Meagan Kimberly reviews The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif

Jessie Archer is an agent of Athena, a secret women’s organization that does the government’s dirty work of bringing down bad guys without the red tape. But even Athena has its rules, and Jessie is a loose cannon. When she’s fired from the only work she’s ever known, Jessie takes matters into her own hands and goes on a mission to bring down Gregory Pavlic, a Serbian politician known for human trafficking. Along the way, she falls for Paulina, the forbidden love interest and daughter of the enemy. Jessie must earn her old team’s trust and work with them to save Gregory’s victims from a grisly fate.

Jessie is a hard protagonist to like and cheer for. She’s immature and impatient, causing her to make the same mistakes over and over again. She messes up and expects immediate forgiveness as soon as she shows remorse, never allowing her loved ones the time and space they need to heal from the hurt she caused.

She also has a righteous complex that is obnoxious. Jessie falls into the “not like other girls” trap and considers such women who engage in what are considered narcissistic activities as beneath her. She also tends to lean toward a colonizer’s savior complex, which is especially poignant when she talks to her friend Hala, a woman she brought into the fold after helping her seek asylum in England when Hala was accused of being a terrorist.

Being unlikeable doesn’t make her a bad character, though. It just makes her a frustrating one. However, her inner dialogue reveals her reasons behind her actions and adds a layer of sympathy for readers to latch onto. Jessie recognizes that while Athena’s vigilante missions do good, they can’t pretend they don’t ever do bad in the process. It makes up the hero’s internal conflict throughout the novel. Jessie constantly questions how much bad Athena can do for the sake of good before they themselves become the bad guys.

The pacing and action of the story keep it moving, making the book a quick read. The fight scenes are exciting and keep the reader hooked, wondering what comes next and if the hero will escape certain death. Jessie’s computer and tech skills are also a point of appreciation. Her technical prowess makes her a formidable agent of good, as she offers both brain and brawn.

Ultimately, the action and pace are what keep the novel going. The character development and dynamics don’t delve deep enough for readers to create an attachment to the people and their conflicts. There was potential for rich relationships, but the writing only scratched the surface with Jessie and her comrades.

The most interesting character dynamic was Jessie and Paulina, as their roles created a star-crossed lovers scenario. With Jessie being on the side of good and Paulina being the daughter of the villain, it seemed like readers could tell where that relationship was going. But the twist at the end came as a surprise and made for a satisfying bit of character growth.

Aside from this relationship though, the characters felt shallow. Especially with Jessie, it felt like a great deal of the emotions and behaviors were unexplained or unearned. Most of what her character did felt out of left field.

The way Jessie’s queer identity is handled seemed odd at the end. Throughout the novel, she’s not exactly shy about the way she feels about Paulina. She’s not running around the streets yelling it at the top of her lungs, but she doesn’t run away from the bond they create either.

So in the end, when her mother, Kit, reveals that she didn’t know Jessie liked women, it was confusing. Jessie’s sexuality is never explicitly discussed between her and the other characters, so it felt like it was common knowledge and accepted. Kit’s revelation indicates otherwise though.

The best part of the book is its diverse cast of characters. Athena is made of women from various backgrounds, from British to Arabic to American and Black. Its founder is an Asian woman who reads like a Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark type, using her billions and tech company to fund the espionage organization.

Overall, the premise and characters had a lot of potential, but I don’t think Sarif reached it. It is still a fun and fast read for anyone looking for an action-packed book with kick-butt ladies.

Danika reviews Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vols. 1-3

Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess Vol 1

I finally got around to reading Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, a comic series that’s been on my TBR ever since I heard of its existence. I’m kicking myself for not starting it sooner, because it’s just as awesome I was hoping. Raven is the daughter of a pirate captain, and she was supposed to inherit the title. Unfortunately, her brothers stole that from her. Now, she’s determined to put together her own crew, get a ship, and regain what’s rightfully hers.

This is a diverse, all-women pirate crew bent on revenge. There’s an f/f romance between Raven and another member of the crew, who was a childhood friend until Raven betrayed her. (Friends to Lovers to Enemies to Lovers?) I can’t help but compare this to Lumberjanes for a) the all-women group of adventurers and b) hijinks, but Raven the Pirate Princess seems to be aimed more at teens than middle grade. There is more violence than something like Lumberjanes, and the relationships are more complex.

