Anna N. reviews The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

The Lost Girls cover

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The Summary:

According to J.M. Barrie and Jeffrey Boam, lost boys don’t grow up because they don’t want to. They don’t want to relinquish the heady explorations and unending adventures of adolescence for the responsibilities of adulthood. They hunger for an eternity in the blissful twilight between childhood licentiousness and adult liberty, when they are free from any sort of interference or obligation to anything but their own onanistic pleasures.

According to Sonia Hartl, lost girls don’t grow up because they aren’t given the chance to. They spend their lives as daughter, wives, and mothers, caught in a revolving door of infantilizing, idealized identities that tie them to others in ways that leave little room for adventure and self-exploration. The men in their lives repeatedly tell them they either want too much or don’t know what they want – thus, girls need men to tell them what they should want, and then provide it.

These girls are stuck in time, even before they become vampires.

Enter our antagonist, Elton-of-the-unspecified-surname. Originally from the 1890s, this sadistic vampire has spent the past century crushing the rose-colored lenses of a series of teen girls, promising them the life of their dreams before leaving them for undead.

Which is where we find our protagonist, Holly. Recently abandoned by the man who said he’d stay with her for eternity, she’s settled into a sustainable (if not entirely comfortable) routine. With her perpetual perm and teenaged face, (not to mention the supernatural connection that keeps dragging her to whatever town Elton has moved onto next), she’s stuck shuffling from one minimum wage job to another, the tedium of her eternal existence interrupted only by library books.

That is, until Elton decides to return to their hometown with the hopes of screwing over a new girl. Back in the town that hosted her awkward teenage years, Holly is hunted down by Elton’s vengeful other exes, Ida and Rose. They want to destroy the creep who made them this way, and they need Holly’s help to do so.

Of course, the plan is quickly derailed when Holly finds herself falling for Elton’s new target. Bright, droll, and achingly insecure Parker reminds Holly a lot of herself a few decades ago, and what starts as an attempt to save her from Elton’s schemes quickly becomes an impassioned romantic entanglement that leaves both of these lost girls grappling with the ethical compunctions of eternity. One vampire, one human, they are both drawn to each other by their shared familial strife and need to be seen. They find in each other a genuine appreciation of their personal ingloriousness. For the girls they are and the women they will never be.

(There are also kisses in literal closets).

The Review:

I went into this book with high expectations. I’m glad many of them were met, though the ending left my taste buds feeling like they had gone ten rounds with a grape-jelly-and-beef-jerky smoothie. It’s the first YA novel I read since I graduated high school, and I know I would have been thrilled to read it when I was sixteen and disillusioned and dating people I cringe to remember now.

But reading it now, I found it hard to ignore that The Lost Girls is not quite the girl-gang story it’s been marketed as. For one thing, there is a looming existential melancholy that would be more at home in an Anne Rice novel than a Lumberjanes comic. It’s less a gleefully violent celebration of friendship and girl power than it is a realistic look at the odd camaraderie that comes from shared traumatic experiences and the romance that comes from having someone who really seem to understand you when the whole world doesn’t seem to. Hartl gently pokes fun at the ”not like other girls” mentality while also describing the sort of upbringing that might foster it in the first place.

Other good moments are when Hartl lampshades the genre this book owes so much to – teen supernatural romances. Elton is a conniving dirtbag of the highest order, a master manipulator who knows just how to play the sensitive brooding romantic and seduce teen girls who mainly process the world through “Austen, Brontë, or poetry”. He’s even got a pocketful of rose petals to shower over his girl du jour and show her how whimsigoth he is, all the while wearing away at her self-worth so that she’ll be more amenable to the idea of ditching her family to run off with him and get turned. Yikes.

In contrast to the performative nonsense of that relationship, Holly and Parker seem to connect more because of shared a) interests and b) trauma. Because what good LGBTQ+ horror novel doesn’t feature paragraphs upon pages of trauma-bonding? It’s practically a genre convention.

