Tierney reviews The Second Wave by Jean Copeland

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When Alice gets a call out of the blue that Leslie, her first love, has had a stroke and is in a coma, she immediately rushes to her hospital bedside – even though she hasn’t seen Leslie in years. They fell in love in the 1970s: their story is pieced together through flashbacks, from their initial friendship, to their tentative romance, to their tumultuous break-up when Leslie refused to leave her husband, for fear of losing custody of her children. As Alice waits for Leslie to wake up, she wonders about what could have been – and whether there is a future for the two of them, despite all the obstacles they faced in the past.

The Second Wave definitely has an interesting premise: the juxtaposition of Alice’s present-day affairs with flashbacks to her initial romance with Leslie keeps the reader eager to piece together the full story of the past and see where Alice and Leslie’s story is headed now. It’s also exciting to see a romance novel that focuses on love between two women in their seventies: it’s an age group that isn’t well represented in the genre, and Copeland isn’t heavy-handed in her depiction of their concerns and relationship.

The novel isn’t without its stumbling blocks, though. The dialogue often seems a little stilted, and the characters subsequently seem to have stilted relationships with one another, relating with each other in ways that don’t really make sense. For example, shortly after meeting Leslie’s daughter Rebecca (who told her about Leslie’s stroke and brought her to Leslie’s bedside in the first place) at the hospital, Alice is asking her if she is a lesbian, and how she knew, and if she has had sex with men – completely out of nowhere, with no natural progression or back and forth. It certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you would focus on if you were pining away at the bedside of your comatose lost love… Even the flashbacks start to feel stilted after a while: they begin to feel like they are being awkwardly shoehorned in, with characters mentioning things in the present day only for the sake of conjuring up a blast from the past for Alice.

The novel’s biggest weakness is the ostensible lack of emotional progress between Alice and Leslie. Spoiler alert: even as they rekindle their romance, they rehash the same old fights they had when they first fell in love – and even though they end up together, it doesn’t actually feel like they’ve made enough progress working through their issues to actually be happy with one another. Their disagreements just seem to fizzle out, instead of being resolved.

Overall, the novel was an enjoyable read: its mirrored past and present plot structure is a driving force that keeps the reader engaged, even through its fumbles. Copeland shines a light on characters rarely depicted in romance, or in pop culture in general – The Second Wave is a sweet story that’s worthy of your time.

Tierney reviews The Butch and the Beautiful by Kris Ripper

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Jaq meets Hannah at her ex’s wedding and is instantly smitten – despite the fact that Jaq has been forewarned that Hannah is “batshit crazy” and in the middle of a messy divorce. The two fall into bed that same night, both vowing to keep things casual… but if they had been able to keep that promise, this wouldn’t be a romance novel. Jaq is looking for commitment, but has a history of bolting when things get uncomfortable – but despite the mess in Hannah’s personal life, Jaq keeps coming back for more.

The Butch and the Beautiful is the second novel in Ripper’s Queers of La Vista Series (and the only work in the series that I have read so far). Its plot theoretically stands alone, but the novels in the series are interconnected, and main characters from one novel pop up as secondary characters in others. One of the major pluses of the series is that almost every character is queer, which is awesome.

But a downside to this structure is that the plot spills outside of the confines of the novel in ways that make it hard for the reader to follow. There are too many characters, each with too much backstory and drama, and there is just too much going on. The arc of the story feels disjointed, and many plot lines aren’t concluded in a satisfactory fashion, ostensibly to leave room for further novels. But this emphasis on other characters’ crises makes it hard to focus on the protagonist’s romance: Jaq falling for Hannah seems relatively. inconsequential in comparison.

With all these side-plots, there is little room for character development (and little room for the reader to get attached to the main characters). The novel spends a lot of time telling us about the characters, instead of showing the reader who they are: Hannah, for example, is described as “batshit crazy” without ever actually doing anything to warrant the label.

The characters also make weird offensive comments throughout the novel, that are are recognized to be offensive but dismissed and never resolved. One of Jaq’s friends makes some transmisogynistic comments that are totally gratuitous, have nothing to do with the story, and are completely shrugged off by Jaq.

Hannah and Jaq have a sweet romance, and the novel reads fluidly, for the most part. But unfortunately these positives aren’t enough to save it from its flaws. It’s a quick read – but there isn’t enough substance there to make the reader feel invested in moving forward.

Tierney reviews Report for Murder by Val McDermid

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Originally hired to write an article about a fundraising gala at a girls’ boarding school, struggling journalist – and self-proclaimed “cynical socialist lesbian feminist” – Lindsay Gordon is embroiled in a murder investigation when the fundraiser’s star, renowned/reviled cellist Lorna Smith-Couper, is found dead, garrotted by her own cello string. Lindsay digs into the murder with the help of playwright and school alumna Cordelia, and romance slowly blooms between them. But Lindsay’s interest in finding the killer takes on new urgency when her friend Paddy, a housemistress at the school, becomes the police’s chief suspect. Through interviews with the many people who seemed to have motive to do away with Lorna, Lindsay attempts to unravel the mystery and unmask the murderer before it’s too late for Paddy.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read. McDermid’s mystery novels are engaging: they’re the kind of mystery novels that you end up racing through in one go, hanging on every word until the very last sentence. She has a flair for putting characters in peril and deftly pulling them out in unexpected ways, and Report for Murder, full of fun twists and turns, is no exception. And despite the fact that it was published in 1987, it doesn’t feel too dated (except when Lindsay is phoning in her reports to her editor).

