Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.

Tierney reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah Burke is spending her last year of high school trying to figure out where she fits in, and often feeling awkward about the fact that she marches to the beat of her own drum. She tells the story from her perspective in Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli’s not-quite-sequel to Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (the book on which feel-good gay movie Love, Simon was based). I say not-quite-sequel because while the events in this novel follow the events in the preceding one, Leah’s point of view puts the focus on entirely different things (don’t worry, Simon and Bram are still disgustingly adorable, even as the secondary focus), and rewrites some of what we thought we understood from the previous novel in ways that are absolutely glorious.

In Leah on the Offbeat, Leah spends much of her time hanging back – from the spotlight, from taking a real shot, to avoid change and uncertainty. She loves to draw – but doesn’t think her art is good enough to actually sell her pieces, even though she needs the money. Someone has a crush on her – but she can’t figure out how she feels about it. She’s got a giant crush on someone else – but she spends time agonizing over it, even when things look promising. She’s bisexual, and is out to her single mom (and has been since middle school) – but she doesn’t feel like she can come out to her friends so soon after Simon has come out, so they don’t know about this big part of identity.

But there are also glorious moments when she steps up to the plate, like when she stands up to a friend who makes a racist comment about affirmative action being the only reason someone got into a university she was rejected from. Throughout the entire novel, Leah is an absolutely delightful character, even when you feel like yelling at her for getting in her own way and messing things up for herself with her self-consciousness and her reluctance to ever try, for fear of messing things up. It’s infuriatingly adorable (and all the more so when she finally gets over it!).

Albertalli does an awesome job in her portrayal of Leah’s bisexuality: it’s such a rock-solid part of her identity, despite her other insecurities, and is an important focus of the novel, even though she’s not out to her friends. Her pop culture references are on point, and are delightfully queer. And no spoilers, but the very queer denouement of her story feels absolutely epic – Albertalli’s writing had me rooting for this ending from very early on in the novel.

Leah on the Offbeat is a great read, and worthy of your time whether or not you’ve read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (though queer folks who have read it are sure to enjoy Leah’s take on things, and the spectacular unfolding of Leah’s own queer story!). All I can say, they better make this one into a movie too: Leah deserves her own movie, and her queer fans deserve to see this story onscreen. Fingers crossed!

Tierney reviews My Lady Lipstick by Karin Kallmaker

Anita Topaz is a best-selling author of popular bodice rippers. But Anita doesn’t actually exist: she’s just a pen name. Paris Jackson uses a pseudonym to help her keep her distance from the world: after experiencing intense online harassment, she is trying to live off the grid and manage her anxiety. When Paris’s publishers decide they want her to come to an in-person meeting to discuss her contract, she isn’t sure if her anxiety will be able to handle it. Enter Lady Diana Beckinsale, a woman with many alternate identities, who harbors just as many secrets: after a chance meeting, she catches a whiff of Paris’s dilemma and jumps at the chance to use her acting talents and advance her own agenda. As with any good romance, as the plot thickens the two begin to fall for one another, as they get to know each other – and themselves – better than they could ever have imagined.
 
My Lady Lipstick is a sweetly enchanting romance novel. The plot is improbable, but in an entirely endearing and campy way. The character of Diana, especially, has quite the backstory (*spoilers ahead*): she is a former competitive gymnast who now moonlights as an actress using various false identities so she can accomplish her true goal of stealing and repatriating cultural artifacts from unethical private owners. (What a badass!) (end spoilers) And the romance Paris and Diana share is a very tender one: they dance around coming together and pulling away as they navigate their own issues and insecurities.
 
