Katie Raynes reviews The Ghost of a Chance by Natalie Vivien


The Ghost of a Chance by Natalie Vivien is a story that revolves around loss, acceptance, and healing. Darcy Morrow has just lost the love of her life in an accident, and she is utterly destroyed – the only person who even begins to reach her in the weeks after the accident is Alis, a nurse who Darcy’s mother-in-law hired to look after her (and who also cared for Darcy’s partner several years ago when she had cancer). The novel follows them through Darcy’s navigation of her grief and the development of their relationship from friends to something deeper.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that it’s gorgeously written. Every sentence feels carefully constructed, and some of the comparisons and word choices are so perfect that I would read them over and over, boggling. Natalie Vivien also does a heartrendingly good job of portraying a woman who has just lost the love of her life. The pain that Darcy goes through is transmitted to the reader with merciless realism (I’m not going to lie – I cried a lot reading this book, and books rarely make me cry). I felt like Darcy’s grieving process was handled very well, not rushed or glossed over or shown to be less significant than such things are. In fact, the whole story had really good pacing, from the overarching themes of romance, healing, and freedom to the individual scenes and how they flowed into each other.

I was also really impressed by how complex all of the characters were. The narration is from Darcy’s point of view, and she goes through so many emotions and grows so much during the course of the story that it’s very interesting to be in her head. Alis and Catherine (Darcy’s deceased lover) are very different people, but they’re equally developed, Catherine through flashbacks and Alis through the course of the novel. This isn’t something that I’ve noticed happens very often in stories where the main character has a lost love who died before the story started – usually the deceased partner is more of an archetype, without any depth, or the “replacement” pales in comparison to the first love. Neither Catherine nor Alis outshine the other; they’re both perfect for Darcy in their own way, but it completely different ways, and Alis doesn’t replace Catherine. It was very satisfying to read this complicated situation done so thoughtfully.

There were various little elements woven throughout the story that I loved, too. Darcy is a librarian, and her return to a healthy state of mind included interaction with her coworkers and time spent at the library. I’m married to a librarian, so it was very charming to read about Darcy’s love of her profession. Also, Catherine was a playwright and had been working on a lesbian version of Twelfth Night when she died. The completion of this manuscript is an important thread in the story, and it delighted my inner (or not so inner) Shakespeare nerd to no end. The whole novel was a really fulfilling read.

Katie Raynes reviews Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a Sparrow

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin is the story of Garnet, a teenage ornithology enthusiast who spends a transformative summer in a lakeside town. Set in 1926, Silhouette of a Sparrow combines captivating historical detail with realistic characters and emotions while keeping it all on a believable, relatable scale. I was drawn in immediately by the writing, which has a unique voice without edging into caricature. Garnet is very relatable: she considers herself to be a regular girl, even plain, but any threat of the boredom that sometimes accompanies these types of characters is averted by her intricately described interests. She’s passionately in love with birds, and she notices them everywhere, cutting silhouettes of them out of paper because her mother approves of that hobby over her childhood outdoor explorations.

Garnet has to navigate several things during her summer in Excelsior, Minnesota: the relatives she’s staying with consider her to be poor and low-class in comparison to themselves, but they have their own secrets; she left behind her father, a veteran who came home unable to adapt to life away from the war, and her mother, who is desperately trying to keep the family together; Garnet takes a part-time job in a shop, confronting both the bias against working women and environmental conservation issues that are close to her heart; and her drive to be independent and enjoy her last summer before graduating (and marrying) leads her to meet Isabella, a dancer who flaunts numerous social conventions. All of the subplots wind together to make a full story, and none of them are left hanging or unfinished.

Garnet’s developing relationship with Isabella is one of the highlights of the story for me (I admit I equally adore all the bird imagery, which has tendrils running through the whole book). Their courtship progresses slowly and sweetly. Garnet and Isabella get to know each other gradually, each revealing their fears and hopes as they grow more comfortable with each other. I love that Garnet doesn’t consider her romantic feelings for Isabella to be wrong – she’s worried about what her family would think, but she seems just as concerned that Isabella’s reputation, instead of her gender, will be the cause of the disapproval. Another thing that satisfies me with this novel is that the relationship between Garnet and Isabella isn’t the main focus – Silhouette of a Sparrow is about Garnet’s development from someone who doesn’t know what she wants to someone who does, and who finds within herself the strength to go after her dreams. Her relationship with Isabella is integral to this development, but it isn’t the core of the story. It’s a lesbian romance not simply for the sake of romance, but as part of the lives of what feel like real people.

