Katelyn reviews Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

unbearable lightness portia de rossi

When Portia de Rossi first released her memoir, I was just testing the waters of an eating disorder and six years past admitting to myself that I wasn’t straight. I desperately wanted to search the book for weight loss tips, but it had been described as so inspiring that I was afraid it would convince me to recover before I even got started (Plus I was afraid everyone would think I was a lesbian if they saw me reading a book by a famous lesbian). Throughout the next few years, I debated reading it, alternating between fear of recovery and fear of relapse. When I found it at a library sale a couple of weeks ago, I figured it was time and finally went for it, and I have to say, it surprised me.

First of all, I think it’s worth noting that I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been with regards to my mental health, and I participate in therapy regularly, and I found this book very triggering. The main focus of the memoir is de Rossi’s eating disorder and the time before her recovery, and this includes detailed descriptions of the methods she used to lose weight, her thoughts and feelings during this time—specifically self-hatred in the form of body image disturbance and internalized homophobia—and of course, numbers (weight, body measurements, calories, number of meals, number of exercises, and the list goes on and on as anyone with an eating disorder can tell you). If you’re thinking about reading this book to find some inspiration to work toward a healthier mindset and lifestyle, you will probably be disappointed.

There is plenty of debate around the topic of recovery when it comes to mental illness, especially among people with eating disorders, but I think people on all sides would agree that de Rossi’s outlook on her personal struggles and recovery are not exactly healthy. It could be that she was not far enough from the experience to look back with clarity, but it seems that she puts a lot of focus on a sudden and complete change brought on by her serious relationship with her ex-girlfriend and then maintained by her relationship with her wife. I don’t want to police people on how to handle their eating disorders, especially someone I don’t actually know personally, but I do worry about the message people who are in the depths of their struggle will take away from this, especially impressionable young girls.

Not to mention, there are some cringe-worthy parts in the epilogue that kind of stung, like the conversation between de Rossi and her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, in which Ellen calls de Rossi crazy, and a “poor thing” whom she wishes she could have “saved.”

“You did save me. You save me every single day.” I kiss her and get up off the bed to make her coffee. “I’m so proud of you, baby. It’ll help a lot of people.” As I pour the coffee, she suddenly appears at the doorway of the kitchen, her blond head poking around the door. “Just be sure and tell the people that you’re not crazy anymore.”

I’m sure there are people who will say I’m being too sensitive, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who would be pretty upset if my significant other said something like that.

There is no perfect eating disorder memoir, just as there is no one, perfect and healthy way to recover from an eating disorder, and I respect that de Rossi’s story and methods are not the same as mine, but I can’t help but worry for her and for some of the people who might read this book.

However, even with my disappointment with the “recovery” aspects of the book, I thought the story was relatable, and de Rossi’s writing was simple yet captivating. She perfectly captured the experience of living with an eating disorder, from the life-altering moments to the mundane, stuck-in-traffic ruminations. One of my favorite passages is her description of the experience of eating nachos.

The blend of cheese and sour cream with the crispiness of the corn chips and creaminess of guacamole will always turn a sour mood into a happy one. A peace came over me when I ate food like that. Like life had no other meaning than pure enjoyment. I had nowhere to go and nothing to accomplish. For that moment, I could put life on hold and believe I was perfect the way I was. I was focused on the present—in the moment—and the moment was bliss on a corn chip.

The writing isn’t anything mind-blowing or particularly unique as it might be if written by a ghostwriter, but it is honest and real without the need to prove herself as a writer that is evident in other celebrity memoirs. Also unlike a lot of other celebrity memoirs, there isn’t a lot of name-dropping or bragging. Yes, a few stars are mentioned, as are award shows and paparazzi, but it’s done in a way so that it just feels like part of de Rossi’s job, just as it would if she was talking about working in a cubicle and talking to the guy in the copy room. So if you’re just looking for some Hollywood dirt or an inside scoop about Ally McBeal or Arrested Development, this probably isn’t the book for you.

This book also might not be for you if you’re just looking for a story about a famous lesbian’s coming out process. Although de Rossi puts a lot of emphasis on her experience in the closet and how it impacted her mental health, the actual descriptions of that experience are sparse and dull in comparison to the raw emotions behind her descriptions of her disordered eating and her relationship with her mother.

