines. There was a huge diversity in the characters, and they all had their own histories and motivations, complete with complicated relationships with others. But because each aspect was so concise, and there was so much packed in, I would have liked a little more room to explore the characters and their relationships to each other. I appreciated the story on an intellectual level, but I didn’t get a chance to fully engage on an emotional level.

I also wanted to mention quite a few trigger warnings: violence and gore (described); mentions of: rape (incest and pedophilia), cutting, miscarriage, manslaughter, incest between siblings, ableist slur, police shooting of unarmed black man, sex work slur, death of sex worker, and depiction of a mentally ill person as violent.

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

Marthese reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

“I don’t want her to grow up with only the voices of the Fellowship and our parents in her ears… most of all, I don’t want her to grow up to be afraid of me”

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick promised to be a mix between Pretty Little Liars and People Like Us. I don’t usually like books that compare themselves to something else because surely they are not original and they are piggybacking on something else. However, from time to time, I am in the mood to revisit plots similar to other ones.

The TV show Pretty Little Liars–never read the books–was a hit, but it was also messy. All Eyes On Us has a clear plot with some surprises.

The story follows Amanda and Rosalie in alternate chapters. Amanda is the popular girl at school, who acts more mature than her age and has her life paved in front of her. What people don’t know though, is that her family is just keeping appearances of being wealthy. Amanda also knows that her boyfriend, Carter, is cheating on her. Rosalie comes from a religious family who are deeply rooted in the Fellowship of Christ denomination. She is also casually seeing Carter for her own agenda: she had previously been sent to a conversion camp and is traumatised by it. Rosalie wants to protect herself and her (cute) relationship with Paulina; she doesn’t want to lose her parents or her little sister but it feels inevitable. She never wanted to hurt anyone, but inevitable, people end up being hurt.

Both Amanda and Rosalie start receiving anonymous text–and sometimes paper–messages from Private, who wants them to humiliate Carter before his birthday, or else things will turn sour. Things do in fact turn sour. The two girls, especially Amanda, are reluctant to work together, but that too, feels inevitable.

As I mentioned, this book has a clear plot and sub-plots. It keeps you at the edge of your seat trying to see who did it because sometimes it felt too obvious and you just want to solve the mystery and see the motivation behind it.

I liked the characters in this book. They are all flawed, and the parents are all bad at parenting. It’s heart-breaking how the protagonists cannot rely on them, because their words or actions will be turned against them. There is more than one type of violence represented in the book. There’s a lot of toxic adulthood thoughts too, but in a way, both Amanda and Rosalie are growing in their own skin: one by figuring out what her identity is and one standing up for it and living her truth.

Let me say that Pau is the most supporting girlfriend ever. They are super cute together and from what I read, I like Paulina’s aesthetic too. Rosalie has several flashbacks and the trauma is deep. What she had and has to go through is horrific, and knowing that this is reality for some people, it’s just sad.

Amanda is both too much of a grown up in her actions and not a grown up at all, because she is set to live her life according to other people’s needs and expectations. At times, she is really mean, but she does eventually realise this. While Rosalie acts out because she’s scared, Amanda acts out because she’s hurting.

One thing that really surprised me was that I rarely blamed Carter. He’s not just the cheating boyfriend or the white over-privileged poor-him wealthy career-already-held-for-him star. He had a lot of expectations placed on him, ones that are toxic and are destroying his own happiness. Yes, he does act like an asshole sometimes, but so do the other characters. He acts compassionate, understanding, confused…and so many other emotions.

Of course, there is a plot twist. Thinking who was Private was too easy. The conclusion to the mystery of who did it and why was done well. Paulina and Rosalie are still the best couple.

I’d recommend this book if you like stalker mysteries, unlikely alliances between 1 gay and 1 straight character and characters growing to be more courageous.

Alice Pate reviews A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Trigger Warnings: drug use, underage drinking, referenced underage sex, adult/teenager relationship

Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

A Line In The Dark may be marketed as a YA thriller, but I personally believe all the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the mystery.