My favourite thing about the three volumes I’ve read so far is that I feel like I’m really getting to know the entire crew, not just the five on the covers. They all have distinct personalities, and they have their own close friendships and rivals within the group. In addition to the racial diversity and multiple queer characters, there’s also a Deaf character who uses sign language. Although there is a lot of action, and the plot progresses quickly, I felt like there was still attention paid to establish each character.

In addition to adventure and heartbreak, there’s also a lot of satire, especially making feminist points. I also loved the references that I caught (Doctor Who, Avatar, a Kelly Sue DeConnick appearance). I preferred the art in the first volume (that’s what’s the cover), though, and I did take a while to get used to the art in the second volume. In the third volume, there’s a subplot that I don’t feel great about. [spoilers/content warning about race, highlight to read] A black woman (elf) is held captive and treated like an animal. One of the people imprisoning her (he is wearing a turban and has light skin) befriends her, and begins to argue for her to have more privileges (like a room to be locked in instead of a cage), but is still imprisoning her. They fall in love. He breaks her out. I feel uncomfortable with the prisoner-falls-in-love-with-her-captor story line no matter what the context, but having the black woman character treated as an animal and kept as a cage just adds to the grossness, and I don’t believe there are any black creators on the team. [end] There are a lot of diverse characters, which helps, but I did personally cringe at that point.

I do want to continue with the story, though, and I’m excited to see where it heads next!

Danika reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If “lesbian steampunk Western” doesn’t already pique your interest, I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll give it a try! Karen is a “seamstress” (a sex worker at bordello) in Rapid City, in the Pacific Northwest. She’s satisfied enough with her life–the girls at Hôtel Mon Cherie are a tight-knit group, and she’s saving up money to train horses–when, well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking: “Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap-a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.”

Although there is a murder mystery aspect to this, Karen Memory is much more of a fast-paced adventure, as Karen and her friends get tossed into increasingly more dangerous and daring situations. The steampunk element starts off pretty minor–it took me a long time to realize that the “sewing machine” was some sort of mechanical exoskeleton and not just a typical sewing machine–but by the end of the book, there are all sorts of wild steampunk elements that I don’t want to spoil for you.

My favourite part was the relationship between Karen and Priya. Priya is a recent Indian migrant, who was trapped in a human trafficking situation. She has escaped to the Hôtel Mon Cherie, and Karen immediately falls for her. This could fall under insta-love, I suppose, but I don’t really see the problem in being intensely attracted to someone at first and then building a relationship together, which is what happens here.

There is a diversity of side characters, including trans characters and black, indigenous, and Asian characters. They are, for the most part, well-rounded, but they are often described in ways typical of the time period. [Highlight for the particular language/slurs included:] The trans character is described as  having a “pecker under her dress,” but that it was “God’s cruel joke”, and she’s “as much a girl as any of them.” The indigenous character is described as a “red Indian” many time. The N word is included, though not said by the protagonist. There are more, similar descriptions used, but this gives you an idea. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that, and I’d like to read some reviews by trans, black, and indigenous reviewers to see what they think of it. I can see how it would be a response to the typical Western, by having a diverse cast, but still staying true to the time period, but I’m not sure you need to include slurs or racist descriptions to do that.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator did a fantastic job. I really got a sense of Karen’s voice. On the other hand, I have trouble following action-packed plots at the best of times, and by listening to the audiobook, I definitely dropped the thread a few times. I think I enjoyed it more by listening to it, but I probably would have understood what was happening better if I had read it. I’m sure this would be a fantastic read for fans of Westerns or steampunk books, especially if you wish they were a little less straight and white, but it wasn’t the perfect genre match for me. I prefer stories that concentrate on characters, and although I got a sense of Karen’s voice, I didn’t get to know her as a character as well as I would like.

Despite those notes, I did like it enough to immediately pick up the other book in the series, and it looks like I’m going to like Stone Mad even more: Victorian spiritualists are my jam.