One area where there is some room for improvement is how Kallmaker brings up Paris’s race. Given the general landscape of romances being so overwhelmingly white, it’s awesome that Paris is a queer, butch woman of color. But Kallmaker kind of tiptoes around this fact, with lots of references to Paris’s “light brown skin” and a moment where Paris reveals she didn’t know she had Central and South American ancestry until she’d done a DNA test after her mom passed away (a moment which is followed up by a cringey comment from Diana about this being why Paris “[mamboes] so well”). With the romance landscape as white as it is, it feels like Paris’s identity as a woman of color should be done more justice, instead of being an odd footnote in her very own life. 
 
The novel raises other issues that Kallmaker and her characters handle excellently. Paris’s anxiety is one. Due to a Gamergate-like response from furiously misogynistic video game fans to a critique of hers, she escaped from her former life in the video game industry (leaving behind her job, her girlfriend, and her home) and made a new life for herself in a coastal Massachusetts town. This experience has left her with heightened anxiety, which Kallmaker depicts in full, from her conception of the feelings as Boss Anxiety (a cute nod to her love of video games) to her coping strategies (deep breathing, visualization exercises, baking). And the nod to Gamergate, as well as a nod to the #MeToo movement (embodied by a slimy publishing executive), bring in a strong undercurrent of feminism. This is a romance novel with a lot of thoughtfulness behind it, one that showcases real, internal struggles instead of a sequence of external obstacles neatly resolved before the happy ending.
 
My Lady Lipstick is a well-written, reflective, and engrossing romance, with a thoroughly enjoyable plot: Paris and Diana’s connection, and their stunning range of emotions, go straight to your heart.

Tierney reviews The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr cover

Published in 1997, The Necessary Hunger is one of those novels that should be on the required reading list for queer women: it so perfectly depicts its protagonist’s emotional journey, impeccably capturing the essence of adolescent passion, basketball, unrequited love, and this particular moment in time in 1980s Los Angeles.

The novel is told from Nancy’s point of view, as she looks back on her adolescence many years later: she tells the story of her coming of age in the mid-1980s as a Japanese-American star basketball player, as she navigates her feelings for Raina, an African-American star player from another school, who actually ends up as her step-sister of sorts when Nancy’s dad and Raina’s mom get together, and they all move in together.

This plot point that could take a turn for the comedic is instead conveyed beautifully and movingly: it adds such an achingly sharp edge to Nancy’s unreciprocated feelings for Raina, her longing for a person so near and yet so far from her. Raina herself is queer, and has a good-for-nothing girlfriend who she nevertheless can’t seem to quit – adding another torturous dimension to Nancy’s feelings (and putting the novel a cut above the tired “pining for a straight girl” trope). Through this specific, awkward, beautiful lens, Revoyr deftly portrays such ubiquitous teenage feelings: yearning, discomfort, infatuation, listlessness – the roller coaster of unrequited love.

Nancy, and the novel, are both so much more than just her love for Raina (though that love is certainly the source of her most intense emotions, and is the novel’s  main thread): while negotiating these feelings, she is simultaneously navigating classes, playing high school basketball as a star player on a highly-ranked team, and trying to figure out college plans, while parrying the impassioned advances of the college coaches who are courting her. The Necessary Hunger is infused with so much love that it’s contagious – the characters’ very emotions and passions become infectious, thanks to Revoyr’s skill at hitting all the right emotional notes through Nancy’s enticing and conversational first-person narrative. I know almost nothing about basketball, and don’t particularly care much for sports, but was riveted throughout the entire novel, basketball and all, because of Nancy’s passion and tone.

And Nancy’s love for her friends is just as appealing as her love for the game: her friends round out the novel as an engrossing and effervescent cast of characters, many of whom are queer themselves. Though the story is told from Nancy’s point of view, she sometimes gives brief, poignant insights into what the future holds for certain characters, since the entire novel is a look back on her adolescence from adulthood. This story is Nancy’s, but it also feels much wider than that – The Necessary Hungerarrestingly captures a specific place in time.

