Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Danika reviews Our Teachers are Dating! Vol. 1 by Pikachi Ohi

Our Teachers are Dating! Vol. 1 cover

I’ve been on a bit of a manga kick lately, especially lesbian manga. (See my post Lesbian Manga and Yuri Manga: What’s the Difference and Where Should You Start? for more.) My latest favourite has been How Do We Relationship?, and I’m always looking for more yuri manga with adult main characters. Unfortunately, Our Teachers are Dating! was a miss for me.

This series takes place in a sort of weird alternate universe of intense yuri fans. Hayama and Terano are two teachers who have just started dating, but they act just as awkward and shy as schoolgirls on their first dates. Their coworkers ship them–in fact, Bandou (one of the other female teachers) specifically applied to be at this all-girls school to cheer on yuri couples. She spies on them. It’s creepy. Their principal is also supportive, which is nice in the sense that she’s not homophobic, but is weird that no one even mentions the complications of two coworkers dating. In fact, they’re encouraged to go on a date at school??

I should mention at this point that I was a teacher very recently (I completed training about a year and a half ago, was a substitute teacher, and then had my first class end a few months ago). So it’s likely that this affected me more than the average reader, but I was completely taken out of the story by how unprofessional and even unethical they were acting. The dating at school was already weird–talking about your dating life with students is definitely beginning to cross a line. But that wasn’t the end of it! Hayamo confides in her students that she hasn’t said I love you yet (after a month??), but she has said “I’m attracted to you.” This is already way past what you should disclose to your students, but then her students convince her to practice saying it to photos of Terano on their phones. Another teacher walks in on what looks like her confessing her love to student, which is supposed to be a comedic moment, but it completely pulled me out of the story. Again, I know a teacher is likely not the intended audience here.

Even without that weirdness, I wasn’t into this story. It’s cute, but there are a lot of issues holding it back. It was originally published in a magazine format, and it feels disjointed. It also feels… I’m not sure the best way to say this, but it feels a bit indulgent, almost like fanservice. They are both blushing and cutesy, and there are so many closeups of kissing. There is a sex scene, but more than that are just a lot of panels of tongues. I’m all for sexy yuri, in fact, one of the things I liked about How Do We Relationship? was the frank sexual content, but it didn’t work for me here. It didn’t feel like a natural part of the story as much as suddenly zooming in on kissing over and over. There’s also a scene where Terano is admonished for always asking before touching or kissing Hayama and told basically that it makes her seem less enthusiastic, which I didn’t like.

I’m going to keep looking for yuri/lesbian manga with adult characters, but I was disappointed by this one.

Bee reviews Die For Me by Luke Jennings

Killing Eve: Die For Me by Luke Jennings

SPOILER WARNING

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, transphobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee reviews Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

I have never been so confused as I was while reading Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I felt exceedingly silly, like I was missing a trick (or several) about the impenetrable prose and the seemingly nonsensical character behaviour. I was expecting to be wowed, amazed, startlingly impressed by it as a work of literature. Jeanette Winterson promises, “Reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.”

I am not pearl-lined. I do not feel enlightened or changed in any way, except for the dip in my self-esteem that this book brought about. But I survived it. I may still be wondering what the heck? But I survived.

Nightwood is a lesbian fiction classic from 1936, and is set in the 20s. It weaves in and out of the lives of a group of Europeans and Americans as they navigate love in a dazzling, slightly seedy underworld in Paris. For me, the focus of the book was a woman named Robin, who is first married by a Baron, with whom she has a child. She then leaves both husband and son to wander the globe, ending up in America. In New York, she meets a woman named Nora Flood, and begins an affair with her. Robin can’t seem to still her restlessness, however; even though she and Nora return to Paris, she eventually leaves Nora for a woman named Jenny. Nora reveals that this is not the first time that Robin has strayed from her, and that loving Robin causes her great pain due to Robin’s mercurial nature.

I’m a little astounded that I understood any of this at all. Most of the book is written in lengthy soliloquies, delivered mostly by the doctor Matthew O’Connor, who secretly dresses in women’s clothes and also acts as a general confidante to all parties involved. I found myself thinking that it would be more suited to performance than to a novel. The language is often poetic, and I could appreciate it from a stylistic standpoint, but I found it difficult to access the meaning a lot of the time.

