Katie reviews Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger


Miserere by Caren J. Werlinger was an utterly engaging read. I was captivated from the first page and could scarcely put it down. It’s an intriguing mix of mystery, ghost story, love story, and social commentary, and Werlinger melds all of these together to create a cohesive and compelling story.

When the story opens, it seems like there are two separate plotlines. In the first, Caitríona Ní Faolain and her older sister – two young Irish women in the 1850s – are sold by their father to the English owner of an American plantation in exchange for land to help feed their starving family. In the second, set in the late 1960s, Connemara Mitchell and her family move to their mother’s ancestral home in West Virginia when her father goes MIA in Vietnam. The focus shifts back and forth between these two seemingly unrelated stories until it becomes apparent that Conn is in fact Caitríona’s descendent and is dreaming about the events of her life. Conn is only ten or eleven years old, and yet she has a unique understanding of the world that lends a maturity to her while at the same time coming into conflict with her natural immaturity. As she explores her new house, she happens upon secrets – hidden passageways, lost diaries – that begin to intertwine with her dreams and compel her unravel the mystery. The more she learns, the more she realizes how vitally important it is for her to find out what happened to Caitríona and her family and prevent it from happening again.

I’m not sure if this was meant to be a children’s book or young adult book (going strictly by the age of the protagonist, I guess it was) but it definitely tackled lots of difficult topics in a way that I feel would be understandable and helpful to younger people. There were so many things at work in the story: spousal abuse, child abuse, poverty, war and its effects on the families of soldiers, prejudice. Racism was the most prominent of these issues. Conn and her family became friends with a black teacher-turned-carpenter, Abraham, who helped them upgrade their house, and the 1968 plotline focused just as much on the bigotry, hatred, and violence he was put through as on the mystery of Caitríona’s fate. Conn and her family were shunned as well for being friendly with him, and the slowly changing times were illustrated through a local white boy who grew to respect and admire Abraham over the course of the story.

I thought that the message of love and respect was an important one, and it would be relatable for white children reading this, but at the same time, I was a little uncomfortable about the saintly light Conn and her family were shown in by virtue of their treatment of Abraham. I felt like the story fell into a trap of “enlightened white family arrives in backwater southern town and effortlessly changes public opinion by treating the black citizens like human beings”. Abraham was a complex and likable character, but he was never given the chance to stand up for himself, and it was always Conn or her mother who rescued him – whether that meant verbally defending him, instituting a boycott against a storekeeper who refused to serve him, or literally saving his life. As a white girl born in the 80s, I can’t have any idea what it was like to be a person of color in the 60s (or any time), but it felt very disempowering for the white characters in this book to always be the saviors.

Miserere was largely a mystery with strong social commentary, but it was also a romance. Since I got this review copy from the Lesbrary, I was waiting eagerly for the lesbians to show up – and the lesbian content was very well done and gently hinted at before being fully revealed. Caitríona fell in love with Hannah, a black slave who lived on the same plantation, and Hannah was the key to the mystery. One of the reasons Conn is able to break her family’s curse is because she is the first person in the family to be able to understand Caitríona’s feelings for Hannah. Although she’s not old enough yet to be particularly interested in romance, she knows – especially once she experiences Caitríona’s feelings through her dreams – that she’ll fall in love with a woman someday herself. It was comforting to read a story where the lesbian romance was not the focus. It was at the heart of the story, the driving force behind Caitríona’s actions, but it wasn’t treated as a novelty or peculiarity. I hope that more books continue to be written along that line – where being a lesbian is an important part of a character, but not overwhelming her personality to the exclusion of all else. Overall, I was impressed by the quality of writing in Miserere and by the streamlined, well-constructed plot.

Katie reviews Twixt by Sarah Diemer


Sarah Diemer’s Twixt drew me in from the first sentence, sunk its claws into me, and didn’t let go until the last page. The novel is named after the world it resides in – Twixt – and the world is a strange, frightening, utterly fascinating one. People wake up in Abeo City with no memories, and they’re forced to navigate a world that doesn’t work like the one we’re used to. Walls can be walked through, people barter hair for things they want, and everyone lives in fear of the Snatchers – skeletal, birdlike monsters that swoop down and take away anyone caught outside at night.

The narrative follows Lottie, a girl who proves from the beginning to be an exception to so many rules. People usually appear in Twixt at one of Abeo City’s crossroads at midnight, but Lottie wakes up outside of the city. She also appears to be immune to Nox, a drug that the people of Abeo City use to regain a memory from their past. The story centers around the mystery of Lottie’s past and is interwoven beautifully with her relationship with Charlie, an idealistic and deeply courageous girl whose job it is to retrieve new arrivals from the crossroads before they’re attacked by a Snatcher.

The growing relationship between Lottie and Charlie and the rich development of the world in Twixt are what drew me in and kept me captivated. I constantly long for genre stories in which the main characters are lesbians – fantasy and historical fiction and sci-fi and horror – and I think Twixt falls into the Young Adult dark fantasy category. It’s very suspenseful. The atmosphere really creates a feeling of oppression, dread, and the unknown: the landscape of woods outside the city is flooded with images of a red sky behind black bars of trees, and inside the city, the decrepit, dust-covered, crumbling areas are contrasted with a Victorian-esque affluent section. Through all of it, Lottie’s emotions are so close to the reader that I felt swept along with the story. Her relationship with Charlie felt so authentic, especially considering that, with so many mysteries and secrets, they struggle with telling each other the truth. At the same time, their relationship is incredibly uplifting and made me want to punch the air with triumph several times.