The author, Malinda Lo, really shines in her portrayal of relationships, both romantic and platonic. Perhaps this stood out so much to me because I’m reading her book immediately after slogging through some pretty mediocre writing, but the emotions shown in her characters felt so rich, and full, and satisfying. The main character, Jessica Wong (Jess), has a secret crush on her best friend Angie. Every word in the first few chapters about this crush felt like it was pulled straight out of my own closeted high school brain. So naturally, when Angie starts seeing this other girl, Margot, who goes to a nearby boarding school in town, I could feel my own heart breaking right along with Jess’s.

But this isn’t your typical love triangle. Remember how I mentioned this book is a thriller? About halfway through the book goes from a quiet and reflective piece about the main character and her internal struggles to a drama fueled “he-said-she-said.” The death of Margot’s best friend, Ryan, has the cast of characters trying to find the culprit and pointing fingers.

While this transition was a little rocky, Lo ties in all of those beautiful emotions and relationships she’d crafted in the first half of the story to form the puzzle pieces needed to solve the mystery. The tone may have shifted pretty dramatically, but the story is still intriguing enough to reel you back in to find out whodunnit.

Ultimately, A Line In The Dark was incredibly entertaining, and at a little over 300 pages, it’s a pretty fast read. I highly recommend picking it up if you have the time.

Mallory Lass reviews Killer Instinct by Barbara Winkes

Killer Instinct by Barbara Winkes cover

Content warning: violence against women, murder of women, homophobic father, abandoned by father, alcohol abuse

Unsolved serial murders committed by one, or maybe two people, will keep you guessing in this thriller that takes place in the dead of winter. Nothing like solving a murder over Christmas. It is low on holiday feels, and high on intrigue.

Joanna, an ex-cop who served time for killing a serial offender in cold blood, just can’t seem to let her old life go. Or maybe, her past has a way of catching up with her. Her life after prison is simple, if not boring. She works in a warehouse and spends time with her two straight female friends: a former fellow inmate, Kira, and the IAB cop that sent her to jail, Vanessa. Her and Vanessa spend most of their time together getting drunk, arguing, and picking up respective one-night stands. An attempted murder in her hometown, with a profile like one of her old cases, forces her to navigate her relationship with her former partner on the force, Theo.

I went through a Patricia Cornwell phase where I read about twenty Scarpetta novels in a year, and I’ve watched my fair share of crime shows, but crime thrillers are not my go to genre, and I haven’t read many lesbian ones. This was a good entrée into the genre.

Killer Instinct is an entertaining read. I didn’t personally like the snippets into other character points of view—it happens infrequently and with different characters points of view being told throughout the book that it seemed more distracting than beneficial. I would have preferred finding out plot points and relevant case information at the same time the protagonist Joanna does. But, as a reader, knowing outside information did increase the suspense factor. My other critique is that the supporting cast was not developed enough to be really invested in them. I wanted to know more about their back story and certainly more about Joanna and Venessa’s road to becoming friends.

Overall, there were enough twists and turns for me to consider this book a “page turner”, and at 165 pages it is definitely a quick read. This is a thriller, but there is also a romantic undercurrent, and despite Joanna’s penchant for one-night stands (the sex throughout is of the fade to black variety), she might have finally met a woman worth having a relationship with. Will her past will keep coming back to bite her, ruining her chances at a longer term relationship? Will she help her old partner solve the case and finally exercise her demons? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.

Susan reviews The Scorpion by Gerri Hill

The Scorpion by Gerri Hill cover

The Scorpion is a standalone mystery from Gerri Hill. It follows an investigative reporter, Marty Edwards, who is looking into a suspicious cold case, and Kristen Bailey, the detective assigned to “help” her – or at least, to spy on her for the department. Cue every possible attempt to drive Marty off the case, multiple murders, going on the run…

I did not like this one, which is odd because it is basically the sort of ridiculous action-thriller you can find a thousand of on Netflix, but queer, and I love those. A highly-qualified and under-utilised detective (thanks misogyny) going on the run with an out-of-her-depth reporter sounds exactly up my alley. But there’s just something about the execution. Part of it is that the first third of the book feels like make-work before the real story begins, part of it is that some of the developments feel completely pulled out of nowhere (like Kristen just happening to know a guy with the exact skill-set she needs to solve her problems, who isn’t mentioned at all until she calls him for help! Or the fact that the villain is obvious, because they’re the only named character who hasn’t been accounted for by the end of the book!) Part of it is probably that the romance takes two people who are bad at forming attachments to people, and isolates them even further from literally anyone who isn’t in their romance, which I find deeply unnerving.