Unbearable Lightness wasn’t the inspiring push to recovery or the coming out story I was expecting. It’s not something I would recommend for people who are still feeling hopeless and trapped in their eating disorder, but it was still a breath of fresh air for me after deciding to leave my eating disorder behind once and for all. It made me feel less alone as de Rossi wrote the words that I’m still too afraid to speak. This also might make it a good read for anyone who has a loved one with an eating disorder so they can better understand what their loved one can’t explain. It could also start some healthy conversations. Above all else, it’s an interesting read and good as a memoir as well as a book about eating disorders. I just think it’s good to approach with caution.

Marthese reviews The Second Mango by Shira Glassman


She also picked up a mango, and then, after thinking about it for a moment, bought a second as well.

The Second Mango is the first in the Mangoverse high-fantasy series. It felt so good to read fantasy again! Especially a book that I have been meaning to read for a while and now that the series has finished, I started. I had forgotten what the book was about, I just knew I wanted to read it so some things came as a surprise.

The series is set in a tropical setting but within a Jewish religious background which I had never read about in such a combination before. The plot follows Shulamit, a princess recently turned queen and Riv, her new appointed guard – after Riv saved her from being kidnapped after she visited a bawdy house to visit willing women. The rescue is the start of the book, so you can guess it was funny.

Queen Shulamit is skinny, of average looks and has black hair. Riv is tall and comes from the north. The two develop a friendship based on grief, trust and in my opinion, mutual book-nerdery. Riv becomes Shula’s traveling companion along with a horse that is sometimes a dragon. Riv is offered the position of head guard if Shula finds a sweetheart on their journey. Shula doesn’t know how to find other women that like women, after her ex, Aviva bailed on her so she has the idea that anyone wanting to avoid a husband would probably join a religious order… and they set off to visit these orders.

They run into adventures on the way. We see how Shula is quite the detective and intelligent and acts to save herself. Riv also has a painful past. Since it’s in the description of the book, I can reveal that Riv is actually Rivka, a woman that passes as a man for convenience. Rivka is a great warrior that fought to be the way she is. Rivka also lost her partner, the wizard Isaac. We get to see both Rivka’s and Isaac’s past and Shulamit’s and Aviva’s and I have to say, although this book is short, the four characters are developed and human.

The book subtly addresses gender identity and sexual orientation, although how gender identity is explored at one point is a bit problematic (it’s not just cross-dressing). There’s also a touch of biphobia in a comment meant to hurt but it’s not by our protagonists. I believe it also addresses the sexuality spectrum. Rivka isn’t someone that loves a lot and she only started feeling for Isaac, I believe, only after forming a connection with him. Perhaps because of the lack of ace and aro representation in literature but I believe that Rivka falls in the asexual spectrum (perhaps as a demisexual). I think there’s also a misunderstanding of what a sex drive is but, perhaps I over-analyzed. There are non-explicit sex scenes written between two women and a man and a woman that I think focus more on the emotions felt.

Although the adventures may seem as simplistic at times, they are fun and there are badass moments from our protagonists. Both Riv and Shula help each other grow and face insecurities. It’s a lovely start of a series.

I’d definitely recommend this book to fantasy lovers, people that have eclectic book tastes, people that like to see positive growing relationships and also great relationship material between a man and a woman, with it not being the main focus.

Kalyanii reviews The Housing Crisis by Kate McLay

the housing crisis kate mclay

Some literary journeys reveal their destination long before their narrative engine has found its hum, while others keep the reader wide-eyed and white-knuckled with a plotline that mirrors construction season on Chicago’s I-90, with lane shifts, detours and bright orange “No Shoulder” signs aplenty. Then, albeit far and few between, there are those that encourage the reader to settle into cruise, confident that she has it all figured out, right from the start… until she reaches that scene which stops her dead in her tracks. Maybe even while driving in a center lane of the Kennedy Expressway. Or in the midst of The Housing Crisis by Kate McLay on the Windy City’s quaint yet bustling near north side.

Hannah should have known better than to move in with a straight girl, but Morgan seemed different somehow. The two of them just clicked. So, nothing could have prepared her, when she arrives home early from work on the eve of their six-month anniversary, to find her girlfriend in bed beneath a shaggy blonde-haired college guy, who just so happens to still be inside her. After emptying the contents of her stomach into the toilet and cleaning herself up, Hannah meets the swollen-lipped Morgan, where she’s standing in the kitchen, and articulates the four simple words that seal their fate:  “I can’t do this.”

