Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

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Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Danika reviews A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

A Dowry of Blood by S.T. Gibson

You liked me best when I was like an oil painting; perfectly arranged and silent.

A Dowry of Blood is a queer polyamorous reimagining of Dracula’s brides. If you, like me, are already intrigued, I recommend reading this without knowing much more about it, as long as you are aware that it depicts unhealthy and abusive relationships and includes descriptions of gore. This is a meditative look at this relationship, so it’s easy for me to give away more than I mean to–the relationship doesn’t even turn into a polycule until about halfway through. In case you need more convincing, though, I will forge on ahead.

This is a M/F/F/M polycule, and each of the four characters are bisexual (or pansexual). We see this relationship through Constanta’s eyes, who was his first bride. She was dying as a casualty on a battlefield when he came in as her savior, turning her and nursing her back to health. She is overwhelmingly in love with him: “And God, how I adored you. It went beyond love, beyond devotion. I wanted to dash myself against your rocks like a wave, obliterate my old self and see what rose shining and new from the sea foam.” She also kills him within the first pages of the book. The rest of the story backtracks to say how we got there.

I should specify that the name Dracula never appears in the book. Constanta is telling this story to him, explaining what brought her to killing him, and she decides that because he took her name away–renaming her Constanta–she would similarly rob him of his name. It feels silly to talk about a book about vampires being a meditation on an abusive relationship, but it really is. Although this is fantastical, her descriptions of how she–and later, the other “brides”–are treated feels all too realistic.

He is patronizing, possessive, at times adoring or absent or cruel. Constanta learns to walk on eggshells, not speaking asking more than two questions in a row. He wants to be her only source of joy: “Vienna made you irritable as much as it made me blossom. I wouldn’t realize until later that you were irritable precisely because I was in bloom, because there were suddenly so many sources of joy in my life apart from your presence.”

Constanta was a devout Christian before being turned, and she still practices her faith, to his disdain. She also hunts despicable people, those that she believes the world will be better off without. She finds monsters who are untouchable and kills them. He believes this is petty, childish. He studies humans from a scientific distance, believing that they are superior to humans. He mocks her concern with human society. After all, they live for centuries, making each plague or war an inconvenience that they travel to escape from, but nothing to take too seriously.

Vague spoilers:

She is unhappy and confused by his mercurial affection, but she’s still captivated by him and relies on him. Their relationship changes when he manipulates her into accepting new “brides,” seemingly becoming bored with just her company. At first, it’s Magdalena: a commanding, powerful woman with political correspondents around the world. She is resentful of him bringing her into their relationship, but she can’t help but fall for Magdalena herself. At first, this arrangement works: Magdalena and Constanta keep each other company in his absences (often in bed), and he is charmed by Magdalena’s energy. Soon, though, his controlling nature saps her of her vitality, and she is left a shadow of the free, vital woman she once was.

Still, they might have continued this way for centuries more, until he adds Alexi to their mix. Alexi is a young man (“no more than nineteen”) who adds fresh life to their home–but Alexi also challenges him and refuses to accept their limitations, leading to constant stand-offs and tension. Constanta could endure her own pain, but she can’t stand to see Magdalena and Alexi suffer.

Although this is a vampire novel, complete with ample sex scenes and gory scenes, it’s just as much about Constanta reflecting on her relationship with this captivating and abusive person. She begins to see it through a different light, and she doesn’t apologize for her actions. She recognizes that they loved each other, but that they couldn’t live this way, and that all three of them were in danger if they let it continue.

If you want a bisexual polyamorous vampire novel that is also thoughtful and atmospheric, definitely pick up A Dowry of Blood.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Danika reviews Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujllo

When I finished Fat Angie, I felt a bit conflicted about it. I liked the character and thought the language use was interesting, but it was so dark that I felt like I couldn’t find even a glimmer of hope. Despite the many strong elements of the novel–who can resist queer girls kissing to the theme song of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?–I finished it feeling exhausted by the emotional weight of Angie’s life. It felt like there was no area of her life the was spared from cruelty.

So when I picked up the sequel, I was wary. I wanted more from Angie’s story, but I couldn’t handle another storyline that felt so unrelentingly hopeless. I didn’t need her to have a fairy tale ending, but I wanted there to be some element of hope in her story. Luckily, Rebel Girl Revolution delivered that. Angie begins the book much the same as she started the last one. Her next year in high school is not looking much better than her last. Her main tormentor has started dating her best friend, and Angie is not buying her sudden change of character. She is seeing a better therapist, thankfully, and her relationship with her brother is slightly improved, but her mother is still The Worst, and Angie is still lonely and deeply grieving. When she defends herself from a football player attacking her, things go from bad to worse. We do see some of the progress that Angie has made, though, because instead of channeling that into self-loathing, she spontaneously reaches out to an estranged childhood friend, Jamboree, and they go on the road trip that Angie’s sister wanted to take her on.

This was just wanted I wanted from Angie’s story. It’s still difficult, and she is still in a lot of pain. She’s also angry, and she’s questioning a lot about her life, including the relationships she has. Everything is tangled, complicated, and so raw–but it feels worth it. Angie hasn’t given up. She’s gone on trip this with Jamboree, Zeke, and (oops) Darius, and all of them have multilayered relationships with each other. They fight, they mess up, they threaten to abandon each other on the side of the highway, and they have dance parties together.

Some of my favourite things to read about are complex relationships, whether romantic, familial, or friendships. I love stories that can communicate the depth of conflicting emotions you have about a person: the kind of people in your life who you can be the most angry at, but who are your most treasured connections. How toxic relationships can feel, at times, as if they’re the best things in your life, and how that can be the most dangerous part. Or the relationships that can be so much work, but that are nourishing, sustaining. Rebel Girl Revolution wrestles with the complicated connections that every character has with each other, in a way that feels very real.