Katie Raynes reviews The Last Uniform by Mera Hakamada


The Last Uniform is a three-volume manga series by Mera Hakamada, originally published in 2005. It’s also my favorite series in the yuri genre – it has the honor of being the first lesbian manga I ever read that wasn’t exploitative or aimed unambiguously at the male gaze. This series is intended for an audience of 18-30 year old men (based on the magazine it was first serialized in), but it doesn’t contain the purposeful titillation or lesbians-merely-for-the-sake-of-hot-girls-getting-it-on that’s turned me away from a lot of yuri manga. I do have one caveat, though: the first two volumes were released in English by Seven Seas Entertainment, but apparently they didn’t sell well enough to warrant translating the third. I scoured the internet to find it in the original Japanese, and I finally was able to buy a used copy from a Japanese online bookstore. I’ve been working on translating it so I can find out what happens, but I’m only an intermediate Japanese speaker, so there’ll be no worries about spoilers in this review!

The Last Uniform (Saigo no Seifuku in Japanese) takes place at Camellia Hill High School and revolves around the lives of several girls who live in the dormitory there. The Japanese version of the manga was originally subtitled (in English) “Our Last Season,” which gives context to the translated title: this is the chronicle of the girls’ last years together at school. The four main characters – Ai, Fuuko, Tsumugi, and Beniko – share rooms, Ai with Fuuko and Tsumugi with Beniko. They’re also the series’ main couples, although their relationships develop at different rates. Ai is ostensibly the protagonist. She’s dutiful and somewhat serious, taking on the role of the cautious rule-enforcer in her relationship with Fuuko, who is reckless, goofy, and usually oblivious to other people’s feelings. When they’re assigned a new roommate, Ai becomes extremely jealous of any attention (even innocent) that Fuuko pays to the new girl. Because of this development, Ai begins to understand her true feelings for her friend.

Tsumugi and Beniko are the other central pairing, and they’re my favorite – Tsumugi is a prickly tomboy who shows she cares about her friends in roundabout ways, and Beniko is self-assured, elegant, and adored by scads of younger classmates. I consider Tsumugi’s feelings to be the most well-developed and relatable of all the characters. She knows that she’s in love with Beniko but she doesn’t know what to do about it, and she sometimes finds herself acting one way even when she knows she should be doing the opposite. On the surface, Beniko seems like the only one who can discuss her feelings without embarrassment, but it becomes clear over the early chapters that the things she says don’t actually reveal anything about her at all.

Other students who make up the supporting cast include Anzu, Ai and Fuuko’s new roommate; Kimiko, another student in the dorm; Asagi, a wealthy student who is obsessed with Beniko; and Tamami, Asagi’s friend and an amateur author of lesbian fiction. They make the love triangles into more complex polyhedrons, but the girls don’t bounce around between relationships. There’s a single intrusion of a boy who’s interested in Fuuko, but other than that, there’s really no question of who likes whom – it’s only a question of whether they’ll manage to get together.

The art is simple and unadorned, and it definitely improves over the course of the series. There are some distracting art errors early on – backwards hands and things like that – but I found it charming and expressive for the most part. The romances are handled very lightly, with hugs and kisses being as far as anything goes. There’s only a minimum of the standard yuri “But isn’t it weird for two girls to love each other?” ambivalence. I love it because of this, and because the story really is about the characters and their relationships rather than the expectation that “forbidden love” will excite the reader. That’s something I truly appreciate in manga involving lesbians, and it’s pretty rare.

Katie Raynes reviews Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace

Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace is the story of Rebecca, an Amish teenager, and Dylan, a girl from mainstream American culture. The novel chronicles Rebecca and Dylan’s romance as it shifts in intensity over several years; it’s also a coming-of-age story that follows Rebecca’s journey toward her decision whether or not to join church and become a member of her Amish community.

I knew very little about Amish culture going into this novel, and I feel that I finished it not only knowing more, but having read a respectful treatment of it that doesn’t harshly judge or take strict sides. Rumspringa is a term in Pennsylvania Dutch for a period in the lives of some Amish teenagers when they temporarily leave their communities to experience the mainstream world. At the end of this period, young Amish people choose whether to join their community as a full-fledged member of the church or to join mainstream society. The conflict of the story revolves around this choice. The love that Rebecca and Dylan share is passionate and deep, evolving from a close friendship, but Rebecca is extremely conflicted about her future. She sees only two choices: be with Dylan and give up any hope of interacting with her family and community for the rest of her life, or reject Dylan, the person she loves most, and live a life with her family but without a partner, forever hiding the fact that she’s a lesbian.

Rebecca’s development as she navigates her own feelings and goals makes up the main story arc, with Dylan’s progress taking a bit of a backseat. I was impressed, though, by how realistically their shifts in self-understanding were addressed. Dylan struck me as pretty transparent the whole time, but Rebecca’s feelings, motivations, and how well she understood them at various times made her more complex and compelling. There was also a sub-plot involving Rebecca’s family that tied nicely into the romance between Rebecca and Dylan.

