Lena reviews Hearts Starve by Patricia Russo


Hearts Starve, Patricia Russo’s haunting novel, is a story about loss. Not the act of losing, the reality of loss. People who have already lost things and must confront their doomed actuality. For such depressing subject matter, it’s still a beautiful and heart wrenching book.

Told as a dark, urban fairytale, the story follows three different people in various states of desperation. Marleen, arguably the story’s protagonist, lives with her wife and her wife’s dying father and feels more and more trapped in her situation. Corrie, an unemployed drifter, tries to turn her life around and finds obstacles at ever turn. Gil, the most unexplained character, barely exists in reality and tries to understand his own impulses and urges. All three are loosely linked by their dealings with two otherworldly brothers who seem to wreak havoc on anything they touch. One, a nameless man in a red coat, slips something into Marleen’s coat that permanently alters her reality and brings into Corrie’s orbit as they briefly try to help each other.

The fairy tale aspects of this story represent an interesting way for Russo to highlight each character’s loss. Here are three people who were already doomed before they were touched by the book’s fantasy elements. The unexplained chaos of the two brothers doesn’t help them or bring them any peace, if anything it just brings the desperation of their situations into sharper focus. It’s a good device but one Russo probably could have mined more from. She clearly knows a lot about this world, but, perhaps because of the darkness of each character, we don’t get to see much of it. Each character’s situation is unique, making hard to get a grasp on the rules of the world which probably would have brought the weight of understanding the end of the story. Regardless, the final scenes are still poignant and, days later, I’m still thinking about this book, which must mean Russo is doing something right.

Lena reviews “Prairie Women in Love” and “Dames with Dames” by Rachel Windsor

prairiewomeninlove   dameswithdames

Both “Prairie Women in Love” and “Dames with Dames,” by Rachel Windsor, are part of a series about lesbians through the ages.  “Written by lesbians for lesbians,” the tagline proudly proclaims.  In that sense, these two little pieces do not disappoint.  They are both short, easy to read on a lunch break and have charming plots that end with a smile.

“Prairie Women in Love,” set in the late 1800s, tells the story of a young woman who moves to Wisconsin to be a teacher and falls in love with the woman she’s replacing.  It’s an engaging plot, there is the ever-looming threat of marriage and other societal expectations, while a young women discovers the limits of her independence.  The characters are interesting and we’re happy to see them find a way to be together in the end.

“Dames with Dames” a 1940s noir, is equally charming.  Taking many cues from the staples of the detective genre, there is a Sam Spade-esque character and his beautiful secretary who are hired to help a woman in trousers recover a stolen ring.  Strangely, for something in the noir vein, there is no real darkness in this story.  The only truly dark character, the secretary’s boyfriend, never makes an appearance, and the secretary is quickly whisked to safety in the arms of her new client.  Even the detective, usually seen as an anti-hero, is more of a gruff uncle, confused but ultimately kind-hearted.  But even without the darkness, it’s an engaging story with a pleasant conclusion.

But for how nice both of these stories are, both of them could use some diversity.  Both sets of lovers present the clear dichotomy of a bunch/femme dynamic, which is all fine and good, but it would be nice to see couples on either side of that spectrum.  The sex scenes are also mostly identical and it was plenty nice the first time, but I would love to see something more character driven and less based on a continually retelling of the same smut scene that seems appear in all erotica.

Despite the similarities between the stories, they’re both very nice reads and it is always more fun to see more queer historical fiction.

Lena reviews A Dying Place by Emma Johnson-Rivard


There’s an almost theatrical quality to A Dying Place, Emma Johnson-Rivard’s rather bleak fantasy story.  In terms of setting and structure, the novel functions as a play and it speaks to Johnson-Rivard’s strengths as a writer that she’s able to let the characters sing through that format.

The book opens with Ama’u, a veteran of failed military attempt to colonize Kathas, the country across the sea from her native Raisun.  Ama’u is an orphan who has stayed in Kathas even after the rest of her country’s army has return home.  She’s an outcast in every sense of the word, traveling aimlessly around the treacherous countryside, unable to find a reason to stay or go.  During a storm she takes shelter in a cave on a riverbank.  Inside she finds a Kathasian warrior woman sick with a bacterial infection that is destroying her eyes.  The two first try valiantly to kill each other, but then become tentative friends and allies as they navigate the dying place haunted by myths and legends to aid them in the process.

Johnson-Rivard’s world building is incredibly impressive.  The world of Kathas feels like something she’s lived in for years, there’s a complete set of religious myths and legends as well as well-developed  culturally based rituals and customs.  Exploring these differences in background give Ama’u and Esben a constant dialogue that allows them to come through as characters despite an incredibly static background.  Any weaker dialogue would have destroyed the piece, but Johson-Rivard seems to have a knack for knowing when to just let her characters talk.  The overall arc of the book may have benefited from a bit more objective and purpose for the characters, but it carries itself along very nicely.  The build-up at the end does feel a bit sudden, but the pay off works well and it’s a very satisfying conclusion.