Alyssa had everything in Nancy she could have asked in a roommate. She was easy to get along with, paid her half of the rent and covered her share of the bills. Even Nancy’s reluctance to vacuum was a non-issue in the whole scheme of things. Their arrangement worked well – or so she thought – prior to her return from work one day to find the apartment half-empty and a note from Nancy scrawled onto the back of a piece of junk mail, informing Alyssa that she had decided to move in with her boyfriend. After all, he had the truck only for the day.

With no idea as to how to come up with the rent, due in a couple weeks’ time, Alyssa promptly places an ad and begins asking around work. Among the prospective roommates she’s interviewed, not a one has come close to fitting the bill. Then, out of the blue, she receives a voicemail from a woman named Hannah, explaining that Nancy mentioned she might be looking for a roommate and that she, herself, is looking for a room.

The attraction between the two women is palpable even as Hannah arrives on Alyssa’s doorstep with her entire life packed into two bags and a guitar case, which isn’t much of a problem for a musician who embraces her sexuality – that is, provided she doesn’t act on her desires. After all, Hannah knows well how courting a straight girl will likely turn out. Yet, for Alyssa, who was raised Catholic and brought up with intensely conventional Midwestern mores and a God-fearing approach to life, the suddenly sensual nature of her dreams, all of them about Hannah, inspires a fair amount of anxiety and a mighty dose of confusion, especially when she awakens with her hand tucked into her moist panties.

If truth be told, I spent a good portion of my time reading The Housing Crisis with my hands splayed (not in my pants, but) through my hair, grasping any graying strands long enough not to slip through my fingers. Initially, the story progresses with a painful predictability as McLay offers up the most crucial conflicts and resulting emotional fallout in a manner which steals every ounce of her own thunder, spelling out dynamics that would have been better shown and summarizing her characters’ internal responses without the slightest hint of restraint. With each successive chapter, I felt increasingly robbed of the exhilarating tension that resides in the gradual unfolding of a well-crafted tale.

Very little of the narrative is written in-scene, and the meager snippets of stilted dialogue prove as contrived as they do improbable. The unsupported shifts in point-of-view muddy any sense of groundedness within the storyline and cast suspicion upon all that one should be able to take for granted from an omniscient third-person narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for unreliable narrators, but the incessant head-hopping proves disorienting.

McLay successfully, if not compellingly, conveys Alyssa’s sheltered upbringing and resulting moral code; however, the reader is never given the opportunity to fully experience Alyssa’s evolution when, rather than showing her reactions to a major development, the narration simply states, “And then they were kissing again and things made a lot more sense.”

Ironically enough, Alyssa’s burgeoning self-awareness and empowerment are the novella’s raison d’etre; yet, in the midst of losing her virginity, the narration again informs, “Alyssa felt free, freer than she’d ever felt in her entire life.” and “This was living.” How much more profound would it be to observe such a sentiment directly in the moment and witness its gravity within a catch in her breath or the slow roll of a single salty tear?

In spite of occasionally jarring and inconsistent word choices, random shifts in point-of-view, vague descriptions and glaring grammar and punctuation errors among a plethora of other issues, I desperately wanted McLay to succeed, for her potential is so very evident; and, after dropping a mighty bombshell toward the conclusion, in concept, she does. Though the inclusion of the completely unexpected doesn’t necessarily redeem the weaker aspects of the piece, it certainly pleads the case for a thorough revamping of the manuscript. If only McLay would take Alyssa’s story and bring it to life, utilizing the tried-and-true methods of her craft, she’d have a truly noteworthy manuscript… and the satisfaction of knowing that she created a work of fiction that is not only entertaining but exceedingly influential. As I see it, if executed well, The Housing Crisis could easily be regarded as a groundbreaking contribution to the ever-expanding canon of contemporary LGBT literature. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed, hoping that what was released was merely, in the words of Anne Lamott, a shitty first draft.