But what my main problem with this book is, is that about a quarter of the way through the book, Marty comes out as asexual (in a very cringe-worthy, allo-centric mess of a scene, that includes an allo character asking if she was abused as a child, and how many orgasms she’s ever had, because apparently those are appropriate questions to ask someone you met three days ago). I was tentatively excited about this – except that her arc becomes one of “perhaps she’s not asexual, perhaps it’s just her trust issues.” If it had been portrayed as someone who thought they were asexual realising they were demisexual, this could have been an interesting storyline, but it never mentions that as an option! Much as Gerri Hill’s Hunter series never even mentions bisexuality as a concept, in fact. Plus, it feels very allo-centric in the way that it’s handled, such as the way that it talks about asexuality as perhaps a medical problem rather than an orientation, and the way that it seems to be conflating “doesn’t feel sexual attraction or enjoy kissing and sex” with “has no interest in relationships” feels really weird to me. I don’t know if this was written before the split model of attraction was popularised, but I feel like this book promised me representation that it then went back on. Marty’s confusion and disbelief at discovering sexual attraction was fine, but the way it was presented as natural and finally feeling “normal” was a bit beyond the pale for me.

Basically, it’s reasonably action-filled, but that doesn’t make up for the somewhat weak plot and poor handling of an ace character. I’d give it a miss.

[Caution warning: murder, corruption, references to torture, misogyny]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sarah reviews Intersection by Nancy Ann Healy

 

Intersection is a romance/thriller featuring an FBI agent and a politician’s ex-wife. Although I wanted to fall in love with the book—the first in a series—it fell short for me in a number of different ways, and I don’t see myself picking up the sequels.

The novel kicks off with Agent Alex Toles and her partner receiving an undercover assignment to protect Congressman Christopher O’Brien and his ex-wife Cassidy, who have been receiving threatening messages. Alex poses as Cassidy’s new public relations assistant, and a relationship rapidly blossoms between them while Alex tries to get to the bottom of the threats.

There are a couple elements of Intersection I sincerely enjoyed. Cassidy has a six-year-old son, Dylan. Since she’s a single mom, it makes sense that any potential partner would need to be understanding and open to that priority in her life. Alex goes above and beyond. Her quick bonding with Dylan is well-explained by the fact she has a nephew and likes kids, Dylan’s father is too busy for him, and their shared interests (sports and superheroes). I found myself smiling at how cute they were together: particularly when Dylan is “explaining how his trucks could be superheroes…torturing [Alex] with Tonka trucks in the living room,” and when Alex teaches Dylan the license plate game. Their relationship was the highlight of the book for me.

Cassidy’s mother Rose also plays a significant role. She helps Cassidy balance her day-job as a teacher and caring for Dylan by picking him up from school and making dinner often. She wants her daughter to be happy and is totally supportive after Cassidy realizes she’s attracted to women. I was pleasantly surprised by how important extended family and friends were to the overall story. Alex’s partner and his family, her brother, and her former military colleagues all help out at various points. Many of the queer narratives I’ve encountered in literature are defined by isolation and unhappiness, so it was refreshing to read about protagonists with such extensive support networks. But the list of things I enjoyed about Intersection unfortunately ends here.

One of my key issues was the writing. At its best points, the prose is nondescript. At its worst, it’s distractingly poor. The novel would have benefited greatly from more editing. It could have been about a hundred pages shorter. There are a number of typos. Healy sometimes reaches for other dialogue tags (directed, griped, grumbled, groaned, questioned…) in places where said would suffice, and actions are used incorrectly as dialogue tags.

