Tierney reviews Perfect Rhythm by Jae

[Trigger warning for the death of a parent.]

When pop star Jenna Blake gets a call from her mom saying her dad has had a stroke, she returns home to her small hometown of Fair Oaks, Missouri for the first time in five years, and goes back to being Leontyne Blake once more. As she works on rebuilding her relationship with her parents, she begins to evaluate what exactly she wants from life–all while getting closer and closer to Holly, her former high school classmate and her dad’s stay-at-home nurse (small-town life, y’all). On her end, Holly goes from thinking Leo is a self-absorbed jerk, to counting her as a friend, then maybe more–but first she wants to make sure Leo knows that while she is romantically attracted to women, she is asexual.

It took me a while to get into Perfect Rhythm, but once I did, I was hooked. In part, it takes the novel a while to find its own perfect rhythm: some aspects of the plot and description seem clumsy, especially towards the beginning. Leo’s attraction towards Holly (and her body) seems over-the-top and heavy-handed: there are many descriptions of Leo noticing Holly’s “feminine curves” or doing things like accidentally resting a hand on Holly’s “nicely curved hips,” coupled with Leo spending an inordinate amount of time noticing the fact that Holly is not noticing her (or her body). I’m assuming this is supposed to be tied in with Holly’s asexuality, to contrast how they feel about each other, but it often doesn’t feel authentic (and, at times, Leo’s attitude towards Holly’s body even feels a little gross). The plot in general can also feel a little trite, with regards to how it follows the age-old rom-com story of a big star falling for a small-town girl’s down-to-earth attitude towards fame.

But ultimately I totally fell for the characters, and ended up falling for the plot too, after a bit of a rocky start: that rom-com trope is rejuvenated with a homoromantic asexual woman as half of the (queer!) pairing. The novel does an excellent job showcasing what intimacy and sensuality can look like without being attached to sex, while also depicting what sex can look like for an asexual person and an allosexual person (this particular chapter has a warning for readers who might want to skip a graphic sex scene). And the characters are excellent at modeling how partners with different expectations and needs can make a relationship work–regularly talking things out, stating what they need, being explicit about their boundaries (and accepting of their partner’s boundaries).

One of my romance novel pet peeves is characters who just can’t seem to talk to each other, but still somehow fall for one another and ride off into the sunset: once Holly and Leo stop operating off of their assumptions and spend time talking and listening to one another, they have a beautiful relationship that feels so very real to me. The story centers itself for the most part on Leo’s perspective, so Holly’s character is not quite as fleshed out, but Leo’s journey is absolutely moving and satisfying.

The plot of Perfect Rhythm is also pleasantly multifaceted: the main focus is on Leo’s growing relationship with Holly, and the associated obstacles along the way, but Jae depicts other facets of Leo’s life: her relationship with her family and small-town Fair Oaks, her unhappiness with her life of stardom, her father’s infirmity (and eventual death). It’s also a story of a queer woman coming back to her small hometown and finding more acceptance and happiness there that she could have thought possible, rewriting a common narrative that so often depicts the opposite, much like Rachel Spangler’s The Long Way Home (another excellent romance novel).

Perfect Rhythm is a sweet romance novel that, despite a perhaps shaky beginning, ultimately captivates the reader and showcases the blooming of a delightful relationship. It’s definitely worth a read, especially if you’re into romances that showcase not only a beautiful romance and lead-up to a relationship, but also the thoughtful communication that keeps relationships going. Swoon!

Tierney reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

Werebear Zelda is lusting after hunky werewolf Jake–while simultaneously nursing a longstanding crush on her gorgeous coworker Janine. (Yes, werebear–as in, Zelda turns into a bear once a month.) And on top of everything, she’s been tasked by her boss with guarding Benedict, an insufferable member of the Fae. All of which combined leads to quite the whirlwind few days for Zelda.