JJ Taylor reviews Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn

just enough light AJ Quinn

Just Enough Light by AJ Quinn (Bold Stroke Books) is a romantic thriller between two women working at an isolated Search and Rescue center in the Rockies. The setting is captivating, the romance challenging and satisfying, although the mystery suffers a little in pacing and some dots just don’t connect.

Warning for:  mentions of child abuse and rape, rape flashback, child/teen death.

Kellen Ryan is a tough, worldly, skilled elite Search and Rescue instructor who was injured in the line of duty by a mysterious bad guy. Dr. Dana Kingston needs to get out of the shadow of her well-known father, and decides to take her practice to the small town of Haven, Colorado, high up in the Rockies. Their first meeting involves a flat tire, the ubiquitous poor weather conditions of the setting, Kellen’s secret coffee recipe, and a rescue dog. (Bogart is a real hero through the whole book!)

The romance meets its first challenge when Kellen and Dana realize they’ll be working side-by-side on Haven’s Search and Rescue headquarters. What’s more, Dana has the unique challenge of an outsider entering a close-knit group of men and women who regularly risk their lives for one another.

Some spoilers ahead!

One hazard of the setting and the subject that bothered me was some of the rescue victims dying. It may have been a realistic reflection of  the dangers faced by the SAR operation, but in two cases, there were dead kids. While I get that not everything turns out OK in the field in real life, the deaths gave the romance novel a gloomy cast.

Still, the appeal of the life-or-death teamwork lured me in, and Kellen and Dana’s strong chemistry and real relationship challenges kept me turning the pages.  

The found family was the novel’s real strength. The richness of Haven’s community, the vibrant picture of the SAR center and the cabins were so vividly painted that I longed to vacation there even though I would have been too much of a wimp to even venture anywhere up the mountains. From coworkers at the SAR center to the neighbors in town, everyone came alive in the small, isolated community. AJ Qinn made me want to gain Kellen’s trust and make a home for Dana.  I wanted to sit by the fireplaces in the cabins and romp in fresh powder with Bogart. I wanted beer and wings at the local dive. And after it all, I wanted to be welcomed over to hangout with Dana, Kellen, and Kellen’s girls Ren and Cody. Each woman in the story, not just the main characters, have found their existing “birth” family to be anything from insufficient to actively harmful. In its stead, and oftentimes despite harrowing circumstances, they came together to make a family of their own choosing.

The FBI crashes into the insular world of Haven, demanding Kellen reveal who she was before Haven, so they can determine if there’s a connection there they can use to find the killer who’s after her and targeting other SAR teams across the country. I liked FBI Agent Grant, though I wanted to send him off to do some research or hire his own experts because he seemed to be flailing around in the dark for the majority of his investigation.

The investigation pushes Kellen to reveal secrets about her past that could have tied into the overall mystery, but ultimately felt forced. And while the reveal sheds light on her isolation, resilience, and nomadic past, it doesn’t connect to the overall plot as foreshadowed. What she running from all those years was an emotional threat and herself, not literal danger. I didn’t need Kellen’s past to connect to the mystery, but it would have made the two disparate parts of the story smoother if it had.

Kellen’s adopted runaways were great as windows into her secretive, sometimes cold and hard to reach character, but their own dark pasts also come up in an another odd red herring in the search for the mysterious shooter.

If you want to be immersed in the immediacy of Search and Rescue, give witness to very raw struggles for characters with painful pasts, and can handle the suspense of a sniper lurking in the snowy mountains, then Kellen and Dana’s romance will eat up your whole weekend. And hopefully you have a rescue dog like Bogart to keep you safe.

JJ Taylor loves stories about stories. She reads, writes, and chases chickens in the woods with her wife and their ridiculously adorable baby. You can find her on Twitter and on Tumblr @jjtaylor.