That isn’t to say that I wasn’t interested. I did become invested in Robin and Nora’s relationship, which was messy and layered and confronting. I did feel that their love was infantilised at times – Robin is said to play with toys frequently, and also gifted Nora a doll which becomes emblematic of a child within their relationship. The complexity of their relationship and how it was portrayed was an enjoyable part of the book: it is largely what compelled me to keep reading. The second to last chapter, in which Dr Matthew visits a distraught Nora and they discuss her relationship with Robin, was engaging and heart-wrenching. The problem is, I could have done without much of the commentary from the doctor.

I have done some reading around responses to the book, trying to figure out what it is that I’m missing, and they often speak of the book’s humour – something I didn’t get any of at all. I think the mystique around this book – which has been called “one of the great books of the twentieth century” by William S. Burroughs – established my expectations. I was sure that I was going to find Nightwood incredibly profound and altering. I think it was this expectation that left me feeling so inadequate as I finished. I’m sure that I’m missing something, that I lack the language and the smarts to truly understand this book.

Maybe it’s not just me. As I took my initial complaints to Instagram, Danika consoled me by suggesting that its impenetrability was what allowed the lesbian content to fly under the radar. It did make me feel a little better: at least I understood that much. In the back of my edition, there is an extract from a letter by Frank Morely to Geoffrey Faber of Faber & Faber Publishers. In it, he remarks, “the point is that there is no reporting of lesbianism, no details; the conflict is one of souls, not bodies, and if for censors’ sake there have to be any individual words cut out; the work itself wouldn’t much suffer.” It’s almost comforting to know that a book with pretty obvious lesbianism had its champions through publication, enough that they were trying to figure out how to keep the book as intact as possible.

I think as well that there are certain expectations that queer people have for so-called queer classics. We want to see ourselves, to feel a connection to the ghosts of our identities past, to hold that tangible proof that we have always existed. As such, it seems doubly disappointing when a book doesn’t live up to that image which we create. It is also hard to deal with that the book is obviously of its time: there are fleeting moments of racism, and some glaring antisemitism, both of which make it impossible to empathise with any of the characters.

The root of my struggle with Nightwood is that it felt exclusionary. I am used to lesbian fiction which invites its readers to engage and enjoy, to understand and to feel seen. It is hard to feel any of that with a book that seems to set out to distance the reader from the content. What could have been an entertaining romp through Europe, a heartbreaking portrait of a love in crisis, a farce filled with offbeat and quirky characters, turned into something isolating and stressful for me. I can usually see why a classic is a classic, but in this case, I am feeling excluded from engaging with the literary canon. It will stay with me, like Jeanette Winterson promised, but not in the way she meant.

Sash S. reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

“The Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left.”

Body horror. Boarding school. Queer girls.

Wilder Girls promises a lot of cool things. Marketed as ‘a feminist Lord of the Flies’, one expects a grimdark pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, mixed with comfortingly familiar tropes of YA romance and maybe some creep-factor akin to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Erin Bowman’s Contagion.

Instead what happens is a mix of half-executed ideas that drift away from their potential, fizzling out and sadly getting lost.

Our story starts at the Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school on an island which is under quarantine due to a virus. The ‘Tox’ is deadly to some and not to others. Some are irreparably transformed, some cough up blood, some are taken to the infirmary and never seen again. This set-up is really cool and raises a lot of questions: What was this place like before? Why are the effects of the virus so wildly different? Who are all these teenage girls and how are they coping?

Unfortunately the backstory is never fully explained. Instead we get a feel for the loose structure of things on the island, just barely held together by the Headmistress, one other surviving teacher and the hope of an eventual cure. There’s routines of sorts and a strained peace between the different cliques of girls, dynamics that could have been compelling had the author spent just a little more time fleshing them out. Our main trio are a bundle of intense ride-or-die friendship and simmering romantic feelings, until two of them have an argument and the third goes missing.

And that’s where it all falls apart, as the novel phases out many of the things which initially made it interesting.