Bearly a Lady is a cute, breezy novella, with chatty first-person narration and a refreshing way of portraying the supernatural–the author describes it as a “paranormal rom-com,” which certainly rings true. Zelda is an enjoyable character–her running commentary is endearing. And the supernatural chick lit angle is a lot of fun: the novella isn’t overly dramatic or self-important about the Fae in a way that feels welcome, and lets the cheerful romance go hand in hand with this casual conception of the paranormal. Plus I just love the idea of there being all kinds of were-animals running around.

As a novella, it’s quick read – I definitely felt like I would enjoy reading more of this story, and in fact there were moments where things felt a little convoluted and lacking in detail or connections, likely because of the novella format. I would have loved to see things a little more fleshed out – more details about the Fae and descriptions of the characters (especially Benedict, who is a bit of a flat antagonist), some more of Zelda’s backstory with both Jake and Janine than the little that is alluded to…

Bearly a Lady is a fun, lively supernatural romance–the little snags in the story are outweighed by the enjoyable world that Khaw has built, and the feel-good romantic ending (spoiler alert: she gets the girl!). Give it a try–supernatural chick lit is the genre you didn’t even know you needed.

Tierney reviews How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Grace dreams of moving to New York for college and studying music–but she’s worried that her mom, Maggie, needs her​ stability too much for her to leave their life in small-town Maine: for as long as she can remember, since the death of her father when she was little, her mom has made impulsive decisions, and it’s been up to Grace to clean up the mess. This summer is no different–until Grace meets Eva, and begins to realize as they fall for each other that it’s OK for her to be happy.

How to Make a Wish is an absolutely gorgeous (and heart-wrenching, in all the best ways) depiction of young, queer love, teenage friendship, and the trials and tribulations of coming of age, experiencing loss, and making difficult decisions. The novel doesn’t hit a single wrong note: every step of the way it is beautifully-written and deeply touching.

Grace’s relationship with her mother should seem familiar to anyone who has been on the receiving end of parentification: your heart aches every time Grace is forced to act like the adult in her relationship with Maggie, every time she lets Maggie’s offenses slide, and you cheer when she finds her voice and is able to stand up for herself, even as you see how painful it is for her. It’s a tragically authentic depiction of the dynamics of a screwed-up parent-child relationship, and Grace’s journey feels moving and truthful.

Authentic relationships are one of the novel’s strengths–both the difficult relationships (like the one Grace has with Maggie) and the deep, genuine ones. Grace’s relationship with her best friend Luca is one of the latter. He is a steady, comforting presence in a life full of so much unknown and unexpected. Their relationship has its ups and downs -but in both its low moments and its high moments, it feels so right and so true. Luca’s family is the solid familial presence that her own mother cannot be for her – Luca’s mother, Emmy, especially, is such an excellent example of the kind of loving, encouraging adult teenagers need in their lives.

And finally, the love story: How to Make a Wish showcases so much more than just a love story – but it’s the love story that leaves you with bated breath as it unfolds, in anticipation of every stunningly poignant moment.  Grace and Eva’s burgeoning relationship helps anchor Grace’s life, and the novel. As with so much in the story, their relationship just rings so true–whether they are eating peanut butter together on the beach, pushing each other away as they clumsily try to deal with their pasts and hang-ups, or kissing in a tree after being chased by a dog.

Grace’s bisexuality is an important part of her story, and her identity is a grounding element of the novel. She refers to past boyfriends–and also to her first crush, a pool lifeguard named Natalie: she is unapologetically herself, and Luca’s unquestioning support for her is heartening. The solid foundation of her identity makes the development of her relationship with Eva all the sweeter, her own self-knowledge a lovely constant in all the upheaval of her family life, and all the unknowns of her future.

How to Make a Wish is a breathtakingly, heart-achingly beautiful YA novel–Grace’s story resonates on so many levels, and Herring Blake deftly covers so much emotional ground. This is a novel that both leaves you breathless as you whip from one emotion to the next and soothes your soul–don’t miss out.