Lena reviews Exception to the Rule by Cindy Rizzo


In a lot of ways, Exception to the Rule by Cindy Rizzo has everything you would want in a queer love story.  Intelligent, socially conscious characters who are exceptionally good at their chosen fields and, after overcoming initial differences, share an exceptional romance.

Robin and Tracy meet during their first semester at Adams, a university outside Boston.  Their differences are pretty striking.  Robin, from New York, is edgy and urban, only at Adams to develop her writing techniques.  On the other hand, Tracy is from the South and maintains a carefully created façade to hide her affairs with older women from her family.  They’re just different enough to incredibly compatible.  Together with their friend Angie, the three plan to take their college by storm.  The friendship of this trio is worth remarking on – it’s incredibly harmonious and a really lovely depiction of female friendships.  The writing is interesting.  Rizzo has a knack for creating a fully dimensional environment for her characters and it’s easy to fall into the world of the story.  All three characters excel at school and bumble along at romance and suddenly it’s too exceptional.  Everything is so rosy tinted that it’s hard to take.

Rizzo’s created a queer fantasia of socially conscious characters who are exceptional at everything they do.  And while that’s great, we need more of that, it’s gets to the point where it doesn’t feel real.  Tracy, the psychology student, quickly finds herself excelling in upper level classes while Robin, the writer, creates flawless and impressive stories.  While their love story is somewhat bumpy, nothing stops them for too long and soon there is romantic as well as academic bliss.  By the end I just couldn’t stomach the perfection.  These characters are so fortunate and their live are so exceptional that I couldn’t believe in them anymore.  I wanted more failure because that sounded more revealing than the perpetual good luck of the story.

Lena reviews Andi Unwrapped by Riley Adair Garret


Andi Unwrapped, Riley Adair Garret’s collegiate romance about a popular English professor and her student, is a story about obstacles.  Garret throws up problems that prevent her heroines from being together almost from start to finish.  What starts out as being interesting and exciting starts to feel like tedious and unnecessary drama by the end, especially since Garret probably would have had more than enough drama simply in the given circumstances of her characters.

Andi Mattison is in her late thirties and has spent most of her adult life in an abusive marriage.  The book opens with one of the final moments of the marriage and it’s a compellingly written scene.  We see a villain in the husband and a complexity in Andi that unfortunately never surface again.  We jump ahead three years to where Andi is starting her final year as a Life-Long-Learning student at Wellsdale, a small women’s college.  She beings an independent study with Britt Avery, the resident professorial heartthrob, and sparks immediately fly.  While Andi examines her changing ideas of her own sexuality, Britt is very much out, but hasn’t been in a serious relationship in many years.  The two must navigate the ethical questions of a student-teacher relationship, both women’s past baggage and the various obstacles put up by the people around them, most of whom seem to want to sleep with either or both women.

Most of the book is quite good fun.  All the expected moments of budding romance are nicely developed and Garret’s written characters who have good chemistry together.  The classic ‘one character falls ill so the other must tenderly nurse them back to health’ scenario is deliciously entertaining.  The pervasive queerness of the women’s college setting is also a nice backdrop for the story.  But it seems like Garret hasn’t put enough stock in her characters.  She’s created two people whose given circumstances, Andi’s past marriage, Britt’s avoidance of commitment, could sustain the drama of their relationship.  Even if that weren’t enough, the fact that they meet as teacher and student and must protect Britt’s job and reputation also drives up the stakes for the two characters.  Instead there are an exhausting number of additional external circumstances, previous romantic obligations and obsessive crushes to name a few, that prvent the women from being together.  Andi does address the repercussions of her past marriage, but strangely with a friend for her psychology project instead of with Britt.  The external drama also prompts moments of dishonesty between Britt and Andi that are much more intriguing than the circumstances themselves.  Garret created such interesting characters, it would have been nice to see them really talk about themselves and their situation instead of constantly dealing with drama that at times felt unnecessary.

Lena reviews Out of Time by Lesley Dimmock


Strangely enough, the title of Lesley Dimmock’s new novel, Out of Time, not only describes the plot, but also the general feeling of the book.  Dimmock’s created a nice story and compelling characters, but the narrative still feels hasty and rushed,

The book opens with Queen Elizabeth the first on horseback bickering with her courtiers.  Dimmock does do a nice job of creating a comfortable period tone.  The 16th century passages have a casual feel to them that helps the reader inhabit the world, instead of bursting with references and overwhelming dramaturgical prowess.  While out, the Queen and her entourage stop in a circle of stones rumored to have mystical powers.  With a clap of thunder, the Queen disappears.