The only complaint I have with this novel is that the writing was often less subtle than I’d like. There were several instances where I’d understood the implication of something that took place – for example, Rebecca and Dylan shifting away from each other in the front seat of a car – and then the narrative went on to explain that this motion symbolized the rift that was growing between them emotionally. Sometimes the dialogue was like this as well: a little too expository, the characters saying things they’d never say to one another for the sake of giving the reader information. This didn’t mar my enjoyment too much, though. I wanted to know what would happen so much that I sped through the book. I thought it tackled a lot of issues respectfully, and although it was sometimes cliched, I came to love the characters and was very satisfied at the end.

[Check out Danika‘s and Anna‘s reviews of Rum Spring as well!]

Katie Raynes reviews Fairy Tales for Princesses Who Love Dames by Rene von Bonaparte

Fairy Tales for Princesses Who Love Dames by Rene von Bonaparte is a collection of classic fairy tales retold in a modern setting with lesbians as the main couples. It includes adaptations of “The Princess and the Pea,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Frog Prince”.

The stories are set in the modern world, but the language of each one retains the “once upon a time” lyricism of classic fairy tales. I found this method of using old-fashioned language to describe modern things and concepts (such as cell phones and rock stars) charming. Each heroine met and wooed the girl of her dreams, and I appreciated that attention was not drawn to the characters’ sexual or romantic orientation as if it needed some sort of explanation. While I think stories in which a character’s status as a gender or sexual minority is discussed are very important, I also long for stories in which nobody blinks an eye when a girl kisses another girl. These were those kind of stories.

I did have some problems with this collection, though. It really could have used a more thorough editing–I was thrown out of the story countless times by misspellings, misused words, and incorrect punctuation. More importantly, I was disturbed by the standards of beauty these stories upheld. White skin was consistently used as an indicator of beauty–I felt I was supposed to understand that the heroines or their objects of affection were beautiful simply because of how white their skin was. There were women of color, but they were always the “exotic other,” the object to be obtained or saved, rather than the central character who did the saving. I really feel it’s important to avoid using language that supports white skin as the default and brown skin as something that sets a character apart. Also, while the heroines did have a variety of body types, one of the evil stepsisters in the Cinderella story was described as fat and the narration used a lot of negative fat talk (comparing her to a pig, etc.) to illustrate how ugly she was. These undertones all made me very uncomfortable.

Katie Raynes reviews The Gunfighter and the Gear-Head by Cassandra Duffy

Cassandra Duffy’s The Gunfighter and the Gear-Head is a fun melding of steampunk and Old West in a post-apocalyptic setting. The story centers around Tombstone – which, after a cataclysmic war between Earth and an invading alien force – has reverted to a harsh, dangerous place ruled by outlaws. The story follows Gieo, a dirigible pilot, mad scientist, and all-around genius, and Fiona, a former lingerie model who is now one of the most powerful and respected gunfighters in the area. Their relationship and its twists and turns forms the core of the plot as the characters battle cultists, other outlaws, and the aliens.

When I first started reading, I was initially somewhat put off by the frequency and descriptiveness of the sex scenes, owing to my personal preference for mooshy romance and drawn-out courtships. Gieo and Fiona didn’t know each other very well the first few times things got heavy between them, but I was drawn through the story by the complexity of their feelings for each other, and by the fact that those feelings were constantly evolving in reaction to events and revelations about each other. As they got to know each other, and I got to know both of them, their relationship became my favorite part, and I was rooting for them the whole way through. They went through plenty of rough spots as lovers, and I felt that these were all handled realistically. I was never left unsatisfied or doubtful about the nature of their feelings for each other.

Even though Gieo and Fiona’s relationship was my favorite part, it was Cassandra Duffy’s worldbuilding that impressed me the most. The history of the alien invasion and the years after it unfolded slowly and tantalizingly. Duffy also handled all of the technical terms utilized in describing Geio’s inventions and steampunk contraptions impeccably – they were completely understandable to me as someone who knows next to nothing about how machines work, but they were specific enough and showed enough expertise that I was convinced Gieo knew exactly what she was doing. I was also happy that Gieo is Korean, since queer literature in always needs more women of color. All of the characters were well drawn and had sudden flashes of depth that kept me engaged with each one.

I was sad about some of the things that took place at the end, but as luck would have it, there’s a second book in the series: The Steam-Powered Sniper in the City of Broken Bridges. From the Goodreads description, it appears to follow one of the side characters (a personal favorite!) so I’m looking forward to reading it.