Tierney reviews Tapas and Tangelos by C. K. Martin

Sparks fly when Hayley and Kate first meet at a hostel in Spain–though the two have only just met, they end up falling into bed together that same night. They are drawn to one another despite their differences–Hayley is a Brit in her mid-thirties who runs a bar on a small Spanish island, and Kate is an Aussie in her mid-twenties, just passing through while backpacking. Hayley makes allusions to her unhappy past, and tries to distance herself from Kate, but to no avail: the two are drawn to one another, and begin to fall for each other. But just as they take their relationship to the next step, Hayley’s past unexpectedly catches up to her, leaving Kate feeling betrayed and their relationship hanging in the balance.

Let’s cover the good stuff first: this is a satisfying romance, with smooth writing that keeps the story flowing from one chapter to the next as the novel shifts between the character’s perspectives. It’s well-written–the steamy scenes between Hayley and Kate are sweet, with none of the cringe-inducing turns of phrase that sometimes seem to plague the more passionate moments of romance novels. Tapas and Tangelos is definitely an enjoyable read.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of the plot points and pacing leave a little to be desired. The specifics of Hayley’s tragic past really threw me for a loop when they were revealed: the revelation was completely unexpected, had very little build-up, and didn’t seem to fit with the previous mood of the novel. *spoilers* It is revealed that Hayley’s father was a serial killer who was caught when she was fifteen, and she was suspected of being an accomplice, despite her young age and the fact that she had no idea–so she moved to Spain and began living under an alias. It’s a very dramatic revelation that just doesn’t match the lighter mood of the rest of the novel: it feels heavy-handed in its treatment. *end spoilers*

There’s another odd (and tired) plot point that wasn’t my favorite: Hayley sees Kate talking and laughing with a guy from the hostel, and realizes she has fallen for Kate because of how jealous she feels, and proceeds to bemoan her broken heart because clearly Kate is in love with this man with whom she is having a single positive interaction. There are also some minor pacing issues: the novel’s denouement happens very quickly, and though there is an epilogue tying things together, the final moments feel a little rushed.

All in all, I would recommend Tapas and Tangelos: the solid writing certainly makes up for most of the novel’s oddities. Hayley and Kate are well-rounded characters whose budding romance is sweetly engaging. Give this book a read if you’re a fan of enjoyable and (mostly) realistic queer lady romance.

Tierney reviews Turning for Home by Caren J. Werlinger

It’s hard to summarize the plot of Turning for Home, chiefly because it’s kind of a hodgepodge of happenings without much tying them together beyond the fact that they are centered around a single main character – but I will try. *spoilers ahead, throughout this whole review*

Jules returns to the small Ohio town in which she grew up with her grandparents for her grandfather’s funeral. While there, a local lesbian teen writes her a note asking for her help as she comes to terms with her sexuality in this unsympathetic environment. After the funeral, Jules comes home to her partner Kelli, who feels like Jules is pulling away from her, as she did in her past relationships. Meanwhile, Jules engages in an odd flirtation with a fellow educator, while also counseling Ronnie, the teen from her hometown–and simultaneously hiding all of this from Kelli. Also, Kelli’s mother is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as if all the rest weren’t enough drama. Throughout it all there are flashbacks to Jules’ childhood–her experiences with her strict grandmother and loving grandfather, who raised her after her mother left her with them, and her friendship with a neighbor boy that ended his tragic death, for which she blames herself, and whose ensuing emotions she has totally repressed well into adulthood. Needless to say, there is a lot going on. All of which is resolved by the end of the novel, in ways that don’t necessarily satisfy–or even make sense (for example, Ronnie is kicked out by her family because of her sexuality and ends up moving in with the mother of Jules’s dead childhood friend… which just seems weird to me).