But the great moments are when it digs deeper into the subtext of that shared history, showing the nuances of women’s relationships to each other and the ways social isolation makes one susceptible to abusive relationships. I appreciated how Hartl took the time to sketch out Holly’s relationships with other women – platonic, romantic, and otherwise. While the male love interests in this novel are non-caricatured sendups of the “nice guy” and “seductive sleazebag sociopath” archetypes, the women are given much more depth and humanity.

Despite all but one of them being, you know, not human.

Holly’s blossoming romance with Parker is the stuff gaydreams are made of: a delightfully charming flirtation between two people who start off at odds with each other but grow to genuinely care about and find pleasure in the other’s company. The progression from mistrust to affection to full-on making out is excellently paced. There are tons of cute moments that more than make up for the unsettling tension that arrives whenever Elton shows up, either in person or as a topic of conversation.

We rarely see platonic friendships between women centered in horror fiction, and watching Holly have to reckon with the ways her blind devotion of Elton frayed her connection with someone who cared about her as much as Stacey did was painful and real. Their relationship is shown to have its own share of scars and power imbalances (both before and after death), and the way these were slowly drawn out and elaborated on was refreshing to see. Trite as that description might sound, it really felt like splashing a handful of cool water in your face on a muggy summer morning, and looking at the world with fresher, clearer eyes.

And anyone who’s read Poppy Z. Brite will get a morbid laugh or two from Stacey’s post-death choices.

Of course, this made the ending hurt a hell of a lot more. If only Holly’s dynamic with Parker had half as much balance. If you are looking for a fun, happy-for-now ending between two fluffy sapphics with a healthy power dynamic, this is not going to end well for you. But if you are looking for a strange, humorously gory teen revenge story with eclectic characters and interesting metaphors for the power our histories have over us, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The vampire lore was creative, with a lot of unique touches and a certain grounded matter-of-factness that fit Holly’s more world-weary side well. If you are faint of heart or prone to squeamishness at the thought of severed human limbs being used to construct furniture or unsparingly gory descriptions of precisely how those limbs were severed from their bodies, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. But if the thought of visceral violence in the vein of Kill Bill or Exquisite Corpse (but in an SFW, ya-targeted way) appeals to you, so will this book. It is very macabre, very detailed, and very entertaining. Maybe not 80’s splatterpunk paperback levels of unhinged, but it’s still got a relative lot.

But be forewarned, the ending does delve into some iffy territory. For all the hype about the ex-girlfriend-stealing-the-girl-premise, their actual romance between the two women seems to be an afterthought. Especially given the ending.

The Born Sexy Yesterday trope got lambasted by Anita Sarkeesian for a reason, and that reason is the discomforting vulnerability at play. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Parker is literally reduced to a tabula rasa, a blank slate with no memories and therefore no opinions. The way Hartl describes Holly casually dismissing her old feelings towards Stacey after forgetting what it meant to be best friends sets up concerning in-lore implications for when she later reads potential romantic sentiments into Parker’s hand holding and expects this complete amnesiac to return her feelings. End of spoiler.)

I hope there is a sequel that grapples with these implications, because otherwise I am left with a hastily resolved, half-baked, dubiously consensual dynamic of the sort I never tolerated in m/f supernatural romances (despite it being all too common there). The writing also does veer into the amateurish at moments, with some painfully puerile lines that echo the worst excesses of un-beta’d PWP fanfiction — which is bothersome, because it is juxtaposed with all the absolutely squee-worthy ways Holly describes Parker’s smile.

Seriously, I will scream if I am subject to another description of “bee-stung lips”. I have seen bee stings. There is nothing remotely sexy about them. Especially if they are infected.

To end on a more positive note, aroace readers might be cheered to find representation in Ida, an avant-garde vampire artist (and Elton’s first victim), whose favored mode of creative expression involves repurposing the limbs of unfortunate humans she has drained.