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Mallory Lass reviews Rescue Her Heart by KC Luck

Rescue Her Heart is a fun debut novel featuring a mysterious disappearance of both father and fuel, space girlfriends and pirate battles. I would call it science fiction light, so if you are interested in a lot of word building, this might not be for you. However, if you are a fan of adventure romance and can go along with some space travel and blaster battles, you will enjoy this whirlwind romance.

This novel is told in round robin style, ping ponging every chapter between the two main characters points of view:

Captain Nat Reynolds is an expert and experienced Space Ranger Pilot. She has been in the Rangers since she turned 18. Now she is 28 and recovering from a brutal battle where she lost a fellow Ranger. Her recovery is by way of a cushy space patrol assignment. Well, it was supposed to be a cushy assignment. That is until a seemingly run of the mill fuel theft incident down on planet Prospo threatens to upend her life.

In 18 short years, Catherine Porter has lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was young, and her drunk of a father has been missing for nearly a month. She has been evicted from her home and has minimal credits to her name. How will she survive?

Nat is in desperate need of a morale boost, which comes by way of a risky rescue of Catherine following the crash of her ancient space craft she purchased in a last stitch effort to find her father. Now that the galaxy has brought them together, will they be able to find Catherine’s father? Catherine’s father’s disappearance isn’t the only mystery these two need to solve. Their discovery mission brings fierce queer space pirate Sal into their orbit and she is definitely hiding something. Nat and Catherine have instant chemistry, even if Catherine doesn’t know what that feeling overtaking her is just yet.

The age-gap between the two is not an overshadowing part of the story, but it is definitely a factor in their relationship and how it progresses. Catherine has survived a hard family life, but she has hardly lived. Nat has survived a solitary life in the Rangers, but hasn’t really loved. They both have a lot to learn from each other. For Catherine, there is nothing like being swept away by a real life hero to start her on the road to discovering her sexuality. For Nat, protecting people is what she does, but its different when it is someone she is undeniably attracted to.

Another thing that really warmed me to this story is the friendship between Nat and Dee. Dee is a dispatcher for the Space Rangers, and in their communications together you can tell there is a lot of history and a lot of love for one another. Dee shows up throughout the story, as well as some of Nat’s other queer friends who we get to meet in a Sapphic space bar. Space pirate Sal is the shining secondary character but Dee and Vic and the others bring their own sparkle to this story. A significant number of my friends are queer, so seeing queer friendships reflected is really great.

Through their many adventures, Catherine and Nat are constantly tested. Watching their relationship develop and kept me interested. Pick this one up and find out how all these mysteries resolve themselves and whether Nat and Catherine can make their relationship work beyond their mission.

By day Mallory is extremely passionate about higher education fundraising and by night she is a hype girl for all things Sacramento, CA and all things queerkru (especially fandom rarepairs). Her favorite trope is age-gap. She wishes she could read all the things and eat more ice cream, alas hermione refuses to lend out her time-turner. Give her a follow on twitter @datalover916 or over on tumblr.

Megan Casey reviews Swamp Girl by Iza Moreau 

There was a recent article in The Washington Post about young adult novels written from the queer perspective. The gist of the article was that these novels “have begun to feel mainstream.” I’m sure that this is true to some extent; that a queer point of view is becoming increasingly more accepted by today’s readers, especially if these books are being published by traditional publishers. For some queer readers, finding a romance or a fantasy or even a mystery novel with queer protagonists comes as “a happy surprise.”

This last phrase—a happy surprise—is probably the most important idea in the article. Queer teens—or teens who are questioning their sexuality—need these types of books desperately. And not just coming-out stories or romances that end in tragedy—but books where the main characters just happen to be gay and live lives that are as normal as possible in our current society. That’s why Iza Moreau’s first Lesbian YA novel is so refreshing and, yes, important.

First of all, the book is a boisterous adventure that features a cast of almost Dickensian characters. The protagonist, “Sixteen-year-old Trixie McQueen—called Sixteen by her friends—wends her questing way from an abandoned subway tunnel in New York City to the mangrove-wild expanse of the Florida Everglades, where she is threatened by poachers and saved by a group of odd swamp dwellers—some of whom spent hard time as circus acts. Much of the plot involves the attempt of Sixteen and her new friends to uproot the criminals and drive them back to where then came from.