There are also strange point of view switches. Healy divides chapters into multiple parts, with each part in a different character’s perspective. But she also jumps between points of view within the same part. In Chapter One, for example, there’s a place where one paragraph describes Alex, the very next paragraph describes Cassidy who is in a different location, and then the next jumps back to Alex. I wouldn’t have minded the point of view changes if they were consistent and made sense for the narrative. But they were jarring, and a serious detriment to the pacing.

Healy also made unusual choices about which scenes to describe in-depth. When Alex and Cassie first meet, we see all of their back-and-forth dialogue and movements in great detail. I wasn’t sure what it was adding to the plot or the development of their relationship. But when Alex takes Cassidy on long drive, the first extended alone time they have, Healy summarizes the majority of the conversation.  It would have made all the difference to see more of them talking and reacting to each other and actually falling in love.

This brings me to my second issue with Intersection. Alex and Cassidy’s relationship never drew me in. Almost immediately, Alex and Cassidy feel the electricity, but I didn’t understand what they find so compelling about one another. The relationship develops absurdly fast. By the sixth of twenty-eight chapters, less than a week in book time, Cassidy already knows “she could never walk away from Alex Toles.” I was like, Cassy you have a son! What are you thinking? The speed with which they decide they’ll be forever together is frankly terrifying. Although both characters acknowledge the extreme pace at which they’re moving every so often, they make no attempt to slow down. The rapidity of the relationship feels incompatible with Alex and Cassidy’s other priorities and how sensible and intelligent the two women otherwise act.

Alex and Cassidy spend a lot of time feeling overwhelmed with love for one another and professing their love, but the progression to that point didn’t work for me. And then there’s nowhere unexpected or interesting for the relationship to build to for the remainder of the book. The sex scenes are vague and a little dull, and I struggled not to skip them. There are places that Cassie and Alex speak to each other in French (with the English translation in awkward brackets behind the French text) because…why not, I guess. Although I wanted to be invested in their relationship, I simply wasn’t.

I was also taken aback by how other characters react to Cassidy and Alex. Almost everyone they encounter quickly figures out, or already knows, that Alex and Cassidy are together, even though they haven’t told people. And every character is wildly in support, because it’s clear that “what they have is special,” or that they “love each other very much.” No one (other than Cassidy’s ex-husband, who is portrayed as a pretty selfish and terrible person) questions the pace, or the extent to which they intertwine their lives. I would have even been satisfied with a brief, “Hey, Cassidy, don’t you think your relationship with this FBI agent who’s supposed to be protecting you is moving a little fast?” from her mother, but Rose is just as thrilled as everyone else. Minor spoiler: if I was planning on moving in with someone after less than a month of knowing them, I’d hope that someone in my life would object.

My third issue is that Healy struggles to integrate the romance and thriller plots. Although Cassidy’s life is in danger, the threat is frequently tabled for an entire chapter in favor of developing her romance with Alex. Additionally, the antagonists are introduced in short, vague scenes throughout the book before they finally clash with Alex and Cassidy. Although I’ve seen this work to terrifying effect in some thrillers, with Intersection I felt I was waiting for things I’d already anticipated to go down, since I had so much information about the situation than the characters.   

The thriller plot also splits into two distinct issues towards the end. One of them is resolved. The other is not at all, which I found highly dissatisfying. The book ends on an explosive scene that I think is supposed to make readers want to buy the sequel (and the e-book version does, in fact, include the first chapter of the second book), but I don’t feel inclined to.

I can’t in good faith recommend Intersection, but it certainly made me want to read other more satisfying lesbian thrillers.