The main character’s internal monologue is full of stumbling, halted sentences and half-finished thoughts, a style that meshes well with some readers but may not for others. Her decisions, frustratingly, don’t always make sense. We don’t get much character development from her in the first instance and she comes across as fairly flat without an engaging narrative voice. The breaking of the trio emphasises this lack of development further; we don’t get much time to see them bouncing off one another, or invest in their relationship. As the story moves away from the school setting, we see less of the background girls who seemed so full of potential.

In short, things just… happen, without a lot of payoff.

The body horror is excellently written and one of my favourite parts of the book. There are gloriously creepy descriptions of transformed girls and strange things in the woods. There’s tension around the island and in the cliques, all built up as a ticking time bomb of female teenage fury waiting to explode into the second half of the novel. Sadly, the mystery falls flat. The author drops tantalising hints at the world outside of the Tox, but fails to deliver. The lack of resolution is disappointing, though the ending does leave room for a sequel, so maybe that itch for world-building will be scratched in the future.

There is also a secondary plot written from a different point of view which hints at hidden depths to a particular character, but again, lacking in payoff.

There’s romance, too, but it’s not the focal point of the novel. Our leads are unapologetically queer – “Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree” – and directly address this in one of the most powerful lines in the novel. It’s great and so, so necessary to see a fiercely, unapologetically queer teenage girl in YA fiction and I fully appreciate that about Wilder Girls.

However, the romance builds, comes to fruition, clatters to a halt and subsequently isn’t mentioned again. It’s almost treated as an afterthought. The true feeling of love comes from the main character and her missing best friend, which is touching, but if you were expecting an explicit queer romance set against the backdrop of a horror story, you’re out of luck.

Wilder Girls seems to have a mixture of reviews on the extremes of those who either love it or hate it, so it’s worth checking out just to see for yourself. There are good bits, namely in the body horror and setting and raw potential, but it’s hard not to be disappointed, as as it’s certainly not the modern Lord of the Flies that was promised.

Rating: **

Megan Casey reviews Fighting for Air by Marsha Mildon

Fighting for Air by Marsha Mildon cover

This book is a prime example of why ebook samples should be longer. If Fighting for Air had been available as an ebook when I read it, I would have given up after the ten-percent sample that Amazon offers. At the time, however, there was no ebook—New Victoria came out with one in 2016—21 years after its paperback publication and several years after I read it. So I persevered and was rewarded. Am I rich because of it? No. But I gained something I didn’t have before.

Calliope Meredith is a private detective and former scuba diving enthusiast living in a coastal town in Canada. When she is invited to participate in a dive off Anemone Island, she is at first reluctant because her lover was killed in a diving accident only a year previously. But she is persuaded by her good friend Jay, who is running a diving certification class and wants Cal to help her out. Then the unthinkable happens: one of the students drowns and Jay is arrested for homicide-by-negligence. Unless Cal can prove that the diver, an Ethiopian graduate student named Tekla, has been murdered—and figure out who murdered him—Jay might be sent to jail for life, just as Cal is falling in love with her.

Mildon’s cast of characters is a rich one, with beautiful lesbians a-plenty: Cal, her best friend Danielle, Danielle’s lover Sally, and the likable old Faith, who keeps an eye out for all of them when she can. But many characters makes for many suspects, and one of Cal’s friends may be a murderer.

As mysteries go, this one is better than most, but you may have to do some research into scuba diving for it to ring true. I did, and I learned a lot about how poisonous carbon monoxide can find its way into scuba tanks. In fact, the whole diving motif was extremely well done—accurate and interesting. The author also goes into the theme of activism vis a vis third world countries. It seems that Tekla was a relation of the deposed emperor Heile Selassie, and harbored the grandiose  scheme of returning to his country and taking over power from the military. The history of Ethiopia’s aggression toward the neighboring state of Eritera is also gone into in some detail.