Trigger warnings: gore, violence, murder, abusive relationships, attempted sexual assault

Rachel reviews Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski

the cover of Real Easy

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Readers might know Marie Rutkoski’s work from her young adult Winner’s Curse trilogy (2014-2016) or her more recent f/f fantasy series, Forgotten Gods. However, Rutkoski’s first novel for adults, Real Easy, is a departure from her usual fantasy fiction while still including queer female characters at the center of her narratives.

Real Easy is a mystery/suspense novel set in America in the 1990s. The text centers around Samantha, who has been a dancer at the Lovely Lady strip club for years. Usually, Samantha’s work and home lives don’t intersect—dancers don’t use their real names, and she’s not interested in forming close friendships with her fellow dancers. But when a new dancer starts at the club and struggles to learn the unspoken rules of life as a dancer, Samantha can’t help but step in. One fateful night, Samantha offers to drive the new woman home, and that decision proves to be a deadly one. Soon, Georgia, another dancer at the club, is drawn into the murder and missing person investigation alongside the detectives on the case, and as the list of suspects shrinks, the Georgia and the detectives’ suspicions grow…

This book, although different than Rutkoski’s usual work, will appeal to her fans and new readers alike. Real Easy has all of the perfect elements of a mystery/suspense novel: intercepted women, scarred detectives, and a setting full of eroticism and danger. But these characters are far from cookie-cutter. This novel was emotional and gut-wrenching. You really grow to know and feel for each of the characters in turn, and this novel, with all of its different perspectives, is driven forward by the motivations of the various characters, all centered around a single crime that is close to home for each central character. I found myself gasping aloud, laughing, and even crying while reading this book. Rutkoski’s writing is so vividly constructed and expertly paced. She proves that moving across genres—with all of their individual tropes and expectations—is easily done with a strong character foundation.

The setting in this novel is so vivid and feels incredibly real. It was fascinating to read a story that is, in part, about queer desire set against a place that is steeped in catering toward heterosexist and male conceptions of desire. The setting, coupled with the queer characters, is inherently transgressive and Rutkoski has clearly carefully constructed the novel to highlight that contrast.

I highly recommend Real Easy to anyone interested in queer fiction, mystery novels, or Rutkoski’s other writing. This novel will not disappoint!

Please visit Marie Rutkoski on Twitter and put Real Easy on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Murder, sexual assault, violence, trauma.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Mars reviews Seeing Red by Cara Malone

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is like that daytime soap opera that you can’t help but watch, no matter how much the characters have you clutching your pearls and loudly shouting about foreshadowing. Everyday heroes, villains, and questionable moral situations abound in this entertaining and somehow heartwarming story.

Our main hero here is Hunter Ross, completely exhausted loving auntie extraordinaire. Hunter is the ride-or-die sister that we all wish we could have. She dropped out of nursing school two years ago to help her sister Piper support her two nephews. No matter what they do though or how many hours Hunter clocks in at the nursing home, the looming tower of bills never seems to go down. Hunter barely has time to sleep, never mind romance.

As she tries to keep Piper walking on the straight and narrow after a brush with crime that got her scamming husband Jed Wolfe thrown in jail, the universe throws the sisters a bone in the form of the Kiera Murphy, a sweet college student with a generous heart and a rich, sassy grandmother looking for a nurse as she begins to slowly lose her memory. As fate would have it, Hunter appears in their lives and is just what the doctor ordered. .But is she? With Hunter comes her family, and with Hunter’s family, there’s always something looming.

While this story has a lot going on including (but not limited to) identity theft, sororities, family, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, the author has woven together serious themes and the light-hearted warmth of new love into a sweet and sometimes sizzling story. I would say that this story is a good poolside read. It’s deals with heavy themes but doesn’t leave readers bogged down, gets dark without breaking your heart, and provides just enough mystery that it’ll be impossible to read just one chapter at a time.