Unfortunately, I was just not a fan of Turning for Home: the plot was way too busy, and, conversely, most of the characters didn’t really have well-developed personalities, beyond the fact that all manner of things kept happening to them, making it difficult to connect and sympathize with them. There are so many miscellaneous plot points thrown at the reader: drama with Jules’s past and with her present, drama with Kelli’s family, drama with Ronnie, drama with their friend Donna (who is also Jules’s ex) and her relationship–but ultimately I couldn’t bring myself to care about very much of it. The characters felt flat: Kelli doesn’t have much of a personality beyond loving Jules (even though Jules doesn’t seem to do much to deserve it), and Jules doesn’t have much of a personality beyond having a tragic past and being a jerk to Kelli because she is incapable of working through her own emotional issues (despite the fact that she is a school psychologist!). Right up until the end of the book, Jules is making decisions that just plain don’t make sense, and Kelly is hand-holding her through the process of being a mature adult who owns up to their emotions and decisions. It’s convoluted and not particularly engaging for the reader.

Turning for Home just wasn’t for me–but if the plotlines I’ve described sound appealing to you, go ahead and give it a try. I’m going to stick with other works by Caren J. Werlinger, like Cast Me Gently, which I very much enjoyed–it read like Annie on My Mind for grown-ups, thanks to its 1980s aesthetic and gently lovable characters.

Tierney reviews What Matters Most by Georgia Beers


Kelsey makes a big move from North Carolina to Chicago to follow her dream and open her own scent shop. Though she is slow to make friends, and spends much of her time worrying how to keep her small business afloat, her life is in an upswing, and things get better when she meets Theresa and the two experience an instant, intense attraction. Everything seems to be going swimmingly–until she and Theresa find their professional interests unexpectedly pitted against one another.

What Matters Most is a thoroughly satisfying read, as romance novels go: it’s well-written, and showcases an absorbing storyline and engaging characters who grow as the story progresses. The characters all have distinct, multi-faceted personalities, and Kelsey and Theresa’s relationship progresses and changes throughout the book. This is romance with some substance to it.

I do have some small quibbles with the novel. There were some inconsistencies missed during the editing process that felt a little jarring (for example, two different numbers are given for the age difference between Theresa and her sister). And Kelsey’s obsession with Starbucks becomes somewhat grating after a while–it is where she meets Theresa, but one would think that as a small business owner she would be a little more thoughtful about where she gets her coffee.

My biggest frustration with What Matters Most was Kelsey’s refusal to actually interact with Theresa when they found themselves professionally at odds. She spends weeks not talking to Theresa and ignoring Theresa’s messages, instead of ever actually telling her how she feels or what she needs from her. For many readers this may not be an issue, but characters refusing to communicate when talking things out could actually solve most of their problems is just a pet peeve of mine.

Despite Kelsey’s obstinacy, What Matters Most is an entertaining read. She does eventually learn from her mistakes. In terms of the characters’ personalities and development, the novel feels more “real” than a lot of other romance novels out there (readers in search of some romance novel escapism may want to try something else, but this fit the bill for me). Kelsey and Theresa work out their differences–but the story doesn’t end with everything all tied up with a bow, which I appreciated. Characters get paired off, yes, but life also takes them in unexpected directions, which keeps the novel feeling fresh.

What Matters Most is an enjoyable romance novel–a great book to devote an afternoon or two to reading if you’re in the mood for a gentle, satisfying sapphic romance that boasts well-rounded characters and a solid plot.