Shira Glassman reviews Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer


If you’ve been craving midcentury f/f, if you want that old-timey vintage movie aesthetic– I mean the sweet, wholesome type rather than noir — Sideshow by Amy Stilgenbauer is a solid example, with fade-to-black scenes of intimacy that to me added to the period-appropriate feel (since m/f romance from that era wouldn’t have been graphic, either.) I wouldn’t so much call this lesbian romance as lesbian fiction, because Abby’s other relationships are just as important to the plot as her romance–her new friends at the carnival, her relationship with her blood family, etc. It’s a story about a girl finding her place in the world, which includes a girlfriend, rather than the story of a love affair

The prose moves swiftly and held my attention, and the worldbuilding was vividly period and evocatively cultural. Abby is an Italian-American with family from Sicily; other members of the carnival are Polish, Greek, or Jewish (Ruth, one of the book’s other lesbians, is the daughter of a Shoah survivor but you’d only know that from reading “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter”, Sideshow’s short story prequel focusing on how Ruth met her partner Constance.)  Against the colorful backdrop of a traveling carnival, the adventures of Abby and her friends and family show a juxtaposition of strength from hardworking immigrant determination and diversity with  the way those same immigrants suffer under suspicion and paranoia about foreign ideologies (in this case, communism) or being mistaken for “foreign agents.” These are both still very timely themes, so despite feeling tangibly 1950’s, with that strong midcentury aesthetic I mentioned, it feels current and relevant in 2016. Meanwhile, Abby struggles with more personal, intimate concerns like will she ever find a way to make herself useful to the carnival, and how will she fit in with the rest of the carnival’s population?

I can’t tell if the author did this on purpose but the Tragic Queer Trope (an older gay man who shares Abby’s Italianness) in the story is literally a sad clown. I didn’t even realize this until I’d finished reading because his backstory–a partner who had died years ago–didn’t stick out as exceptional in a story with two happy and stable f/f couples, which should be a lesson to anyone wanting to know how to write someone tragic who is queer without having them be a Tragic Queer. But by making the tragic gay man a sad clown, i.e. this exaggerated parody of human suffering, she points out–probably unintentionally, but who cares, nobody’s grading these reviews–that when cis/het people are writing our stories sometimes they make us suffer in such exaggerated ways that we might as well be the Sad Clown figure, with frowns literally painted on by external forces. Speaking of queer politics, I loved the part where Abby defends her strong-woman love interest’s right to use her stage name instead of whatever she was born with; Abby says “if she wants me to call her something else she can tell me herself” and then the writer never actually tells us, or Abby, what that name was, which is a good lesson for everyone, not just weightlifters. Hint hint.

The one part where Stilgenbauer lost me was on the resolution of a villain’s arc. I’m a bit confused why someone would go through all that trouble and then give up, especially in the way she depicted. This person didn’t seem to be the type who would be capable of a change of heart, at least not for the reasons presented. But the book is about so much more than this one specific plot thread that for me it was easily overlooked.

Read this story if you’re big on found families that include a lot of queer people and people from immigrant background sticking together, or if you like stories where the Everygirl gets to be part of the Thing after worrying that she’s not good enough–this is the kind of environment where being lackluster is unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean you get thrown out on your ear, it means they will find your luster and bring it out of you, by hook or by crook.

Korri reviews Sister Mischief by Laura Goode


Sister Mischief is a coming of age young adult novel about a group of friends who form the titular hip hop group in the predominantly white suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. It’s narrated by wordsmith Esme, whose footnotes scattered throughout the book reveal the contents of text messages, lyrics scribbled in her notebook, and drop backstory in the form of memories the group shares on each other’s Facebook walls. The narrative is punctuated by earnest conversations during car drives where the girls weigh in on misogyny and racism in lyrics, if it is cultural appropriation for white girls in the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities to love hip hop music, and if it is possible to reclaim the word bitch in rap music.

Each of the friends grapple with their identities and relationships over the course of the book: Esme is Jewish but without her mother around she doesn’t know what that means. She is out to her friends and when she finds herself falling for Rowie she is uncomfortable keeping their relationship under wraps. Tessa tries to balance her religious faith against the hypocritical and mean “Christians” she knows from church while Rowie, who usually likes boys, struggles with her feelings for Esme and the pressure from her Bengali family. Marce, who doesn’t understand why her best friend Esme never spends time with her any more, lets the slurs she receives because of the androgynous/masculine-of-center way she presents roll off her back. The four girls are bound together by their love of listening to, writing, and performing hip hop music.