One of the oddest of all the characters is a bangle-and-short-shorts-wearing Valley girl named Raven, who is visiting her estranged mother. Sixteen—who has always accepted her orientation as a lesbian—and Raven—who has not—immediately bump heads, and Sixteen’s attempt to straighten her out—while combating her increasing attraction for the girl—round out the plot.

The first-person point of view is—I doubt if this is accidental—reminiscent of Tom Sawyer or Huck Fin, who have their own adventures to relate and crooks to foil. And, with the help of Voodoo-savvy Burundi, alligator-wrestling Large Lurleen, ex-Marine Big Ned Briscoe, circus-geek Señor Skin, Dorie the philosophy professor, and her other new friends, she manages to do just that. And in doing so, she not only rids the Glades of unwanted vermin, but provides a good, clean adventure for lesbian and questioning teens to enjoy, put on their shelves, and take out again occasionally throughout their lives.

Moreau has announced on her website that she is putting the finishing touches on the first three books in a new lesbian teen mystery series that will give lesbian and questioning teens a Nancy Drew type of hero. It should be interesting because, as far as I know, it will be the first such series. Until then, though Swamp Girl is as thoroughly enjoyable an entertainment as you could want.

Note: I received a review copy of this book that was kindly provided by the publisher in e-book form through Lesbrary.

For over 250 Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group athttp://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries


Marthese reviews The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

secondmangocover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathryn Hoss Recommends Lesbian Beach Reads

Every summer my entire obnoxious/lovable extended family rents a beach house in the Carolinas for a week, and every summer I end up scouring Goodreads, Amazon, and the Lesbrary for “lesbian beach reads.” Usually, that phrase yields zero-to-few results.

I’m here to change that.

funhomemusical   unbearable lightness portia de rossi   PriceofSalt   FriedGreenTomatoes   the-miseducation-of-cameron-post-cover-final

Looking for a juicy tell-all for the drive down?
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is one of my all-time favorites. The graphic memoir explores Bechdel’s fraught relationship with her closeted gay, perfectionist father and his unexpected suicide. Despite the subject matter, Bechdel’s tone is more thoughtful than ruminating, probing for the truth in a situation with many sides. As someone who was a baby butch at one time, it was a breath of fresh air to see myself reflected in child- and college-Alison. This read can be accomplished in a few hours.
Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi is another quick read, but it is not light. The memoir recounts de Rossi’s lengthy struggle with bulimia and anorexia, her journey from rock bottom, when her organs nearly shut down, to a very nice life with Ellen Degeneres and their horses. I will say it brought back eating-disordered feelings from adolescence that I didn’t know I still had– de Rossi’s devastating internal monologues can be triggering– but it’s an important story and an engrossing read.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith might be the perfect road-trip story, straddling the line between pulp novel and classic literature. You’ve probably already seen the 2015 movie, Carol, but I’m gonna say the book is worth reading too. Highsmith’s prose tends to maunder in details that I thought not at all necessary to plot or characterization, but I found it interesting on an anthropological level to see Therese and Carol’s relationship unfold in 1952. Elements of the story are lifted straight out of Highsmith and her friends’ lives, adding to the realism. For the romance crowd, if you like the “Oh no, there’s only one bed and we have to share it!” trope, you’re gonna love this.

Looking for something profound so that when your relatives ask what you’re reading, you don’t have to feel ashamed?
I actually haven’t finished Fried Green Tomatoes by Fanny Flagg, only because the prose lends itself to be read slow as molasses. There is definitely a lot in this book that would not be considered politically correct. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, “Is this a White Savior narrative?” The romance is also only one thread in a rich tapestry of family and food. But Fried Green Tomatoes feeds my soul because it depicts a lesbian-headed family living in the south, in the 20s and 30s, and no one ever says a word about them being different or wrong. I actually tried fried green tomatoes (the food) the other day. Spoiler alert: They were delicious.