Tierney reviews Future Leaders of Nowhere by Emily O’Beirne


Finn takes a break from high school in Melbourne to attend a camp for high-achieving students who are “future leaders.” There she is elected to lead her classmates as they compete against teams from other schools, and she meets a fellow young leader who intrigues her: serious, driven Willa. With their teams, they work to do well at the camp’s month-long competition (and, while they’re at it, outwit one of the other leaders, Drew, referred to alternately as “douche,” “turd boy,” and “idiot kid”). As the game progresses, Finn and Willa get to know each other better despite their rivalry – and begin to fall for one another, navigating their feelings on top of the competition’s complexities and struggles in their personal lives

​.​The first half of the Future Leaders of Nowhere is told from Finn’s perspective, and the second half from Willa’s: together their perspectives weave not only a delightful romance, but also a compelling narrative of young adults on an emotional journey to find themselves and their place in the world. Though the outer framework of the game is a slightly convoluted plot element, it does the trick in terms of providing external conflict and helping get Finn and Willa together, and its machinations don’t detract too much from the character arcs. Finn and Willa are both engaging, endearing characters – as a reader, you root for them to end up with one another, but you also root for their individual character development, and for the external storyline (winning the game!).

Representation matters – and O’Beirne does a deft job composing a diverse cast of characters​,​without heavy-handedness. Willa is confidently a lesbian, and Finn is unapologetically and unquestioningly bisexual. Willa is also multiracial (her mother is Indian and her father is white), and many of the secondary characters are people of color as well – O’Beirne’s descriptions of her characters are natural and flow into the story without giving pause, though these details are for the most part relatively minor and don’t unpack much of the characters’ identities as people of color in Australia.

With Future Leaders of Nowhere, O’Beirne has crafted another excellent young adult novel, replicating many of the strengths of her previous novel, Here’s the Thing (which was published in November 2016, and which I reviewed for the Lesbrary in December): both novels boast appealing characters, a queer relationship that draws the reader in (and a thoughtful – if perhaps occasionally overly intricate – storyline that revolves around more than the relationship), and relatable emotional journeys. Future Leaders of Nowhere is well worth the read if you are into captivating queer YA – make sure to pick it up before the upcoming publication of its sequel, All the Ways to Here.

Tierney reviews Consequences by Sarah Libero


[Trigger warning for sexual assault.]

When Emily, a systems analyst, meets Kay, a detective, at their Maine police station, both feel an instant connection: Emily is all too happy to provide her expertise on Kay’s investigation of a drug gang, and she begins questioning her twenty-five-year marriage to her husband, Tom. Then when Tom is killed in a suspicious car accident, Kay takes the case–and her relationship with Emily deepens. As they untangle a complex web of crimes, the two become more and more entangled in each other’s lives. Consequences is a fast-paced romance, with plenty of external cop drama to keep things moving.

Emily and Kay are perfectly likable characters–but their characteristics and character development seems to take a backseat to the novel’s intricate plot twists, and Consequences suffers somewhat for that. For example, the novel opens with Emily getting attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger, decades prior to the novel’s main events. Ostensibly this prelude serves to explain why she married Tom, instead of pursuing her nascent attraction to women (she states later in the novel that she married him because he helped her feel safe after the attack), but the event’s inclusion and explicitness feel weird and out of place, because it operates as a graphic plot point rather than a traumatic event that Emily works through and that contributes to her character development in some way.

*spoilers in this paragraph* I half expected Emily’s attacker to be somehow involved in the drug-smuggling ring, because everything else in the novel seems to tie back to this investigation, and every other issue in the novel is neatly tied up with a bow when this case is solved. It turns out that Tom was run off the road by one of the drug dealers in the ring, because he had found out about their illegal activities and had incriminating pictures on his phone. And even minor plot points end up leading back to the drug gang: it turns out that the worst player on the station’s poorly-ranked softball team is a crooked cop who was messing with evidence on behalf of the criminals–so with him gone, the team will be on the up and up! It all seemed a little too convenient for each and every obstacle faced by the characters to connect back to the drug investigation. *end spoilers*

Despite all the plot’s dramatic twists, turns, and reveals, I did find myself rooting for Emily and Kay. Their romance had great chemistry–and their first sex scene showcases some pretty great modeling of consent. Read Consequences if you like your romances with a heaping helping of mystery and suspense.

Tierney reviews The Roundabout by Gerri Hill

roundabout

[Trigger warning for sexual assault and online harassment.]