The new Holyhill High School code of conduct bans rap music and “any apparel associated with this violence-producing culture,” which spurs the girls to form a queer-friendly group to discuss hip hop in an academic setting: 4H (Hip Hop for Heteros and Homos). The administration is not pleased with the idea. Shortly thereafter Esme and Rowie kiss while high in kiss in Rowie’s tree house. Before long the nights get darker earlier and Esme is sneaking over every night to make love to Rowie in the tree house. Rowie wants to keep their relationship quiet because the hetero/homo hip hop alliance has people questioning. When Esme says that that is exactly what the group is meant to do, Rowie points out that their classmates are less interested in lyrics and social attitudes than speculating about members’ sexual identities. Esme and Rowie’s relationship is revealed around the same time a 4H meeting is firebombed, leaving the future of each uncertain.

The author Laura Goode introduces readers to an engaging voice in Esme. She reminds me of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s witty and ambitious Alexander Hamilton: Esme writes like she’s running out of time. In her own words, she is “becoming the author of my own chaos” and she feels “like there’s so much work to do, so much time and so little all the same…. Time to create and re-create myself and everything I create.” I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed my time with the close-knit cast of characters.


Megan Casey reviews Femme Noir by Clara Nipper

femme noir

I read Nipper’s latest book, Murder on the Rocks, before I read this one. That was a mistake, because the two books are so different in quality. In fact, I began Femme Noir thinking that it would be really bad. It is not, although the two books have several elements in common. First, both take place in good old Tulsa, Oklahoma, although Nora Delaney, the main character in Femme Noir is a visitor while Jill Rogers (from Murder on the Rocks) has lived there all her life. Second, both are butchy. Third, both like to play with fire (oh oh; have I just uncovered some symbolism? I wouldn’t be surprised)—Nora has a habit of lighting wooden matches with her thumbnail while Jill snaps a ubiquitous Zippo lighter open and closed throughout her adventure. And both think about sex approximately 40 hours every single day. Both are minorities: Nora is African-American; Jill is Native-American.

Well, the good news is that Femme Noir,is better than Murder on the Rocks, although to actually call it noir you have to alter the word’s definition. It is more in the tradition of books like Jaye Maiman’s I Left My Heart, where the protagonist is called to another city when an ex-lover is murdered. In this case, it is a woman that Nora lived with for three years in Los Angeles before the woman moved to Tulsa. In the course of Nora’s investigation—the police are rarely, if ever, mentioned—she finds out a lot about her ex-lover that she didn’t know.

She also learns about the 1921 Tulsa race riot—which was one of the worst in United States history—in which the most affluent black community in America was burned to the ground, dozens were killed, and hundreds arrested. As Nora’s research continues, she finds reason to believe that her ex-lover’s murder is directly related to that fateful event almost a century earlier. It is an important inclusion, but it is not the only thing that brings this book up above the ordinary. Many of the scenes that include people she meets in Tulsa are fresh and humorous; a scene in an alternative bookstore featuring a lesbian on roller skates is one of the funniest in the literature. And the second half of the book is just plain well written. There is no trace of the unfocused author of Murder on the rocks.

It is not all good, though. Otherwise it would have won prizes, right? It was enough for Nora to look into the Tulsa race riot without having her new white friend Jack go into a tearful, drunken tizzy when he even thinks about it. And Nipper has a bad habit of having her protagonist drop everything to go into an almost pornographic fantasy about Max—her current love interest—although I have to admit that the last time she does this is a hoot. The rest are superfluous and boring. Think about it: reading about sex is not as exciting as actually having it, but reading about someone thinking about sex is another layer removed from the real thing.

There is something about this author that intrigues me. On a personal level, I like the fact that she works for the safety of animals, that she is a roller derby queen, that she feels it is important to let her readers know about the Tulsa race riot—which had been hidden from public knowledge for 90 years—and that writing is the most important thing in her life. I think it is interesting that Nipper—who some might describe as a voluptuous blonde if her pictures do her justice—makes her protagonists minorities. It is even more interesting that the love interests of the both protagonists—Max and Sophie—are not only almost interchangeable, but they are described as voluptuous blondes.

Give this one anywhere between a 3 and a 4 that you wish. I’ll say 3.7. Both of these Noir Series books are currently available as e-books at a very reasonable price.

For 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Rachel reviews The Witch of Stalingrad by Justine Saracen


witch of stalingrad

Justine Saracen has written many historical novels featuring homosexual and transsexual protagonists. The Witch of Stalingrad is a lesbian adventure/romance novel set in the last years of World War II.