Through it all, there is the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and its own particular social climate. Nancy’s experience as a Japanese-American girl (and then a member of a multiracial blended family) in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, her experience as a young queer woman of color, her experience navigating race and class with basketball teams from white, well-off school districts, her experience facing the privilege afforded by a basketball scholarship that is all but certain are all confronted head-on. The Necessary Hunger showcases Nancy’s life and identity, and those of her friends and family, in a way that feels straightforward and fully realized. 

The Necessary Hunger is a queer classic. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend going out and finding a copy as soon as you can: Nancy’s story and journey and heartache are simultaneously so specifically hers, and so beautifully universal. 

Tierney reviews Can You Hear Me? by Geonn Cannon

Colonel Noa Laurie, sole survivor of the catastrophic failure of her space station, heads back into space once more on a mission to help eradicate space debris, on her own. She has volunteered to pilot the one-person Orbital Debris Independent Eradication (ODIE) engine, circling the Earth over the course of her two-year solo mission. She doesn’t expect to have contact with anyone but the scientists in charge of monitoring her progress, and the occasional classroom of schoolchildren interviewing her – so she gets a shock when her communication system is somehow connected with the old radio in Jamie Faris’s woodworking barn in rural Indiana.

As the ODIE orbits the Earth, the two are within each other’s range for an hour a day – and they soon come together every day to spend every minute of that hour talking (at least, when it doesn’t coincide with sleeping). Noa and Jamie’s unlikely friendship deepens, becomes a sort of flirtation, and then takes a turn for the romantic. The novel alternates sections showcasing them as they go about their daily lives, thousands of miles away from one another, and then as they come together to talk, share stories, flirt (and eventually, have radio-sex). But the impossible-to-surmount distance makes things difficult, and so does Jamie’s ex-husband Louis, who is hell-bent on getting back together with her: there are many obstacles for Noa and Jamie to overcome, if they want to make things work together.

Can You Hear Me? is a delightful slow-burn romance: the improbable premise is a lot of fun, without being too convoluted or hokey, and it allows Cannon to deftly develop Noa and Jamie’s relationship and deep emotional connection, making their emotions, hopes, and concerns feel real. Their communication veers effortlessly from sweet to sexy and back again: they are both truly delightful characters, who feel fully realized. The sections of the novel that delve into their separate lives help flesh them out, and make their very-long-distance relationship feel all the more poignant and true.

One misstep, that seemed all the more glaring given how sweet and moving the rest of the novel is, is a throwaway comment by Noa as she and Jamie are discussing the fact that Noa doesn’t know what Jamie looks like, having only ever heard her voice. She makes a crack about not caring as long as Jamie doesn’t have a penis, which is transphobic and entirely unnecessary (and not to mention a thoroughly tired remark). It’s regrettable that this comment was included at all, and that it isn’t addressed.

Can You Hear Me? does do a decent job of portraying Jamie’s bisexuality: it’s an important part of her identity, and it exists independently of the dissolution of her relationship with her ex-husband and her growing relationship with Noa. Her ex is an ass about her being in a relationship with a woman, but he’s pretty clearly a villain in the story. All the characters who matter to Jamie, including her sister, and Noa, don’t question or demean her sexuality.

And something Can You Hear Me? gets very right is the portrayal of Noa and Jamie as whole people. Their connection and their burgeoning relationship drive the plot, but they lead interesting, independent lives – lives separate from one another because of physical distance between them, but lives that they choose deliberately and tenderly to share with one another. The arc of their relationship is a pleasure to take in, but so is their development and growth as human beings.

Can You Hear Me? is a delightful and well-developed romance, with a fun premise and good pacing, that hits almost all the right notes. Noa and Jamie are both endearing characters, who make a relationship unfolding through radio conversations from thousands of miles away seem like the most natural thing in the world!