The Roundabout is a gentle, lighthearted romance – with one serious flaw, which unfortunately is a deal-breaker.

In the small and very gay town of Eureka Springs, an unattached queer woman is apparently a hot commodity. Megan Phenix is being courted by a variety of women whom she has no interest in dating – and when newcomer Leah Rollins arrives in town she is pursued as well. Naturally, the two make a pact and pretend to date each other to stave off the unwanted overtures – but the lines between truth and make-believe start to blur, and Megan and Leah begin to fall for one another.

The romance is cute – the whole “let’s pretend to date – oh whoops, we’re falling in love” thing reads like goofy rom com. Sadly, something happens at the beginning of the novel that completely taints any enjoyment one might get out of it: Megan gets drunk at her birthday party and ends up falling asleep in the bed of Mary Beth, one of her would-be suitors – who proceeds to take naked pictures of her while she is sleeping. Mary Beth then posts the pictures online, with recognizable details removed, and tries to blackmail Megan throughout the rest of the book, telling her she will post the pictures in their entirety if Megan does not go on a date with her, despite the fact that Megan repeatedly asks her to take them down.

Taking naked pictures of someone while they are sleeping is sexual assault. Posting those pictures online is online harassment. But for some reason this sickening behavior is shrugged off throughout the entire novel – Megan expresses her intense discomfort with Mary Beth’s behavior and other characters repeatedly tell her to lighten up, and ultimately this disturbing plot line is never resolved in a way that makes it clear that this behavior is disgusting and predatory.

It’s too bad, because there was otherwise a lot to like about The Roundabout – it depicts a romance between women who are closer to middle age than the first blush of youth, and it showcases one of those wonderfully idyllic romance novel towns in which almost every single character the reader encounters is queer. But the issue of taking and posting nude photos without the consent of the person in them is a very serious one – and this novel’s lighthearted treatment of it is thoroughly repugnant.

Tierney reviews Here’s the Thing by Emily O’Beirne

heres-the-thing-emily-obeirne

When Zel’s family moves back to Australia from the United States, she has to find her bearings in Sydney, while also making sense of the relationship she left behind: as Zel narrates the process of settling in and making friends at her new school, she also uses flashbacks to tell the story of meeting and falling for Prim in New York. It’s a sweet young adult novel – the story focuses thoughtfully on adolescent relationships, and as the present unfolds and the past is slowly revealed, you eagerly start to fit together the pieces that make up the puzzle that is Zel’s life.

Here’s the Thing is a thoroughly enjoyable read – Zel is a well fleshed-out character, and her first-person narrative (and copious endearing parenthetical asides) really draw the reader in. It’s refreshing to read a YA novel with a lesbian protagonist whose story doesn’t revolve exclusively around coming out or finding one true love. Coming out is an important step, and a process that never really ends (Zel even talks about coming out to people and clocking their reaction), but it’s great to see a YA character who is gay right off the bat, and for whom romance is just one aspect of the story (though there is certainly romance in Zel’s life – an excellent slow burn romance with one of her new friends, built up in just the right way that has the reader wholeheartedly rooting for them).

The novel does have a few missteps. There are a few regrettable comments: for example, there is an odd interaction between Zel and her father in which he proclaims that she couldn’t have been asexual because they are Italian and they need to love. Zel also seems to live that special shiny kind of life found only in YA novels: she has moved across the globe twice, her mother works for a modeling agency, and her father makes costumes for the opera. Some of these details detract from, rather than add to, the relatable nature of Zel’s story – but these qualms are minor, and easily overcome.

The novel’s greatest strength is its focus on the characters’ relationships. The account of Zel’s relationship with Prim, in both the past and the present, is an excellent exposition of unreciprocated teenage love and teenage angst – their emotions and actions feel raw and real. At the heart of Zel’s story is the process of figuring out friendship and love, and the messiness that can come in trying to distinguish between the two – Zel’s journey is both universal and wholly her own.