Susan reviews Stranger on Lesbos by Valerie Taylor

strangeronlesbos

Valerie Taylor’s Stranger on Lesbos is an example of classic pulp lesbian fiction. It was published in 1960, at the midpoint of the genre, and it seems like a really tropey example of it!

Frances Ollenfield escaped a childhood of abuse and poverty into a marriage that is slowly becoming more and more loveless as the family’s fortunes improve. When her husband suggests that she go back to university to finish her degree, Frances leaps at the chance – which happens to bring her Mary Baker, Bake to her friends, who soon becomes her lover.

When I say that Stranger on Lesbos a tropey example, I’m not exaggerating; my understanding of lesbian pulps is that the repeating tropes include bar crawling, jail time, and often a dark-haired worldly woman somehow “leading an innocent astray”, and an ending where the lesbian characters must be separate – all of which is present here, in a fast-paced and melodramatic story, as I’d hope a pulp story would be. The story focuses on the conflict between Frances’ love of her husband and son (and her boredom and disappointment with the life they’ve built as her family’s interests move away from her) and her love for Bake (with its excitement and danger, which brings her new friends and experiences, even if they sour for her as well).

The narrative is at times quite distant, which I think is a stylistic choice as it matches fairly well with Frances’ feeling of disconnection from her life and the people around her. However, there are strange time skips, in one case of two years between chapters, which don’t seem to have changed much in the character’s lives except that Frances abandons her degree again in favour of a job and the conflicts in her relationship with Bake to start to bubble through. There are also scenes that revisit Frances’ past in a mining town with her abusive father, and the emotions in those scenes are harrowing and explain a lot about where Frances came from. (I was not kidding about the melodrama!)

I have to admit though that I genuinely rooted for Frances to leave all of her relationships in the dust and walk away from about halfway through. While it’s easy to see why she fell in love with Bake (she is charming and intelligent, and presents herself as very confident and controlled), and Bill, Frances’ husband, clearly had moments where he was sweet and affectionate… None of Frances’ friends seem to make her happy, and by about half-way through both of Frances’ romantic partners treat her terribly. Bake is charming and intelligent… But also a drinker, a cheater, and lets Frances down in the worst ways when she needs her. Bill alternates between distant and actively abusive (more on that later.). Frances wants to stay with her husband for the sake of her son… But her son seems to feel contempt for the women she keeps company with, and by extension her. There is a point in the book where he asks her to give up her queer friends, with every expectation that she’d comply, and while that’s depicted as selfish and awful on his part,

(Caution warning for this paragraph: rape) As a fair warning, there are minimum two rapes and a third attempted one in this book; strangely though, the marital rape is never referred to as such, whereas the lesbian one is clearly stated to be rape. I don’t know if it’s just the time that the book was written (marital rape didn’t become a crime in the states until the 1970s), or if it’s because the circumstances around the lesbian rape (it was by a stranger, with violence, and she was drunk), but it seems really odd that they’re treated so differently. Especially because one is treated as actively reprehensible, and the other as something that could be worked past. That sound you heard was me angrily shrieking at the book.

Without any spoilers; the ending is infuriating, to the point where I had to put it down and walk away for a while. But the afterword assures me that Stranger in Lesbos is the first book in a series, and that my problems with Frances’ romantic choices might be mitigated by the third book. And while parts of this book made me angry, the writing was good enough and I was emotionally invested enough that I am considering seeing if I could track down the rest of the series. So, if you’re interested in lesbian pulp fiction, this is a solid example of it, but there are parts of it that I have significant reservations about.

Trigger warnings: homophobia, adultery, abuse, incest, rape.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Marthese reviews The Tchaikovsky Affair by Marie Swift

the tchaikovsy affair

“She’d been utterly transfixed by the brunette practically making love to her cello”

The Tchaikovsky Affair by Marie Swift is a romantic novella about two musicians in the New York Philharmonic orchestra. It starts more like a romantic comedy then evolves more towards drama but in between there is a lot of fluff and probably some of the sexiest sex scenes ever!