It’s 1941, and the Russians are trying to push back the German soldiers from their country. Marina Raskova, a respected pilot, starts three different aviation units that include women. The most famous is the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, where the pilots dropped bombs on German positions on the Eastern Front every night. The Germans referred to these female pilots as Nachthexen, or “Night Witches”. Throughout the war, the night bombers remained an all-female unit, including the navigators and mechanics.

In the novel, Lilya Drachenko joins the night bombers to protect her homeland, going on countless missions and later transferring into a fighter regiment, becoming one of her country’s most revered pilots. Meanwhile, Alex Preston, an American photojournalist, is sent to photograph the night witches for her newspaper. Initially naïve about the pilots and the realities of war, she travels to Russia and meets Lilya, along with many others she soon comes to consider family. It is love at first sight for Alex and Lilya, but they both know they have to keep their feelings secret. Later, they are separated by their different obligations, and as the war draws closer to its climactic end, Lilya and Alex find themselves in all sorts of hardships with only their love for each other to keep them strong. If they survive the war, will they see each other again?

The Witch of Stalingrad is one of the best lesbian historical novels I’ve read. Justine Saracen obviously did her research into the events on the Eastern Front. Alex and Lilya’s adventures aren’t centered entirely on the night bombers, which Saracen more than excelled at portraying. The novel also includes the conditions of POW camps, citizens who were affected by Stalin’s purges that left thousands dead, and the camaraderie between strangers in terrifying situations. One example is when Alex met a group of medics who literally ran across a frozen river to the frontlines and carried any wounded they could save back with them for medical treatment. In the night bomber regiment, the pilots and navigators had to fly in poorly equipped U-2’s to their targets while their mechanics worked around the clock repairing planes and re-arming them. One of my favorite characters was Inna, Lilya’s loyal mechanic, who would always have the plane ready to fly on another mission just minutes after Lilya’s landing. It was humbling to read about how these men and women sacrificed so much for each other, and the ordeals they experienced were heart-breaking.

Another highlight of the novel is the historical figures Justine Saracen put into her story. Lilya’s character was actually based off of a real combat pilot, Lilya Litviak. Marina Raskova, Stalin, and Eisenhower also made appearances. This gave the story a more authentic feel.

This novel is more of an adventure than a love story, so throughout most of the book Lilya and Alex are in different places. When they are together though, the tenderness between them is real, and it’s clear they respect each other. Even though Lilya and Alex have different political views, they get past their disagreements. And both of them are willing to move mountains to protect each other.

One aspect of The Witch of Stalingrad that confused me was the narrative. In the beginning of the book, the story switches equally between Lilya and Alex; then suddenly the middle of the story is told only from Alex’s point of view, dropping Lilya’s. It was disappointing, because I would have liked to read Lilya’s stories in her perspective rather than hear second-hand. Lilya’s voice rejoins Alex’s in the last third of the novel, but I still found it strange that the narrative shifted the way they did. It was also hard to keep track of events because dates weren’t always clear.

But other than those reservations about The Witch of Stalingrad, I thought the story was fantastic. This novel isn’t only for fans of lesbian fiction, but anyone who has an interest in women’s roles during World War II.


Lauren reviews The Island and the Kite by Aurora Zahni

the island and the kite

In The Island and the Kite, Mary Susan Bennett ventures to New York City for a day of movie-watching and dilly-dally. Mary Susan’s likeable personality is instantly welcoming to readers. She is the type of 19-year-old that never meets a stranger. She has an amazing ability to strike genuine rapport with whoever crosses her path. While in the city, Mary Susan runs into her serial ex-girlfriend, Stefi Angel Brown, who wants her back and seems sincere in her desire.

On this day, however, Mary Susan is met with delight and danger. There is a serial killer on the loose, and Mary Susan is stranded and alone. She fills the time through leisurely conversations, by consuming sweets, and performing good deeds— until the night takes a turn for the worse. Mary Susan meets evil, as the psychic Madame Kizzy has predicted. Despite her tussles with three vigilantes and a pair of murders, Mary Susan escapes wholly unharmed.