Julie Thompson reviews Translucid: Dragonfire Station, Book 1 by Zen DiPietro

Translucid, Zen DiPietro’s first installment in her “Dragonfire” series, is a riveting space onion. And by “space onion”, I mean that Translucid is a tightly wound mystery, set on board the Dragonfire Space Station. No one is what or who they seem. Chief Security Officer (CSO) Emé Fallon awakens in sickbay with no memory of her personal identity. The shuttlecraft she piloted crashed into the side of the space station: an unusual malfunctioning coil pack, but nothing most crew members would consider anything but damned bad luck. Before her bed stand a distressed Sarkavian woman named Wren Orritz and a Bennite doctor named Brannin Brash (chief medical officer). Fallon’s initial confusion starts to sound like the Cars’ song, “Once in a Lifetime”. Who are these beings and why are they staring at me? Wren, it turns out, is her wife of six months, not to mention a high-caliber engineer on Dragonfire.

The how and why of Fallon’s memory loss are at the center of the action. Personal memories,  gone. In their stead, Fallon relies on instinct to suss out the person she is supposed to be, as well as tapping into the ship’s personnel records to glean whatever tidbits she can. She knows her height, age, noted abilities, and that she is of Japanese descent. Her skills and working knowledge of the ship, her duties, and protocol, on the other hand, reveal themselves to her as situations arise in which she has need of them. And aside from the black swirl-patterned tattoo on her hip, Fallon has no distinguishing characteristics. She has become one of my favorite characters because of her analytical mind, her constant drive for self-improvement, and her stalwart loyalty to her friends. She is also a total badass.

Some of the novel’s most poignant scenes occur between Fallon and Wren as they relearn their relationship. Fallon plays her cards close to the vest and does not readily accept her domestic situation. Indeed, she and Wren don’t share a bed when she returns to their quarters. It’s painful and confusing and awkward. These moments blend Fallon’s pragmatic disposition with a little-seen tender side. Later on, it’s revealed that the CSO’s marriage is improbable in more ways than one.

Fallon relies heavily on her instincts and her work routine aboard the station to uncover her “true” identity, a notion that becomes increasingly tenuous. Who can she trust, if anyone? Can she even trust herself? Was she a loathsome, duplicitous person? What were pre-accident Fallon’s motives and goals? As she and her carefully vetted band of confidantes probe for answers, more questions crop up as a result. The investigation is akin to finding the key for a room, only to find that the room contains more locked doors, that also have locked doors, that also have locked doors.

DiPietro has crafted a richly imagined universe in which species from across the galaxy meet to conduct business and personal affairs. The space station is part of the Planetary Alliance Cooperative (PAC), a large confederation of species. Raised on dreams of interstellar adventure, cooperation, and discovery, via Star Wars, Star Trek, and countless films, this world feels attainable–if just out of reach–for those of us existing in the early 21st century. Among the wondrous entities on board, you’ll find humans; the humanoid Sarkavians, Bennites, Rescans, and Atalans; and the Briveen, a species evolved from reptiles. For Fallon, knowing how to balance protocol and the well-being of the crew and residents with intergalactic multiculturalism is an essential and enjoyable part of her job. Welcoming a delegation of Briveen aboard the station, for example, requires lengthy social rituals. Other intriguing secondary and tertiary characters include Captain Nevitt (Dragonfire), an ambitious professional who does not disguise her disdain for her second-in-command; Brak, a Briveen who specializes in neural implants and travels with the hospi-ship, Onari; and Cabot Layne (Dragonfire), a Rescan who trades in antiquities and hard to find items. There are other figures who play crucial roles, but that information is classified (at least until you read the book!).

The main challenge for me in writing this review was capturing the spirit of the story while not giving away how the mystery unravels, which is key to the story. DiPietro’s writing style evokes vivid imagery. A few, well-placed brush strokes reveal a complex, exciting world in which everyday activities, such as shopping for artwork and eating out at restaurants, happen alongside cosmic diplomacy and neural implants. DiPietro only shows readers only what pertains to a scene or what Fallon discovers. This tight control of information is crucial to maintaining an atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty. Weeks after reading the final page, I’m still chewing on it. Thankfully, DiPietro doesn’t leave readers hanging. The second installment, Fragments, followed in October 2016 and book three, Coalescence, came out in February 2017.

 

Until next time, then: “Blood and Bone”!

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)