The story is about Shannon McClintock who’s the concert master and first violin of the orchestra and Jacinta (Jackie) Ortiz, the new first cello. Sparks fly from the start but it takes the conductor’s intervention to get their relationship started. In many ways their relationship is tied to music and to the orchestra and they have to find a way to make their relationship stand on its own two feet.

The two musicians are paired together in a duet, of course they are playing Tchaikovsky and for a while, their relationship mirror’s his and Kotek’s relationship- don’t you just love historically queer relationships in other books?

I learned a bit about music. For sure I knew that music is sexy and sensual but after reading the first intimate sex scene…I see music in a new light. I’m not one that reads books just for the sex, I find that usually it’s the same descriptions over and over again. Not so much with this book!

Shannon has been hurt before and had promised to put her career first while Jackie has had many relationships mostly due to her music but because of her music, they tended to fizzle out. There is of course some drama in the book, from the middle of the story onwards but don’t worry, it’s worth the wait!

As this book is so short, it is mostly about the two with side characters acting as support (or hindrance) for their relationship. The two balance each other, even in their music. They must harmonize technique with passion, in their personal and professional lives.

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and I’m glad I finally read it. At first, I thought it was going to be a light average read but after two chapters it got so much better! There was sexiness, fluff, drama, comedy and music- all done well if sometimes a bit trope-y.

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone with a passion for music, or to those that want to read a romance that is a bit different.

Marthese reviews Dare Truth Or Promise by Paula Boock

daretruthorpromise

“It’s dynamite, Mo. It’s dynamite”

I have not read many classic queer literature, so when my friend lent me this book – no matter how many ebooks I have, nothing beats a paper book- I jumped on the bandwagon.

Dare Truth Or Promise is a classic romance that takes place in Dunedin, New Zealand between Louie and Willa. Willa just moved in to town. She and Louie meet at Burger Giant where they both work but soon they discover that Willa will also be going to the same school. The story is told from both of their perspectives.

From the moment that they meet, there is great camaraderie between the two protagonists and although they aren’t open with everyone, they aren’t scared. Until they are.

Louie is a theater geek who is very hardworking. Sometimes she puts words to a feeling by quoting literature. Willa is more reserved because of what happened to her in her past school probably. Willa is a no non-sense type of person while Louie is always jokes, but somehow they are both serious with their feelings and try to support each other in life, more mature than one would think for their age.

A scene that I found really great was in the beginning where Louie was performing in the comedy club. I think most of the performance can still be applied today. It is also I think where Willa seriously starts to have feelings for Louie.

Their first date (or second depending how you see it) was adorable. It was something very Willa and she shared it with Louie and they both had fun and did it again after. Their love started as a bit clueless, although they both seemed to know where it was heading just shy to act, however, I think it evolved into them being able to read each other so well.

This book, while short and really easy to ready, highlights a point that everyone going through maturity (and coming out but not only) has felt at least once: the difference that parents make. Jolene, Willa’s mother and Tony and Susi, Louie’s parents have different lifestyles and different ways of interacting with their children.

Another point which was important to the plot and gave it depth was the namesake of the book. Willa and Louie played Truth Dare or Promise between themselves. I thought of this a childish game but with decisions and actions being taken that are mature so in a way this game helped them bridge their past with their future.

The book has a great introduction, which I found funny and a great conclusion which reminded me of movie type closings. There is a light beginning with some angst in the middle and a hard but sweet ending- a happy ending! Although the book is not all lovey-dovey with some dark themes brushed upon, overall it’s pretty light-hearted with some frustration and fear thrown in.

This is probably the first book I read that is set in New Zealand. You will learn some fact and want to look up more. A handy glossary of terms is found in the beginning of the book. As well, the writing sometimes picked up small details mentioned previously and continued on them.

I would recommend this book for people that want to read something quick and fast flowing that is mostly light-hearted with some drama thrown in.