Cal is not a particularly noticeable character. She plods from one suspect to another determined to exonerate her lover even after Jay gives up and resigns herself to prison life. Cal’s status as a P.I. is stated but not gone into with enough detail for us to really believe it. These are a couple of minor but important detractions. A more significant flaw is in Cal’s relationship with Jay. Quite simply, it isn’t written very well. Cal’s previous friendship with Jay is told in asides and occasional flashbacks, not as part of the story line, so it seems very abrupt when Cal touches Jay’s shoulder comfortingly and shudders with sexual feeling. The flashbacks explain after the fact. And because Jay has heretofore been straight, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of foreplay.

Despite the flaws and the non-flaws, give this book an average rating. 2.5. You’ll learn some important things, but you’re not likely to be very engrossed in the story.

Note: I read the first New Victoria printing of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Mars Reviews Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Stray: Memoir of a Runaway by Tanya Marquardt

Content warning for child abuse, alcoholism, incest, domestic violence, dissociation. 

This review does contain spoilers.

Tanya Marquardt was sixteen years old when she ran away from the home she shared with her mother, stepfather, and assorted siblings in the small Canadian town of Port Alberni. Her flight was strategic, timed right for when Tanya became of age and would no longer be legally bound to her parents’ whims. Her departure began an alcohol-fueled odyssey to manage high school, homelessness, and attempts to process the trauma of a childhood riddled with emotionally manipulative parents and domestic abuse. As young Tanya spirals out, crashing on couches and beds by cashing in on the sympathy of friends, the one constant in her life is a deep love of Shakespeare, and it is that thread that leads her out of the fray and on to calmer waters in her life.

This book is chiefly the honest account of the author’s life detailing a young girl’s family dysfunction and subsequent spiraling out. By fifteen, Tanya was already an alcoholic, and readers will be hard-pressed to find a scene in which she is not chain-smoking. Her unresolved trauma and rebellion against the authoritarian antagonist figure in her life, her mother, eventually leads her to just outside Vancouver, where she says she is living with her formerly abusive alcoholic father but is actually with friends exploring the big city and its underground goth and kink scenes. In these places, she finally finds a home and a tribe to call her own, and through the act of performing and belonging, she finally finds a way back to herself.

I admit that I had a hard time reading this memoir in a number of ways. As an adult, it was hard reading about the struggles young Tanya faced and the many moments where the adults in her life let her down. It was additionally challenging because as a reader, it was hard to know how to feel about the adult figures in Tanya’s life. With young Tanya, in one breath readers experience the psychological warfare her parents commit using her and her siblings as pawns for their own selfish campaigns, and in the other, adult author Tanya chimes in with a throwaway comment about how she loves her family. The result is just one out of a few cases of whiplash, as this story reads more like a history (which, to be fair, this is a memoir) rather than a clearly delineated narrative. It makes for a confusing and sometimes meandering read.

Of particular note for our readers is that while the author self-identifies as a queer performer and playwright today, aside from a passing interest in a female friend at a high school party and mentions of bisexual friends engaging in a few same-sex relationships, all romantic interests and sexual identities explored in this book are presented as heterosexual and cisgender.

Gail Marlene Schwartz reviews Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

“Everyone was in a state of confusion because the president was insane.”

Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry is longtime lesbian author Sarah Schulman’s second dive into the crime fiction genre (her first was The Sophie Horowitz Story). The novel explores the life of an addict, post-rehab, set against the backdrop of the Trump administration and a gentrifying New York City. While the book offers readers an interesting and heartbreaking look into the mind and soul of someone struggling with addiction, the premise of the mystery is weak, the effort to incorporate contemporary issues falls short, and the craftsmanship isn’t strong enough to hook the reader, making it a difficult and less engaging read than I had hoped for.

Schulman begins with several paragraphs about the U.S. under the new Trump administration. This sets the reader up with the assumption that national politics will play a major role in the book, which they don’t. Schulman tells us that “…(Maggie’s) private deterioration mirrored that of her society.” I found this and other passages like it general and vague, with little connection that enlightened the reader about either the protagonist or the national crisis.

After the text about Trump, we soon learn that Maggie is just one day out of rehab, stunned and confused about who she is and how to relate to the world. We discover she has split up with her girlfriend, Frances, and in the process of her deterioration lost the right to see her daughter, Alina; Maggie’s primary motivation is to get her daughter back (“at least visitation”).

