Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Elinor Zimmerman reviews Set the Stage by Karis Walsh

When I picked up this book, I wasn’t sure if a romance set in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would really be my thing because I’m not a theater person. But Walsh’s vivid descriptions of Ashland, Oregon, of the festival, and of her lead’s clashing career paths were so charming that I was transported. If you want a nice little romance to escape into, this might be the novel for you.

Emilie is an actor with more than a few career regrets who sees her season with the festival as a chance to finally get back on track professionally. She suffers from stage fright and once abandoned her theater dreams and initial acclaim for her work in order to follow her girlfriend, a fellow actor, on tour. She’s determined not to let anything stand in the way of her ambition again.

Arden is a lifelong Ashland resident, daughter of an actor and a director who left her to be raised by her grandparents while they pursued theater careers all over the world. She works in the local park, just like her late grandfather did. She dates actress who come for the festival and regularly gets her heart broken in the process.

Arden and Emilie are drawn to each other from the moment they meet in the park but agree that they should just be friends. Emilie doesn’t want a distraction and Arden doesn’t need another relationship with an expiration date. Over many months of rehearsals and performances, the two grow closer and closer, cheering each other on in their careers even as those ambitions threaten their bond.

The romance in this burns slow but I appreciated that. A lot of the focus is on their connection as dear friends, Emilie’s struggles to perform when her confidence is low, and Arden reconsidering the life she planned for herself and what her professional aims actually are. It’s engaging and fun.

The only thing I didn’t really like was Emilie’s roommate, a graduate student in psychology, who wants to use Emilie for her studies. While I’d buy an undergrad new to the field blurring personal and professional boundaries, by grad school a psych student should know better than to pressure a new roommate into quasi-therapy sessions for her research. Maybe this sort of thing would happen but it sounded unethical. It also seemed to be a way to reveal some of Emilie’s backstory and have her come to realizations. Luckily this roommate basically disappears from the book once she’s served that purpose.

Overall, it’s a fun romance. It made me want to go this festival, which I’d never had any interest in before. Set the Stage is worth a read for fans of romance or theater.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is a contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, and out now. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Kristi reviews Turning Point by Lara Zielinsky

Hollywood has its stars: as one begins to fall, another is there to shine. Cassidy Hyland has gotten the cold shoulder from her co-star on the hit sci-fi show Time Trails, Brenna Lanigan, for long enough. Hoping that her son’s birthday party will find a way to spark a connection between them, Cassidy has no idea that she will find herself longing for much more than a friendship with Brenna. From the warmth of an surprise hug to the heat on a sunlit mountain top, learning about each other brings Brenna and Cassidy closer to a truth – and a love – they never expected to find.

In Turning Point, Lara Zielinsky highlights two women who find themselves on opposite sides of the acting divide: Brenna is approaching the “over-the-hill” status that actresses over 40 find themselves facing; Cassidy is the younger, gorgeous woman brought in to bring a fresh face and look to the series. After a period of time of aloofness, Cassidy uses her son’s birthday party to show Brenna that she is a good person, sparking more than a truce in their dealings with each other.

The friendship that grows between the two women is born of work and motherhood, but the attraction is there from the beginning, more so for Cassidy. As she tries to figure out what draws her to Brenna, she works on disentangling herself from both her issues with her abusive ex-husband and her relationship with show writer Cameron, which puts her in more and more uncomfortable positions on set. Brenna’s second marriage to upcoming politician Kevin Shea was a fast decision and one that does not provide Brenna the stability she expected it to bring. The emotional connection between the two is tenuous at best, living and working long-distance. Brenna’s sons still refer to him as “Mr. Shea” even after a year.

At first I was concerned about how slow the story seemed to be progressing. Hollywood is full of “in bed in fifteen minutes” storylines, as are lesbian romances. After finishing the book, I realized that I knew so much about these two women and how they deal with their changing feelings. While the story take a long time to build, readers get to see not only the development of Brenna and Cassidy’s relationship, but glimpses into their lives as actresses and mothers. The plot uses some devices that seem a little far-fetched: both women travel to the same store in all of Los Angeles to shop for their fateful camping trip, Cameron catches the two in a kiss and immediately wonders if “Cassidy will let him watch”. Even with those trite moments, the growing love between the two, and the self-reflection that it causes them both, is sure to touch a memory in many readers’ minds. It certainly did mine.

Turning Point is a slow but steady heart-felt story of two women discovering their feelings for each other. Decorated in the glitter of stardom, it is the people behind the television characters that have to strip away the artifice to find the love they really want.