We next see her in a back garden in modern-day Australia, an unexpected jump for all involved.  The garden belongs to Lindsay ap Rhys ap Gruffud, a Welsh ex-pat and the ostensible hero of the story.  From there charming romp unfolds as Lindsay, her best friend Meg and the mysterious and beautiful librarian, Kate Spencer, try to find a way to send the time traveling Queen back to her own epoch.

It’s a fun story.  Dimmock seems to know how to move her plot along gracefully, but doesn’t seem to fully know what her plot is.  There are several scenes that, while entertaining, don’t seem to add much to the story.  The moments of time travel are exciting, but mostly unexplained and one can’t help but wonder more about how time travel exists in this world.

As the plot flew through its paces, there were also scenes that could have used some more time and development.  All the characters are thoroughly charming and fun to read about.  Unfortunately they exist on such a surface level that we barely get to spend with them.  The romance between Kate and Lindsay is very sweet and it could have taken up more of the book and been used to further develop the characters.  All of them needed a bit more time for narrative and exposition instead of only existing in the dialogue.  The build-up of each character’s narrative arc lacked any unexpected revelations and while they were charming, some depth might have added an element surprise and discovery to their interactions.

Really, the problem with Out of Time is it’s just good enough to leave you wanting more time both with the plot and the characters, but still missing that payoff.

Lena reviews In This Small Spot by Caren J. Werlinger


While it’s clear that In this Small Spot, Caren J. Werlinger’s abbey epic, is a love story, it is ultimately a book about excess and restraint.  The story’s arc is massive, sprawling across five years and numerous memories.  It’s a lengthy commitment, but luckily the prose moves along at a nice pace.  Werlinger has a good sense of when to summarize and when to linger in a scene.

Within the expanse of the story, Werlinger has created a world so thoroughly fleshed out that at times it’s a little overwhelming.  The plot follows Mickey, a successful surgeon who decides to give up her practice and teaching position to become a nun at St. Bridget’s Abby.  What follows is not only an incredibly detailed account of Mickey’s journey but of the entire abbey itself.  The book overflows with characters and while they are all interesting and many do contribute to the plot, some of them felt like they needed their own separate books.

During her time as a postulant, Mickey meets the imposing Sister Anselma who becomes her mentor.  With her help, Mickey starts to process the guilt she feels over her partner’s death and her place within the world of the abbey.  The two grow closer and begin to fall in love, despite their religious vows and obligations.  Their relationship is one of extreme restraint as they attempt to deny their feelings for each other and navigate the theological dilemma of their situation.

This conflict between the restraint of the subject matter while the plot leaps and bounds around it feels like the book’s true strength.  The balance between the characters’ careful negotiation of their relationship while other drama rages around them makes the moments they do find together all the more powerful.  Unfortunately Werlinger can’t quite sustain it and in the end her careful building succumbs to the excess of plot and this reader, for one, just wished the characters could have been left at a quiet moment and allowed to rest.

Lena reviews Roadkill by Alexandra Allred



The general conceit about most established fictional detectives is their lack of home life.  Either because of the job or because of their need for the job, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade don’t really have a lot else going on.  The opposite is true for Allie Lindell, Alexandra Allred’s doggedly determined protagonist of “Roadkill.”  She has a full-time job in being a mother to two small children and all the responsibilities that come with running a household.  In her limited spare time she investigates leads from her friend writing for the local crime beat, using her cop sister as a sounding board and neighbor as willing partner.

The story follows Allie as she investigates two separate cases – the murder of a former policeman and an apparent serial killer dumping the bodies of his victims on the highway.  Under the pretense of writing for various fictional news sources, Allie manages to worm her way into all the situations she needs to unravel what turns out to be a thoroughly sordid series of events.

Although the plot does drag at times, all lose ends are dutifully accounted for and it does stay true to what Allred seems to be  trying to do: give motherhood its due.  Allie does leap, sometimes foolishly, after ever lead she finds, but she does it while juggling babysitters and groceries and an increasingly frustrated wife.  It’s an impressive feat  even if it takes away from the flow of the book and its implied narrative conceit.