There were moments during the read that tested my suspension of belief— often to the point that I couldn’t balance fiction with logic. In these moments, I felt that Zahni stretched the plausibility of his plot. For example, the happenstance meeting and re-meeting of characters, along with the supernatural occurrences that slipped into the story just as Mary Susan was on the brink of injury. These moments felt like easy solutions to keep Mary Susan safe and alive rather than a rich opportunity to allow Mary Susan to meet the consequences of her choices and actions, essentially following through on the conflict.

Zahni divided The Island and the Kite into two parts. Stefi makes quick appearances throughout Book One. In Book Two, however, Zahni dives into Stefi’s world, weaving in a storyline that is much easier to digest. Stefi is a talented basketball player who has burned Mary Susan one too many times. But, Zahni presses rewind to give insight into the people and events that pull Stefi’s heart back to Mary Susan.

The Island and the Kite is a novella for readers who desire romance and mystery fused with quirky stories and quick tempos.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

Aoife reviews Of White Snakes and Misshapen Owls by Debra Hyde

of white snakes and misshaped owls

Miss Charlotte Olmes is the classic turn of the century ‘woman detective’ – clever, enlightened, and progressive, with a penchant for cross-dressing. She lives with her companion and partner Joanna Wilson, who appears slightly more respectable – but I mean, they’re a live-in lesbian couple in 1880s New York, so respectability is somewhat relative here.

After a morning spent instructing a society lady and her maids in parasol self defence, Charlotte and Joanna’s services are engaged by the lovely Miss Tam, whose employer has gone missing. Their investigation takes the reader on a rather enjoyable tour of period New York, complete with violent street gangs and Chinese/Irish racial politics. It’s evident that Hyde did some research on her setting; I particularly liked the ladies’ trip to the morgue and police station.

White Snakes is the first novella in the Charlotte Olmes series. At 73 pages, it’s short and sweet; a quick, light read. Hyde’s writing is fun and fairly well crafted, and her language did an excellent job of conveying place – although, while I appreciated the inclusion of appropriate slang, it did lessen my engagement because I had absolutely no idea what it meant.

I didn’t enjoy it so much as a mystery; while the majority of the ‘clues’ were laid out for the reader, the necessary context was not quite so clear, which left me kind of detached from the mystery storyline – in my mind, the best kind of mystery is where the reader can guess the killer or the criminal or whatever, but only if they read carefully/cleverly. While I can kind of see the enjoyment of only being ‘along for the ride’ – as if you were Hastings in an Agatha Christie, perhaps – it just doesn’t do it for me. It was written with split perspectives between the killer and Joanna, which was fine; I personally would have preferred it to be all Charlotte and Joanna all the time, partially because it’s so short, but it did work, and I did enjoy a couple of the not-ladies scenes.

I loved the dynamic of Charlotte and Joanna’s relationship – it rather reminded me of the Amelia Peabody series, just with wlw and BDSM. They were sweet together, with a good working relationship, and great chemistry. I really liked that Joanna was the narrator; Hyde did a really excellent job of establishing them as equals. It would have been very easy to write them as one fully dominant and one fully submissive, but despite the shortness of the book, Hyde neatly sidesteps that cliché and, in doing so, created much more three-dimensional characters. I wasn’t super into the whole language of exoticism and orientalism that accompanied the Chinese characters, an unfortunate and fairly common convention in period mysteries; it wasn’t the worst, but it did detract from my overall enjoyment. Ditto with the pity-attitude towards sex workers – obviously historically women haven’t always had a lot of choice with regards to this, but that doesn’t need to translate to a disrespect of sex work.

I’d love to see it fleshed out into a full book. I wanted to spend more time with Charlotte and Joanna – particularly in the space where they’re just Charlotte-and-Joanna, not Lady-Detective-Charlotte-and-Companion-Joanna or Charlotte-and-Joanna-having-hot-sex. Those sides of their relationship are both well done, but I’d liked to have seen equal time between the three to fully explore all the versions of themselves that they are with each other.

Overall; fun and too short. I’ll probably read the other books in the series if I can get my hands on them, and I’d like to check out some of Hyde’s longer works. According to the bio in my edition, ‘all of her work is available in ebook, and her short story backlist is about to be republished in a mini-anthology format with Sizzler Editions’. So if you read and enjoy this, you might want to check that out!

Trigger warnings for descriptions of violence and a (not very graphic) murder.

This and other reviews by Aoife can also be found at https://concessioncard.wordpress.com/.