I was going to do a separate YA section, but then I was like, nah. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth is Literature. Set in small-town Montana in a fully-fleshed out fictional city, The Miseducation is so hyperreal, I kept thinking, “This has to be autobiographical, right? No way someone could make up that much detail.” And yet, danforth did. Right down to watching the girl you like skid her flip flop a little too far away and lunge to pick it up with her toes. A bittersweet story of parental mortality, thwarted teenage love, and coming of age, I couldn’t bring myself to read this one on the beach because it made me feel like my heart was in my throat.

secondmangocover   LoveDevoursbySarahDiemer   ClimbingtheDatePalm-200x300   BrandedAnn   olive conspiracy

Looking for adventure, romance, and fantasy all rolled into one beautiful escapist mess?

Not gonna lie– this is what I consider a Certified Lesbian Beach Read. Sitting ankle-deep in the surf with wind sand-blasting my face and the sun encroaching ever-closer to my beergarita, I’m not exactly looking to think too hard. I want to see some salty pirate pansexuals, some transcendentally beautiful trans mermaids, and some lesbian ladies in full 16th-century attire making out on a tropical island.

First off, I can recommend Love Devours: Tales of Monstrous Adoration by Sarah Diemer. You can download “The Witch Sea” for free on Amazon separately, but my favorite story in this collection is “Seek.” I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll say this: Mysterious sea woman. Girl-knight seeking to win the hand of a beautiful princess. Sultry enchantress. Intrigue! Also check out The Monstrous Sea by Sarah and Jennifer Diemer for its trans girl YA mermaid story, “True if By Sea.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Second Mango by our own Shira Glassman for its lesbian princess, her woman-knight BFF, her bisexual long-lost love, and the tropical, vaguely Floridian setting in which they frolic.

Finally, Branded Ann by Merry Shannon was a recent standout, well-plotted with a careful balance of romance and adventure. This is the lesbian Pirates of the Caribbean– a search for lost treasure, threats of mutiny, mayyyyybe some kind of supernatural being?? I also came away feeling like I learned something about 16th century piracy, all while enjoying sizzling hot sexual tension. My only gripe is the character description. I felt like had no idea what most of the characters looked like, except the two main characters, who were described in frequent and florid detail. Still, this was all I ever wanted, all I ever needed in a pirate romance novel. (This one comes with a trigger warning for sexual assault mentions.)

What are your favorite LBT beach reads? Let me know on the Goodreads list! (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/100656.Lesbian_Beach_Reads)

Kathryn Hoss is an aspiring author and singer-songwriter from Ohio. She can be found at kathrynhoss.tumblr.com.

Julie Thompson reviews Love in Action by Augusta Hill

love in action

I discovered this bundle by happenstance on Twitter, one of the things I enjoy about using it. The Indiana Jones-esque font on the cover drew me in like a moth to flame. As I sat in my airline seat bound for abbreviated adventure in the unknowns of Iowa, I dove straight into the stories. Love in Action is the collection’s name for the three novellas: Love Unearthed, Love Rescued, and Love Spied.

Augusta Hill uses the soft and tough, fresh and seasoned romantic pairings often found in romance novels and deftly pulls it off. The romances avoid falling prey to the doldrums of predictability. You know the leads will dance into the sunset together, but Hill makes it a lot of fun to tag along as the heroines discover more about themselves as they face high stakes and fall in love. Hill sets a quick pace to her stories, allowing you to get to know characters through action rather than bogging down events with a tedium of backstories and explaining what the women are feeling. Secondary characters help facilitate events and flesh out the leads, without seeming too flat or taking a lot of attention away from the protagonists. The tone is summer blockbuster fun, with a nice blend of tension and levity. No matter where your travels take you this summer, I recommend packing these bite-sized romantic adventures along.

Love Unearthed

Dr. Rose Stevens ventures deep into the jungles of Guatemala in search of the burial site of a once magnificent queen, now obscured by centuries of neglect and local ghost stories. Leaning on the shared memory of a small, remote villages, Rose throws the risks to her professional reputation to the wind and digs in. Before she can take her first step into the excavation site, however, she becomes unexpectedly saddled with a group of whiny, inexperienced undergrads from the university where she works. Former US soldier, Gabriella Torres, further complicates matters, exuding confidence, a quick wit, and sex appeal that pull at the fabric of Rose’s professionalism. Rose’s excitement over the upcoming excavation and elusive scholarly achievement that it will bring helps her suppress the attraction she feels for Gabriella. The struggle between the good doctor’s professional ambitions and personal life makes the romance a nice, slow burn.