Allie herself is an interesting character, whose flaws make her likeable even if she isn’t the best narrator.  She’s deliberately one-sided, blinded by her view of the world, and prone to tangential monologues about the world that could be illuminating if they linked back to the plot later.  Despite the book’s impressively complicated plotlines, the most interesting part was the way Allie’s marriage seems to hobble along despite the strain from both women.  Allie is presented as a devoted, but bored stay-at-home mother who gave up her job to look after her two children.  Private investigation is a side gig to get her out of the house even if she has to bring her children with her to stakeouts.  Her wife, Rae Ann, works nights and plays on what seems likes an incredibly time consuming softball team.  There is a well-developed web of outside female support who as babysitters and accomplices for Allie and her work – roles that one might think would be taken by a wife or partner.  While the obvious object of Allie’s devotion, Rae Ann doesn’t physically appear until fifty pages into the book, and never sticks around long.  Allie and Rae Ann are almost comically unsympathetic to the each other’s problems and Allie, at least, is conflicted by the tension between frustration of misunderstanding and the blinding need to forgive and excuse the person she loves.  Allred also doesn’t shy away from the effects of marital strain on children and the repercussions of Allie’s fights for her children.  Watching the marriage teeter is almost more interesting than Allie’s detective work, but when the conflict does finally does come to a head, it’s ultimately unfulfilling.

Lena reviews Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi


We learn in elementary school not to judge a book by its cover, but it might be worth it for Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel.  The woman on the front looks a bit like Gina Torres if Firefly had merged with Star Wars and it’s completely amazing.  What’s inside is a completely entertaining science fiction adventure totally worth of the Gina Torres look-a-like on the front.

Koyanagi’s built an interesting world with all the staples one would expect in a good sci fi.  There are spaceships, interplanetary travel and aliens, but also a thoroughly interesting socio-political landscape in which the convergence of science and magic have created a mystical super-corporation capable of economic and social control through emotional and technological manipulation.

In the midst of all this is Alana Quick, a destitute spaceship engineer or sky surgeon trying to make ends meet in her aunt’s repair shop while dealing with a degenerative disease in a world without universal healthcare.  She’s a charming character with a unique voice made up of a nice blend of confidence and insecurity.  It’s also very refreshing to see a character with a chronic illness that is part of their life but not the defining characteristic of their existence.  Instead, Alana is governed by her love of spaceships, specifically a ship called Tangled Axon that lands in her shipyard looking for Alana’s sister Nova.  Desperate to get off the planet, Alana stows on board hoping they’ll need an engineer.  They allow her to stay in exchange for helping finding Nova and Alana is promptly embroiled in the mess of their lives.

It’s a fun book.  The action moves along at a nice pace and Koyanagi has a good sense for when to push the plot and when to let her moments sit.  The relationship that blossom between Alana and the crew of Tangled Axon are the glue that holds the story together.  It’s also clear that, like many other sci fi and fantasy pieces, Koyanagi’s building a world to tell stories about people who don’t often get to be the heroes.  Her dedication to that ideal comes through strongest and what makes this such a lovely little story.  We’re presented with a world without much patriarchal or gender-based hierarchy – all the leadership roles in the book are held by women.  It’s awesome and highlights what seems like a very intentional lack of masculine presence.  One could see a missed opportunity to make something of that difference in leadership, to capitalize on the differences between the story and reality, but it’s treated as completely natural.  For the story Koyanagi’s trying to tell, that’s the stronger choice.  She gives us world that has already come together to include and showcase the people who are still finding their voices in ours.

Lena reviews “Women Float” by Maureen Foley


“Women Float,” Maureen Foley’s gentle and lyrical novella is a lesson in patience and painful futility of life.  The story follows Win, a baker in southern California, as she attempts to reconcile various pieces of her life.  There’s her mother, a mysterious figure who disappeared when Win was nine; Mia, Win’s best friend and unrequited crush; and Sandra, a woman who trades swimming lessons for cream puffs.  The central theme, that Foley weaves carefully through the narrative, is water and the idea of floating.

At times the metaphor is literal and blatant.  Win’s mother was a surfer, alive in the water, while Win has never learned to swim and mainly associates the water with traumatic experiences of disassociation and terror.  The swimming lessons with Sandra that carry through the book are dreaded moments of self examination.  What is really magical about this literal use of theme is it allows us access to the more nebulous aspects of Win’s identity.  We discover she’s a compulsive liar, exemplified in a terrifying scene with the people who now live in her childhood home, and is distracted by mysterious postcards that arrive from various parts of the country.  Instead of using the scene at her old home or letting the strange postcards become an obsession, Foley spends more time with the swimming lessons, bringing us into Win’s world through her own phobia and self-doubt.  We experience fear and hesitation in synch with the character instead of fighting through the steely control of her lies or the delusions of her love for Mia.  The result is a really beautifully created tragedy that still feels incredibly alive and beautiful.

“Women Float” is ultimately a tale about the futility of life.  By the end of the book, very little is resolved.  There are some answers, but the remaining questions still overwhelm them.  The ending does beg for more resolution, but at the same time there’s a degree of truth in the story’s final scenes that justifies its lack of closure.