Not only does Angie develop more connections, she also pushes herself to grow in the ways that matter to her. This trip is partly following her sister’s lead, but it’s also a chance for her to take control of who she wants to be. She throws herself, sometimes with intense fear, into new situations. Sometimes she gets spat back out. But sometimes, she shines. It suggests that there is a future for her, and that there are more options available to her than she imagined.

This isn’t a Disney movie ending. It’s not Angie all better, popular, or becoming prom queen. But it’s her making progress. It’s Angie feeling as if, sometimes, she’s doing okay. If you’re looking for YA that doesn’t shrink away from despair, pick up Fat Angie, for sure. But even if that seems too much for you, I definitely think this is worth the read (and I feel like it could work as a standalone?) I hope to see more from Angie in the future.

Trigger warnings: cutting, suicide ideation, parental abuse, violence, bullying/harassment, grief, PTSD, war flashbacks

Danika reviews The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde

The Brightsiders by Jen Wilde cover

I almost wrote this book off after the first chapter. I’m nearly 30 and not a drinker, so reading about a teenage rock star getting incredibly drunk and then getting into a car accident (her girlfriend–who had also been drinking–was driving), paparazzi then swarming the scene, is not what I would usually gravitate toward. Luckily, I pushed through and found out that this is the moment that catalyzes change in Emmy. The entire book is basically the fallout from this moment.

Emmy is the drummer in the immensely popular teen band The Brightsiders. This means that you do get to be a voyeur to a teen rock star life, but it’s not all parties and accolades. Emmy loves her fans, and she thrives off the energy of playing in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fare well with the endless rumors and hate spread through twitter, tumblr, and gossip magazines. It doesn’t help that 2/3rds of the bands members are queer: Emmy is bisexual and semi-closeted, and Alfie is out as nonbinary. Despite that hate that might circulate in certain corners of the internet, Alfie is a heartthrob that attracts attention from all genders… including, suddenly, Emmy.

Not only is the love interest in The Brightsiders nonbinary–there is a huge queer cast. Emmy’s best friend is black, femme, and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The f/f couple from Queens of Geek also makes a few cameos, which was really fun. There is a focus on found family, especially because Emmy’s parents are abusive. Emmy moved out of their house and into a hotel as soon as she was financially able, but until she is 18, she still feels like they have control over her life. Her entire life they have never stopped drinking and partying, ignoring her, insulting her, and gaslighting her in turns. In her childhood, Alfie’s house was her only escape. Now, with her partying having landed her in the hospital, she worries that she is heading down the same path.

Emmy’s parents unpleasantly pop up several times through the novel, and we get to see how this upbringing would have helped to shape some of the personality traits she struggles with, like people-pleasing. Jessie, the girlfriend who drove drunk, is another unhealthy influence in her life. Her friends and loved ones can clearly see the damage that their relationship takes on Emmy, but she is quick to laugh it off or go along with Jessie’s gaslighting.

Although there is definitely an element of the rock star lifestyle here, there’s a lot of emotional work happening beneath the surface. Emmy is learning to accept and love who she is, and protect herself from the toxic people in her life. There is also such warmth from the queer community that she surrounds herself with: both her friends and her fans show what support, love, and family really is. Like Queens of Geek, I raced through this, and I look forward to her next book!

Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

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

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

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

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

Megan Casey reviews She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren

She Died Twice by Jessica Lauren cover

This is another winner for New Victoria, made even more impressive by the fact that the author was only 25 when she wrote it. On the surface, it tells the story of Emma Kendrick’s childhood friendship with Natalie Mercer, who suddenly disappeared at the age of eight. Over the years, Emma buried the image of Natalie somewhere deep within her. But when Natalie’s body is found, seventeen years later, Emma’s memories begin to return.

The story is told from Emma’s point of view but from two time frames. In the present, Emma is asked by one of Natalie’s old neighbors to look into her death. So, despite her own reservations and that of her best friend Carly, she begins to ask questions. No, this isn’t a thriller in which Emma eventually and stupidly finds herself alone with a killer. Rather, it is a story of loss and love and friendship and abandonment, as Emma loses first her father, then Natalie, then her girlfriend Judy. Even her friend Carly is thinking of changing jobs and moving to a city far away.

But there are also chapters in which Emma has vivid memories of herself and Natalie in the past: in their hidden fort, playing house, talking of the future, just being together in the cold, lonely world. She begins to remember specifics that she had never thought about before—the fact that Natalie once showed up for school with a cast on her arm, her fright at having to leave her home to visit her father after her mother has remarried, the memory of Natalie leaving the school counselor’s office—memories that make her think that Natalie might have been abused.

Although there are lots of lesbians in this one, there is no romance and no sex; the book doesn’t call for it. There are a couple of glitches that I am mentioning only in the hope that Lauren reads this and corrects them in any new editions. First, there is a page in which Emma remembers her grandfather having a serious talk with her when she was 14. In the next paragraph, she tells her mother that her grandfather died when she was 12. A second glitch is just an omission. Emma meets Pat Carroll, an older lesbian that she has admired for years, not only for her work in the women’s movement but for her startlingly good looks. When Carly tells her that Pat has the hots for Lauren, Lauren simply doesn’t respond. My god, she has to at least have some thoughts about that. For the record, although I pegged the villain on page 22, I did not guess the murderer. But that’s okay, Emma didn’t either.

As far as I know, Lauren, who, like Natalie, was abused as a child, managed to calm her inner demons and live a normal life without having to resort again to literature. Give this one as close to 4 stars as you can without going over. It should be on everyone’s to-read list, although maybe not as high on that list as some others.

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

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