There are so many twists involved in this story that it’s hard to talk about without spoilers. I was really struck by the strength of the characters and the compassion they show. I really enjoy books that restore my faith in people through the characters; Lottie has such incredible courage in the face of really awful, soul-searing things, and Charlie has a tremendous amount of goodness and hope in her. All of the characters have their flaws and downfalls, and even the side characters are multi-faceted. My favorite lesbian books are ones where the fact that the characters are lesbians is only a part of it, informing their experience but not engulfing it. The messages of compassion and hope made this a very fulfilling read for me.

Katie Raynes reviews Ash by Malinda Lo


I’d encountered numerous mentions of Malinda Lo’s Ash, a retelling of Cinderella, long before I bought a copy. It’s always on lists of fantasy fiction with lesbian protagonists and from what I’ve seen, it enjoys a lot of popularity and good reviews. I bought it hoping to find a professional, lush retelling of a fairy tale, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Ash draws inspiration from all sorts of European mythology, particularly stories of the Wild Hunt. The story follows the usual Cinderella plot but is wound through with several sub-stories that added depth and allowed me to empathize more with the characters than I do when I read traditional fairy tales. From the beginning to the end, one of the things that drives Ash is the memory of her deceased mother, and many of the story’s significant mysteries involve her mother both in origin and resolution. In fact, all of the major pieces of the story in Ash are woven together skillfully. There are two people with whom Ash has significant relationships – Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, and the fairy Sidhean. Though the nature of these relationships is very different, they’re intertwined and each relies on the other to hold the plot together.

One of the things that really drew me into the story was the landscape. I tend to fall in love with landscapes in fantasy stories, and sometimes they end up being what brings me back to a book again and again. The settings in Ash were no exception. Much of the story takes place in forests, and they were all vividly realized with vibrant and contrasting details. Among the various settings were the deep, wild northern forests near where Ash grew up; the sunny, Sherwood-like woods where she met with Kaisa; the moonlit and gossamery faery glades that seemed to flicker in and out of reality; the bleak, stone-hard houses where she lived under the oppression of her step-family; and the resplendent garden-ringed palace of the royal family. All of them felt real enough to me that I looked forward to each setting change.

Ash’s relationship with Kaisa was satisfying but uncomplicated; I definitely rooted for Kaisa as Ash’s love interest even though Ash’s relationship with Sidhean could be considered more complex. The normal Cinderella “prince looking for a bride” plot took a backseat to Ash’s developing love for Kaisa and navigation of her bond with Sidhean, and I definitely preferred it that way. The prince was more of a backdrop, a reason for the celebrations at which Ash and Kaisa were able to meet. I felt that the resolution to all of the plot’s mysteries was somewhat sudden and vague, but I cared more about the journey anyway, and the journey was definitely worth it.

Katie reviews Project Unicorn Vol I: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza! by Jennifer Diemer and Sarah Diemer


Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza! by Jennifer Diemer and Sarah Diemer is a free fiction project that was created, in the authors’ words, “because of the obvious lack of lesbian heroines in the Young Adult genre, and the critical need for them.” Typically updated twice a week, this project provides short genre-fiction stories that feature lesbian characters.

I’m reviewing Project Unicorn: Volume I, which includes The Dark Woods, The Monstrous Sea, and Uncharted Sky. I really can’t tell you how delighted I am that these stories are being written and published – for free, no less – in the first place. I’ve always been a genre fiction girl at heart, and I’ve sharply felt the lack of lesbian characters in genres like fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and historical fiction. Not only is the quality of the stories in Project Unicorn: Volume I extremely high, there 30 stories to enjoy in this volume, more on the authors’ website (http://muserising.com), and more to come. The stories are extremely diverse, from mermaids to ghosts to werewolves to aliens. They span all sorts of time periods, and elements of romance appear in varying levels of focus. I loved the sweetness of the relationships in “Finding Mars” and “The Gargoyle Maker” as much as I appreciated that romance wasn’t forced to take the spotlight in “Melusine”. The characters are all lesbian, but their lesbianness doesn’t necessarily define who they are. There was a balance of stories in which being a lesbian was a non-issue and ones in which the characters had to deal with the discrimination and hardships that lesbians face in reality. I found the balance very satisfying, because I get tired of all stories featuring lesbians focusing mostly on their lesbianness, but at the same time I understand the importance of acknowledging what we go through.

Some of my favorites from the anthology include Jennifer Diemer’s “Dreaming Green,” about a woman on a sterile space station who finds a mysterious seed in space and defies regulations by planting it; her “The Girl on the Mountain”, which follows the relationship of a young girl in a mountain village with a sky-being who her people consider to be a deity; Sarah Diemer’s “The Gargoyle Maker,” about a woman who creates stone monsters to protect a medieval town; and her “Nike,” a stunningly beautiful story about a bullied girl who reaches the depths of despair and learns how to raise herself out of them. Also among my favorites are “Kyrie” and “Mirror,” two extra stories not published on the website that are included in Volume I.

The writing quality ranges from charming to exquisite. There were a handful of stories that left me wanting more and felt like snapshots of a larger story, but the majority of them were well-rounded. These are stories I’ll gladly curl up with and read again when I need comfort or crave escape.

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.