The novel is McDermid’s first published work though, so it doesn’t showcase all of her usual fluidity with the vagaries of the murder plot. The drama occasionally felt heavy-handed, and many of the characters’ motivations did not feel particularly believable. Lindsay’s own personality occasionally felt heavy-handed as well (at one point, she drives several hours away to confront a murder suspect face-to-face, alone, without telling anyone where she is going). At times she is a one-dimensional character: she has odd conversations with other characters in which she shares her ideals and a values in a way that feels wooden and bland. And the novel is driven much more by talk than by action – which makes sense, given that Lindsay is a journalist.

Despite these flaws, Lindsay is an engaging character, and the novel pulls the reader in. Lindsay’s romance with Cordelia is one of the novel’s strengths: though it ties in only minimally with the murder plot, it exists cohesively with the mystery, fleshing out Lindsay’s character and offering a fitting counterpoint to the drama of the investigation. Though this blossoming relationship is not the novel’s focal point, it is nimbly woven into the story, and doesn’t feel forced or extraneous.

If you’re a fan of the lesbian mystery novel genre, Report for Murder is worthy of your time, though I can’t speak for the rest of the Lindsay Gordon series as I have yet to read any of the other novels. I am working my way through Val McDermid’s novels (based on their availability at my local public library) and I recommend reading some of her other works as well, though you can skip the incredibly transphobic The Mermaids Singing. The Kate Brannigan series has a lively (albeit straight) protagonist and some lesbian supporting characters, and some of McDermid’s standalone novels have lesbian characters as well: Trick of the Dark boasts a cast full of queer women, (both protagonists and antagonists) and an excellent unputdownable mystery to boot.

[Trigger warning for suicide of a secondary character.]

Tierney reviews Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger

Veras Will by Shelley EttingerVera’s Will is a beautifully-told queer family saga, one that is by turns heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and at every moment an entrancing read. Ettinger tells the tragic story of Vera’s life, from her family’s flight from Russia after anti-Jewish violence at the turn of the 20th century to her lonely death in the 1970s, with many family tragedies and missed opportunities for love in between. Interspersed with the chapters detailing Vera’s solitary and repressed life are brief sections told from the point of view of Randy, Vera’s granddaughter, as she learns about her family’s past and makes her own way in the world. Both women are lesbians, but their lived experiences vary wildly.
The two mirrored narratives showcase two vastly different time periods. One woman lives a loveless and unhappy life, unable to live as her true self, while the other is able to live her life freely as a lesbian, overcoming the hardships she encounters along the way thanks to her own sense of self and her certainty in her own identity and values. Randy lives Vera’s “what could have been,” gay liberation come to a boil after decades of repression and unhappiness.

Ettinger deftly interweaves social critique into her narrative: she touches upon homophobia, racism, sexism, worker’s rights, and more, without the story ever feeling forced or preachy. Instead these issues come up naturally, and add to the richness and depth of the story as Ettinger faces them head-on in the novel’s plot.

A well-written cast of secondary characters (both lovable and loathsome) also enriches and deepens the story, making it feel all the more epic and engrossing.

The story is intricate and delicately balanced between the two narratives, but despite Ettinger’s skill, some plot points are left hanging. Randy’s Aunt Bud is an intriguing character whose backstory is never fully explained, and who seemingly exists only to further the plot. Aunt Bud brought Randy to her first gay bar as a child – where Randy narrowly misses crossing paths with Vera, in a strange lesbian convergence. Aunt Bud herself seems to be a lesbian, but Ettinger glosses over her narrative potential and uses her character rather clumsily. This minor flaw in the novel stands out only because the rest of the novel’s characters are so well-written: this one puzzling element does not detract from the rest of the book.

Vera and Randy’s stories in counterpoint to one another make for a beautifully bittersweet novel, one that is both melancholy and heartening – the best bits of both emotions. It’s the kind of novel you want to read in one fell swoop, despite its length: Ettinger meticulously lays bare Vera’s entire life, taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster that is simultaneously heightened and soothed by Randy’s confrontation with her family’s past and journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

The story provokes that perfect combination of emotion and introspection. I loved Vera’s Will for its epic, multigenerational take on the lesbian coming of age story – it filled a void in queer fiction that I didn’t even know I needed, and left me hungry for more queer sagas of such far-reaching proportions.
[Trigger warning for descriptions of rape and violence.]

Tierney reviews Oath of Honor by Radclyffe

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Oath of Honor recounts the reluctant romance between Wes, newly hired head of the White House Medical Unit, and Evyn, dedicated Secret Service agent: though their attraction is immediate (as it so often is in romance novels), the two suppress their feelings in favor of their professions’ singular goal – protect the president. But as a plot to assassinate the president unfolds, so does their romance.

If that combination of plot points sounds a little odd to you, you’re not alone: Wes and Evyn certainly have a steamy and engaging romance, but the romantic plot-line is muddled by the presidential assassination scheme. Radclyffe alternates viewpoints, throwing in scenes from the points of view of other characters, including the would-be assassin, a rival of the president’s who wants to pave the way for his own rise to power. It makes sense for a romance novel to have some suspense and drama, but this slightly disjointed assassination plot-line takes it too far, detracting from the romance that is theoretically the heart of the novel, especially since this plot-line is left hanging at the end of the novel (perhaps leaving room for a sequel).

Despite this significant flaw, Oath of Honor is still a fun read. Wes and Evyn are well fleshed-out characters, they have great chemistry together, and the first responders premise is certainly an interesting one. If you’re looking for a romance novel whose plot reads like a soap opera’s, and don’t mind the occasional foray into fragmented political machinations, give Oath of Honor a try.

Note: Oath of Honor is the third title in Radclyffe’s First Responders series of medical drama romance novels: each novel stands alone in terms of its characters and plot, but centers around characters who are first responders. Oath of Honor features snippets from the points of view of Blair Powell and Cameron Roberts, stars of Radclyffe’s Honor series.