Maggie’s former criminology teacher, Mike Fitzgerald, gives her a job at a law firm as a private investigator.  We soon learn that something went deeply wrong in her career as a police officer before she got sober: “It could not have gone worse in the end…It did destroy her life…Now Mike was giving her a second, second chance, this time at surviving.” Later on we learn what had happened and how Maggie’s using contributed to her part in the tragedy.

On Maggie’s first day on the job, a new client, the famous actress Lucy Horne, comes in asking the firm to investigate the murder of bit part actress Jaime Wagner, whom Horne thinks was killed by Wagner’s ex, a stalker. Why is Horne so interested in Mike’s firm and making this problem go away? Because she has a contract with Disney and needs to steer clear of anything remotely shady.

If you can accept this strange premise and focus on Maggie’s journey, you’ll learn a lot about addiction and the mind and heart of an addict. Maggie’s character is a big strength of the book.

At Schulman’s best, she finds gritty details from Maggie’s life in New York that say a lot. About the city’s subway: “She could walk down those scum-and-gum-encrusted stairs…hang onto slimy poles, smash into clueless tourists…sit face front into some man’s crotch.”  “…men handling their own genitals like they were tough tomatoes in fragile skins.” “The smell of her daughter’s waxy ear as she gently cleaned it with a Q-tip.”

Schulman also captures the inner dialogue of a recovering addict well: slogans and values of 12-step programs, defensiveness, blame, and self-centeredness. For example, When Mike introduces Maggie to her new co-workers, he says proudly that “Enid raised four children before acing law school.” Maggie immediately compares this to her own situation: “Maggie felt the truth of her own failure. She’d lost one to custody.”

Another way Schulman shows the effects of Maggie’s addiction is how she organizes the world into good and bad people and how she is victimized: “Everyone else walked down the street thinking of themselves as pure and clean. They had it together because they were better, and the job of people who are better is to point out the ones who are worse and punish them. All of society seemed to be organized like that. Whoever could, would punish. It was linked to opportunity. Like the judge who took away her child, who ruled no visitation. He was fine with treating her so badly, then when he went home, no matter how much pain he had caused, he was better than someone. He was better than her.”

But Schulman also made Maggie complex. For example, she’s skillful in reading group dynamics. At her new job, Enid is “…the group’s emotional moderator…”, “One of those tough old ladies who never said ‘good job’ until she meant it, and Mike desperately needed a bullshit detector.”

Maggie also has a great sense of humor: “’Hi, it’s Maggie Terry. I’m here for my first day.’ Overshare.” “Mike may have been Teflon, but his beleaguered staff was certainly scratched.” When she’s being introduced to Craig, her co-investigator: “Craig looked up and smiled…once the smile was completed, Craig went back to his device, so when Maggie reached out her hand and said hi, he missed it and left her arm suspended in optimistic traction.”

Schulman structures the story of the mystery around the issue of police violence and racism, with the details of the mystery falling flat. White, blonde-haired Maggie was complicit in a police shooting, and she’s clearly in the role of someone with privilege. Although at the very end of the book she makes a shift toward responsibility, there’s no obvious arc to Maggie’s change. Because I’m not attached to Maggie nor is the setup for the assignment compelling, I wasn’t drawn in to the investigation, either as an illumination of social issues or as simply an engaging mystery.

Also, the language in the novel frequently tells when showing would be more powerful. As a reader, I never felt the thrill of being smack dab in the middle of the action and emotion, on the ground and with the characters. Examples:

“There was a weird vulnerability that came from being afraid of everyone, having contempt for them, and trying to help them while also controlling them and wanting their love.”

“Like most of the places that hosted meetings, Saint Veronica’s was old-fashioned, uncool, and a bit decrepit.”

“Lucy had good skin, an expensive body, and healthy hair.”

“When Maggie’s mother killed herself, the housekeeper made her put on her prettiest dress for the funeral, and everyone told her how beautiful she looked. What a stupid thing to say to a little girl whose mother had left her behind.” What could have been a moment to hook the reader into a very traumatic piece of Maggie’s past is lost because it’s told too directly.