When an unsavory bunch swoops in and threaten to take it all away, the unlikely group must band together to preserve the rare cultural find from disappearing. Hill packs plenty of thrills, flirtations, comic relief, and romance into this installment of Love in Action. This is my favorite story from the bundle. Sexy archaeologists, plunges into dark and dangerous unknowns, and romance! Oh my…

Love Rescued

Emmeline Smith is sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to find her jackass brother, Jacob, who disappeared there while on his mission trip for the Mormon Church. She is a relatively sheltered woman who works for her family’s business and regularly submits herself to painfully mismatched blind dates with single Mormon men that her mother arranges. Coming out as a lesbian to her family has never been high on her list of things to do. Instead, though she grudgingly takes on the task of rounding up the favorite son. It’s a task not without benefits: she thrills at the chance to take her first trip out of the United States and at the opportunity to avoid further pressures on the marriage front.

Hana Divjak is an anarchist, yarn bomber, and animal champion extraordinaire. While she’s close with her group of friends, she’s not exactly out as a lady loving lady. Most of her energy is expended outwardly, trying to make a better world for the people and creatures she cares about. She and Emmeline meet by chance on the streets of Sarajevo. The tough cookie with a heart of gold steps in to help the Emmeline the travel novice from becoming a target for swindlers and pickpockets. They hit it off immediately. Emmeline shares her plight over a cozy dinner for two. It soon becomes clear that Jacob has gotten in over his head with local mobsters.

Emmeline’s worldly naiveté coupled with Hana’s street smarts make for an entertaining pairing. Their outlooks and personal experiences complement and balance each other. I never felt either woman was somehow superior to the other or carried more weight during the story. They challenge each other and support each other all the way to the end.

While the story touches on the hardships faced by Hana and her fellow Bosnians during an era of political instability and armed conflict, don’t expect the novella to deliver a detailed history lecture. Its presence in the story infuses the characters and setting with further layers of meaning and motives.

Love Spied

Nara Yamada is a plucky journalist covering social unrest and political upheaval in Istanbul, Turkey. An ambitious president and a shadowy band of international supporters threaten to throw the country into chaos and damage its prospects for joining the European Union. Nara and her camera crew sneak into an area of the city expressly forbidden to the press at an explosive moment, unaware just how hot things are going to become. She’s tenacious when it comes to reporting and doesn’t let a pesky little thing like running for her life get in the way.

At the moment events in the area go to hell, Ophelia spies with her well-trained eyes the impending chaos, as well as the foreign news crew caught in the thick of it. Ophelia is in Turkey on a highly classified government assignment. When she receives conflicting information from her superiors on the data she worked months to obtain, she finds herself at a standstill. No files exist to document her existence; she moves through life, delivering results to a secret government agency? and then disappearing without a trace. When Ophelia defies company policy to keep a low profile, she sets in motion a chain of events that changes all of their lives. Over the course of their travels, the two women fall in love, and keep each other warm and safe as they try to escape corrupt international agents and local law enforcement.

Love Spied is full of exciting car chases, explosions, secret hideouts, double agents, and of course, romance. I really enjoyed Ophelia’s ability to dispatch her opponents with expert efficiency and fast on her feet smarts. That kind of character is one of my favorites to read about or see onscreen. Both women take chances outside of their usual modus operandi and it pays off.

Julie Thompson reviews The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief by Diane Jean

the warrior the healer and the thief

The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States.  WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining.  It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism.  Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west.  Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks.  The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot.  At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight.  However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.

Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world.  People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”.  Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire.  Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations.  Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.

The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast.  These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons.  They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison.  Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields.  Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.

Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore.  Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life.  She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home.  For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions.  Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon.  Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.

After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west.  West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe.  When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile.  Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess.  She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others.  As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens.  Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry.  Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.

Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari.  Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive.  She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul.  Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay.  Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born.  After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures.  Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward.  The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.

As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined.  The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page.  Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties.  Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari.  I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon.  The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”.  Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward.  The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities.  All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first.  They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on.  It develops as organically as the rest of the story.

The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel.  I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels!  If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review?  Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today!  And then go play Oregon Trail.

Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).

Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990