Tierney reviews Heartsick by Tracey Richardson

Paramedic Angie Cullen and doctor Vic Turner work at the same hospital, but hardly know one another – until Angie’s lover and Vic’s wife are brought to the hospital together after a car crash, and it comes to light that they have been cheating with each other. After their respective relationships implode, Angie and Vic start to see each other everywhere, and against all odds begin to develop a friendship – which slowly turns into something more, though they initially fight their new feelings at every turn, afraid of being burned again.

It’s delightful experiencing Angie and Vic’s love story as it unfolds, as quirks of fate keep throwing them together, and they undergo an emotional rollercoaster ride processing their feelings about the dissolution of their previous relationships, their introspective look at their own emotional issues and hang-ups, and their dawning realization, then denial, and finally acceptance of their love for one another. I love a romance novel that hits the right emotional notes, and for the most part Heartsick does this wonderfully. There are definitely moments where things seem to be moving weirdly fast, especially with this more realistic emotional approach – but so much of that is par for the course with romance novels, and the story is still thoroughly enjoyable. Angie and Vic both go on separate, thoughtful emotional journeys (Angie even sees a therapist to work through her own issues and unhappiness with her previous relationship – love it!) that really resonated with me.

The story flows nicely, and the writing is quite good, though there are some passages that just sound a little off. There are occasional metaphors don’t quite seem to illustrate things to the desired effect (for example: “It was strange this spontaneity that seemed to grow like moss on a wet stump when she was around Vic”), and some odd phrases that are meant to sound sexy but for me kind of ground things to a halt (for example, the narration of a sweater that “hinted at the gentle swell of the goods below” and a description of an orgasm “making Vic its bitch”). For the most part, the writing is engaging, and my attachment to Angie and Vic’s soul-searching and romantic plot-line kept me going.

Heartsick showcases a sweet love story, and two well-fleshed-out protagonists whose introspective emotional journeys make their coming-together all the sweeter. After all they go through, both plot-wise and internally, Angie and Vic deserve their romance novel happy ending. If you’re looking for a feel-good romance with a thoughtful emotional progression, Heartsick is the book for you.


Tierney reviews Turbulence by E. J. Noyes

Isabelle has smoking hot sex with a one-night stand she thinks she’ll never see again – and then promptly sees her again the next day, flying her private jet: it turns out Audrey is her new company pilot. The two continue their sexual relationship, claiming they want to keep things casual – but amidst all the ups and downs of her busy life, Isabelle starts to see Audrey as a steady constant, and begins to realize her feelings about Audrey are anything but casual…

I wanted to like Turbulence: though the plot felt somewhat predictable (once you get past the mega-rich stockbroker/private pilot pairing, it’s a pretty standard trajectory of casual lovers falling for one another), the writing is decent (for the most part), and the sex scenes are well-written (for the most part). But I just could not get past how annoyingly spoiled and self-absorbed Isabelle is.

She makes lots of snotty comments that center on how rich she is, like droning on about how much her therapist costs, or saying Audrey would make her crack “like a shitty set of gel nails from a two-dollar manicure place.” She also acts entitled to others’ time: she decides on a whim, without consulting with Audrey, to take a trip in her private jet to her hometown, and thus making Audrey come too, to pilot the plane – all because she wants to the two of them to spend time together. In the arc of the novel it becomes a chance for Audrey to bond with Isabelle’s mom, and to cement how right their eventual love will be – but from my perspective it just felt like a totally odd thing to do.

I thought at first that there would be some kind of redemption arc around it: Isabelle would be brought down to earth as she got to know Audrey, and would become less of a brat, and they would live in love happily ever after – the end. But that wasn’t the case – I still can’t tell if she was supposed to be this egotistical and the story arc just wasn’t resolved, or if her brattiness was somehow accidental on the author’s part. Isabelle’s actions seem all the more strange in conjunction with how the author plays up her humble, down-homey upbringing and her many large donations to charity – her character feels very disjointed.

Unfortunately, Isabelle’s personality made Turbulence unpalatable for me – I prefer my romances with more emotional depth, and a more realistic emotional journey.

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.