Throughout the book, until the very end, Maggie also stays stuck in her blaming position towards her ex. Since we don’t actually meet Frances, or Alina, this soon becomes repetitive and stagnant for the reader. Instead of empathy, I often felt frustrated and wanting some kind of change and improvement in Maggie’s situation.

If you’re looking for an action-packed exciting crime novel, Maggie Terry is likely to leave you unsatisfied. If you enjoy well-crafted books of literary fiction with interesting relationships, in which characters move, change, and affect one another, I would skip this one. But if you’re curious to learn more about the experience of addiction and what it’s like for a smart but troubled lesbian to return to a harsh and chaotic world after rehab, check out Maggie Terry.

Gail Marlene Schwartz is an Abba fan, a Planet Earth activist, and the first in her family to heal anxiety through diet, exercise, and Facebook rants. Favorite lit mag credits: Lilith Magazine, The New Quarterly, Room Magazine. Favorite anthologies she’s been published in: Swelling with Pride (Caitlyn Press), Nature’s Healing Spirit (Sowing Creek Press), and How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions). Gail lives in southern Quebec where she and her wife homeschool their son. She is currently working on her first novel. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.

 

Megan G reviews Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore

Until You See Me by Roberta Degnore cover

In a Los Angeles train station, a body is found in the trunk of Mrs. Pearl Tild. A body so disfigured, the police cannot even identify its gender. Months earlier, Pearl Tild and her husband Martin are living what seems like wedded bliss. Then, at a dinner party, the mysterious Clare Walsh introduces herself to Pearl as a friend of Martin’s from work. Little does Pearl know that this introduction will irreversibly change the course of not only her marriage, but her entire life.

I’ve struggled with my review for this book almost as much as I struggled with the book itself. The biggest issue I have is the desire to warn about very triggering subject matter within the story, while also not wanting to completely spoil the book for anyone who may want to read it. As a compromise with myself, I have included all the trigger warnings for this book at the end of the review and have done my best to keep the rest of the review spoiler free.

I really wanted to enjoy this book. I’d read positive reviews for it before beginning to read it, and I’m always a sucker for a good murder mystery, especially one that manages to surprise me with some of its twists. This one definitely managed to surprise me, but unfortunately it wasn’t really in a good way.

I found the grammar of the book to be a bit frustrating at times. To be fair to the author, the style invited the use of run-on sentences, but sometimes I couldn’t tell if she was doing it because of the style, or because it was a legitimate mistake. As well, the style itself led to some confusion in terms of where the characters where, and what was happening at any given time. At one point I could have sworn two characters were talking on the phone, and then suddenly they were embracing each other, which was quite jarring. There were several moments that had been thinking, “Wait, what just happened?” and not in a good murder mystery way – more in the “I legitimately feel lost right now” kind of way.

The characters were another thing I found frustration in. This story is largely character driven, with not a lot happening in terms of plot until the very end. I usually adore character driven stories, but that is very dependent on the characters themselves. Here, I didn’t particularly enjoy any of the protagonists of the story (even if, I will admit, I often felt sympathy for the two female protagonists). They all did things I found questionable, all of them used each other in one way or another (some a lot worse than others), and only one character seemed to experience any significant growth throughout the novel. I couldn’t even find it in myself to root for the f/f couple, because both characters acted toward each other in ways that are simply not healthy. Granted, they were the healthiest of all the couples featured in the novel, but I think that says more about how toxic and dysfunctional the other relationships are.

The main thing I enjoyed about the book was the last 50 pages, which I zoomed through and really liked. Unfortunately, I had to slug through about 250 pages of intense internal dialogues and frustrating switches in points of view (for some reason some of Pearl’s sections are told in first person, while the rest of the sections, including some of Pearl’s, are all in third person) to reach those last fifty pages. Even what I liked feels bitter-sweet. And, to top it all off, those wonderful fifty pages ended in a way I never would have expected, and not in a good way. You can look at the trigger warnings below if you’re curious about what happened that turned me off at the end.

I’m sure that there are people who will thoroughly enjoy this book. I’ve read reviews from several of those people. In a way, I almost envy them, because I really, really wanted to like this book. I will say that if you enjoy character driven plots, very morally grey (and some downright evil) characters, and are okay with the triggers listed below, give this book a shot. It might be for you in a way that it wasn’t for me.

Warnings for this book: (MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE WARNINGS) abusive relationships, constant threat of rape, dubious consent, lesbophobia (related to the threat of rape), homophobia, internalized homophobia, mentions of a sexual relationship between an adult woman (over 30) and a 16-year-old girl (justified by the adult woman who shows no remorse in that aspect of the affair), and a dead lesbian (killed in an incredibly cruel and brutal way – off-screen).

Megan Casey reviews Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

Cyanide Wells by Marcia Muller

This book is interesting not so much for the mystery, which is a bit less than so-so, but for the fact that it was penned by Muller, who, along with P.D. James, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, are often considered the first modern women detective novelists. James’ An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) was the first—and likely the best—of these, but only one more Cordelia Gray book followed before James went on to other characters. Muller’s Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) began the long career of P.I. Sharon McCone, who has now appeared in at least 34 novels. Why is this important? Because out of all of the famous women mystery writers we see on the best-seller lists, including Rita Mae Brown, Patricia Cornwell (both of whom identify as lesbian), Janet Evanovich, and J.D. Robb (who do not), Muller is the only one who has written a novel with a lesbian protagonist. And even here she kind of hedges her bets by giving her a male counterpart, who shares the story and comes to the rescue at the end.

The story goes something like this. Carly McGuire, editor of a small-town newspaper, picks up hitchhiker Ardis Coleman, who is on the run from demons in her past. The two fall in love and set up house together. Fourteen years later, Ardis disappears on the same day that her ex-husband shows up looking for her. The husband, Matt Lindstrom, has been tipped off by an anonymous phone call as to where Ardis has been living for so long and he plans to confront her not only for leaving him, but leaving him to be suspected of killing her and disposing of her body. But when Ardis runs away again, he and Carly are forced to team up to find her—before something really happens to her.

Carly McGuire is not a particularly well-drawn lesbian, so you won’t get much of a sense of the LGBT community here. Still, Carly is a strong, acceptably likeable character. Her erstwhile life partner, Ardis, is less so. In fact, her character flip-flops like a jumping bean without a hint as to what makes her do so. A much-needed backstory is hinted at, but never delivered. The mystery is not badly conceived, but it is pretty badly executed. It involves the three-year-old murder or a gay couple who happened to be friends with Carly and Ardis. In fact, if you can believe it, Ardis wins a Pulitzer in journalism for her in-depth reporting of the murder. Meanwhile, the dastardly mayor is threatening Carly and Ardis with all sorts of mean, nasty, ugly things if Ardis doesn’t sell him the property previously owned by the murdered couple—property for which Ardis is the administrator. And property which may harbor a rich vein of gold.

Well, after a great deal of searching and interviewing by Carly and Matt (they have alternate, third-person point-of-view chapters), and two suicides that seem to indicate involvement in the gay couple’s murder, the story seems to peter out in the time-honored fashion of having the killer simply be someone who is insane. The writing is professional, but obviously so. In other words, Muller, who has already written well over 40 novels, has to “research” this one—find out the intricacies of the place, how to be a photographer, and other tidbits. The homework shows. I feel nothing heart-felt here, just surface observations. We know little about even the main characters, such as who their friends are, what they drink, their ages–things that make me suspect that the author didn’t know them either.

I guess the best part of this book—aside from the characters of Carly and Matt—is that the two didn’t get together at the end. But that’s one of those things that, if they had, simply would have taken a full star away from the book’s rating. As it is, the rating doesn’t change. Give it no more than a 2.4 as a mystery, 2.0 as a lesbian mystery. I’d say that if you’re wanting to give Muller a try, start with a Sharon McCone mystery. An early one.

Note: Although this is called the second novel in the Soledad County series, it is the only one in which Carly McGuire is a protagonist. I read the first hardback printing of the Mysterious Press edition of this novel.

Another Note: See my full reviews of over 250 other Lesbian Mystery novels at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries