Mary reviews Gingerbread Hearts by Judy Underwood

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.

“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey

Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.

This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.

“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann

Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.

This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.

However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.

“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens

Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.

This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
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“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan

Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.

This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.

“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae

These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.

In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.

These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.

Mary reviews The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews

The Princess and the Evil Queen by Lola Andrews (affiliate link)

Princess Snow White and the Evil Queen (Harlow) have been at war for years. Harlow might have been married to Snow’s father, but he died shortly after they were married, and the two women are very similar in age. Growing up, they had something of a friendship, but that changed over time, and their paths diverged into darkness. Now, Harlow suggests a truce to the war that would require Snow to live with her and at the end of it make a choice that would change everything.

This an erotic romance novel with a twist on a classic fairy tale that was interesting and enjoyable to read. Snow is more independent in this and is out on the front lines of the war with her husband Prince Charles. What I really loved about her character, though, was her resolve to continuously be compassionate and understanding. She isn’t hardened by her dark past with Harlow or the war: she remains kind.

Harlow, on the other hand, is hardened, but understandably so. The story delves into her past: how she got her powers and to be the queen in the first place. She has many secrets that she struggles with, along with the trauma of her past. I like that the story doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of her or try to excuse her actions when they’re wrong. She has to make right what she’s done, not only for Snow, or her kingdom, but for herself.

The romance was a lot of fun and never felt like my excitement died down while reading this. It helps to know the fairy tale beforehand and come into it knowing that Snow and Harlow were at least somewhat close before the war, because things do pick up rather quickly. Having said that, I never felt like it moved too fast. I could definitely tell these two were old friends in some way, and the chemistry sparked so easily between them that their interactions felt natural.

The world building and the magic were also great. While the story changes the narrative, it still felt like a fairy tale, and without giving too much away, the way the magic mirror works was a really interesting twist.

Overall, I loved this retelling of Snow White and recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and erotic romance story.

Mary reviews Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

I love historical fiction with sapphic love stories, especially set in the old west. This as niche a genre as it can get, but the heart wants what the heart wants. This time my love has brought me to Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun.

After years of abuse and isolation on her family’s farm, Cody finally revolts against her father, disguises herself as a man and heads west to find fortune and freedom. Along the way she meets, Lillie, who has left her upper middle-class life to take up a farm her uncle left her when he passed. She also has dreams of being an artist, but she is hindered by misogyny of her society. Once they meet, they become friends, and soon grow closer than that.

This is a very pleasant and soothing friends-to-lovers story that warmed my heart. Cody and Lillie were distinct characters and their own arcs as well as their love story was engaging. The author takes her time to show Cody and Lillie slowly developing feelings for each other and finding ways to deal with that. How Cody took care of her secret was also well done and how Lillie handled it.

The author also does a good job of bringing characters and making them a meaningful part of the story, no matter how brief their encounter. Cody and Lillie make many friends on their journey, from ones they travel with, to neighbors on the farm, to people back in their home states. All of them felt real and engaging.

Another aspect I liked about the story was how antagonist wasn’t one single person, but the frontier and challenges of society. Both Cody and Lillie have to deal with several unsavory characters and circumstances, and they all felt real and interesting. This really added to the believability of the story and their characters arcs.

The world building was also very well done. Vaun clearly did a lot of research into the time period and the daily lives of those who lived in it. I felt like I was really there and reminded me of why I love this genre so much.

My one gripe is that I wanted the story to be longer. Some plot points felt a bit of rushed and I would have liked to have sit with the turmoil and challenges a bit longer. As I said, I enjoyed that the antagonist was the time period and society, but those challenges would have benefited from being more deeply explored by the characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story book and I recommend it to any other sapphic fans of historical fiction.

Mary reviews Hidden Truths by Jae

Hidden Truths by Jae

I loved the story of Luke and Nora in Backwards to Oregon by Jae, in which a woman in disguise as a man marries another woman in what starts as a fake relationship to help each other on the long Oregon trial, turns into a romantic, slow burn favorite of mine. You can find my review for that here. Hidden Truths is the sequel set 17 years later and focuses more on Luke and Nora’s eldest daughter Amy and her romance with newcomer to the horse ranch, Rika. Amy has grown up under the love of her parents and given much more freedom than most women in her age. She also feels an attraction to women that she struggles with but is able to keep locked down – that is until she meets Rika. Rika comes to Oregon pretending to be her her dead friend to be a mail order bride to a man who works on the farm. Along with all of that, Luke still hasn’t revealed to her two daughters that she is a woman, despite them both being old enough to keep the secret.

Hidden identity is a theme I love and here it was explored so well. Luke is hiding her gender, Rika is hiding her name and history, and Amy is hiding her sexuality. All of these conflicts and storylines weave together and build off of each other. Each character moves the other forward in their arc and development. Everyone gets a moment to shine, which I’m glad for as I was worried when I saw how big the cast is.

The romance between Amy and Rika was very engaging. I could really believe who they slowly took time to get to know each other, then to trust one another, and then to slowly fall in love. At the same time both are struggling with secrets they have from each other.

However, the romance isn’t the only plot. Luke takes some of his horses to another state to sell them and Amy is left in charge of the ranch. She has to deal with men not wanting to follow her command in an era where women were nothing more than wives.

I also really appreciated the world building and the clear expansive amount of research the author had put in. I love historical fiction and nothing can ruin a story more for me than feeling plots points and character movements are out of place for the era. At the same time, it can be just as damning to have too much exposition on the world and the time period. Jae masterfully weaves in the information with the characters and their stories.

Overall, this was a great read I recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or stories with hidden identity. This is a sequel, but I think it stands very well on its own if you want to start here instead of Backwards to Oregon (but I do highly recommend that one as well).

Mary reviews Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame

Courting the Countess by Jenny FrameI loved Downton Abbey. Was it a classist, heteronormative, and super white show? Yes, it was trash. But it was my trash. It was the kind of show that I loved not just for my engagement with the characters, but because of what could have been. One character in particular that kept me coming back was Thomas, the gay footman. He was kind of a jerk, and it was explained away that homophobia made him a jerk, and maybe that’s something to analyze at another time – but the point is there was one single gay character in the whole show. And I, a lesbian hopelessly drawn to the historical fiction genre, was left in want.

Now, years later after Downton Abbey has ended and it’s ending for Thomas left something to be desired, I’ve now found a book that feeds my hopeless desire for a gay historical drama around a small English town: Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame.

Harry Knight is an archeology professor at Cambridge who sleeps around and avidly avoids emotional attachments, scoffing at the idea of love. When her father dies and leaves her as the Countess to Axedale Hall, she must return home to see that her grandfather’s wish of bringing it back to its former glory is fulfilled.

Annie is a single mother with a difficult past who remains positive and hopeful no matter what. When she is hired on as housekeeper for Axedale Hall, the last thing she expected was a handsome butch for the Countess. However, no matter how much she wants a happily ever after, above all else she will strive to do what’s best for her daughter, Riley.

Harry and Annie immediately have this insane chemistry that leaps off the page. Their romance was passionate as well as cute. Harry resists because of her past, which lead to many challenges and dramatic twists. Annie is determined to, as the titles says, court Harry and push down her walls. There was never a dull moment with them.

Another part I loved was how alive the town was. All the side characters felt like they could have their stories and I actually enjoyed reading about them as well as the main cast. This is important to me, because in romance stories so often the side characters are just one dimensional soundboards only there to get the two heroines together. That was not the case in this book. It really did feel like Downton Abbey in this aspect and I kept waiting to see a switch of POV to someone else.

Annie having a child was something that worried me before I started reading. Kids can be tricky characters to pull off, but Riley was just as real and vibrant as Harry and Annie. I really identified with her, having also been the nerdy kid that didn’t get along with everyone immediately. Watching her bond with Harry about archeology was sweet and added an extra layer to the story.

Overall, this was a really fun romance that I highly recommend!

Mary Springer reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterspoon

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for mentions of homophobia and abuse

The relationship between sapphic women and Christianity is a complicated and sometimes tragic and violent one. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical story based around the author’s life raised by an evangelists in an English Pentecostal community while discovering her attraction to women.

Jeanette is devoted to her religion and the Christian path her mother has determined for her. She’s admired for being a good Christian girl and absolutely faithful to her community. That is, until she falls in love with another girl, Melanie.

Their relationship makes Jeanette so happy she tell hers mother about it, but only finds her mother angry and upset. Up until this moment, Jeanette has been everything her mother wanted her to be, and her mother in turn as loved and supported everything she did (because everything she did was what her mother told her to do). This change is traumatizing enough for Jeanette without what happens next.

Jeanette and Melanie are forced to undergo exorcisms at the church. Melanie, who has always been the more subservient and less confident of the two, repents. Jeanette refuses and is locked in her parlor by her mother. This whole process takes several days and the author does not shy away from it, probably because she experienced something close to, if not that exactly as it was.

Jeanette eventually pretends to repent simply out of a desperate need for food. However, she remains steadfast in her belief that nothing is wrong with her love for Melanie and that she can maintain that love alongside her faith.

Jeanette remains faithful to her religion because of its ties to love. She loves her mother and believes her mother loves her back. She loves the people in her church and up until this moment they have always loved her back. She loved Melanie, and didn’t see how that love was any different than those others felt. Alongside all of this is her, her love in the God of her church and her belief that he loves her back.

Her church takes an opposite perspective, turning to hate her in a snap judgement of her different sexuality. Jeanette finds herself alone, without the love her community that she was so devoted to.

The bravest part of Jeanette is that despite all of this not only does she not stop loving herself, but she never stops being compassionate and kind. She doesn’t let the hatred of her church sink her from her beliefs in her religion or herself.

The book does a great job of showing how the hatred of the Church members is so contrasted by Jeanette, the lesbian’s, purposeful love, kindness and faith. This book was published in 1985, a time when such depicts would have been shocking. The author takes her time to show the community and it’s members, so you grow attached to them alongside Jeanette, and then feel the same pain she does when she is rejected.

The story is empowering in Jeanette and her ability to take everything in stride and continue to love herself and those around her.

Mary Springer reviews Desperate Times by Hildred Billing

Desperate Times by Hildred Billings

This review contains spoilers. I will state when I am about to go into them, so if you want to read the first few paragraphs to get a general gist of the book, you can do so safely.

Romances between two butch lesbians are hard to come by, so when I found this title I thought I had hit the jackpot.

For many lesbians, living in a small town can be a nightmare for dating opportunities. This is the exact predicament Tess and Sidney find themselves, which inevitably ends in them matching on a dating app and meeting up a local bar. However, each posted some misleading pictures of themselves and both are disappointed to find the other is not femme. For these butches that would usually be a deal breaker, but being the only option for each other they agree to a casual relationship. However, what was supposed to be friends with benefits quickly turns into something more romantic, which becomes a problem in a homophobic, conservative town.

I like a love story with some good, old-fashioned angst, and there was definitely plenty of that here. Tess grew up on a ranch raised by her emotionally distant father and constantly surrounded by men. That plus growing up in a small, conservative town leaves her with a lot of walls and issues to deal with.

Sidney herself is dealing with the frustration of moving from a town with a good-sized LGBT+ community, to this area with absolutely nothing. A place where there is literally just one other lesbian in town. She moved there to take care of a historical building and gives her a set amount of time to stick with it before she’ll allow herself to give up.

This was an interesting premise with a lot of potential and for the first two parts of the book, I felt it lived it up to that. However, in the third part things took a dramatic turn that just did not sit well with me.

Spoilers below.

There is a big celebration for the fourth of July. Sidney and Tess meet up and then go back to Sidney’s place where they start to make out and then begin to go further. In that moment, they see two of the old, gossipy neighbor ladies are staring at them through the window. At this point they are let into the house for some reason, proceed to rage and throw homophobic insults at them. Tess starts crying at this, and Sidney scoffs at her.

Now, that alone would be bad enough. To see the person that you’re involved with being outed and then crying about it only to scoff and diminish them – that’s bad enough. It portrays Sidney as having no idea the potential danger this puts Sidney and herself in, and also that she doesn’t care about her at all.

Then, Tess’s somewhat-friend Ray comes in and tries to help the situation. So, Tess just goes up and kisses him on the mouth to prove her heterosexuality to the two homophobes.

So, that happens. I can’t really find the words to appropriately explain my feelings about this. I’m going to assume you can imagine them.

After that, Sidney is removed from her position as caretaker of the historical house. Tess pretty much avoids her as rumors swarm over the town about the two of them.

Then, they just up and get back together. There’s a brief and unsatisfying makeup seen. Neither of the characters really grows or changes in the third part. I never really felt like how they were outed and how terribly it affected Tess what was fully dealt with. Tess never really grew out of her emotionally detached state. To be honest, she came off as a jerk most of the time.

It felt like Sidney was looking down on everyone for most of the book in a snobbish, upper-middle class kind of way. Which, considering the conservative homophobia makes sense. But as someone who grew up in and is unfortunately stuck in such a small town, there are beautiful parts to it that I wish could have been portrayed as well.

Like I said, I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book. However, the final one made it impossible for me to give it a positive review. The author has published more books so I might check those out, because the writing is really well done and the initial premise shows promise for future stories.

Mary Springer reviews Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Five Moons Rising by Lise MacTague

Malice, known as Mary Alice to her family, is a trained hunter for paranormal creatures. Ruri is the beta werewolf of her pack, has been around for a couple of centuries, and is not a werewolf to be trifled with. Both their lives are shaken when Ruri’s pack is taken over by a violent, loner Alpha and Malice’s sister Cassidy is caught in the crossfire. She and Ruri are thrown together by forces of fate, and while they should hate each other, they can’t help be drawn to one another.

This was a great book! I love werewolves, so I was already on board, but this went beyond my expectations. I really appreciate some good, old fashioned angst, and this not only served the angst but also offered up seconds.

I love the characters! Malice was wonderfully stoic, putting on the airs of a cold and brutal hunter, while having this secret need for intimacy she won’t even admit to herself. Ruri was also great, a tough and formidable werewolf (or wolven as the characters in the book choose to be called) with a soft inside. There were also the other werewolves, hunters, and some intense vampires, as well as Cassidy. She takes a big role in the book and it was also interesting to see her character develop and change alongside Malice and Ruri.

The romance was perfect. Malice and Ruri have such great chemistry, but beyond that I was able to get a sense that these are two people who need each other and work well with one another. They’re both just as similar as they are different. I enjoyed watching their relationship slowly grow through the novel.

My one gripe about this was how the romance was resolved. It felt a bit rushed in the end and I was hoping for just a little more angst, conversation, and action. But I was still satisfied with where things ended up.

The overall plot about the violent Alpha and the world building as a whole really came alive for me. With some paranormal romances, I can get a bit bored with the villain and exposition, but MacTague did a great job creating a plot and world that drew me in. I would love to see more books set in this world even if they didn’t include these specific characters (but I’d really, really love to see more of these characters).

In the end, I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a great paranormal romance. This also works really well in the enemies-to-lovers subgenre, which I’m always a fan of.

Mary Springer reviews Backwards to Oregon by Jae

Backwards to Oregon by Jae

This book was every trope and every plot device I ever wanted all rolled into one. This is one of those books that you put down and it stays with you for days afterward. I immediately purchased the sequel and the short story collection that is in this same series.

Nora works in a brothel to survive and provide for her child, Amy. One day her friend that brothel’s madam, Tess, has her take a special customer, Luke. He won’t touch her though, won’t do anything with her, and there’s something strange about him. A few days later she meets him again when he saves Amy from the anger of the man running the stables. He offers her marriage and a journey on the Oregon trail–a chance at a better life not only for herself but also for Amy.

Luke has disguised herself as a man since she was 12 not only in order to survive but in order to have the life she would not otherwise be able to have. When she meets Nora and Amy, she can’t help but offer them a chance at a better life–an arrangement that will also help her better conceal her identity in the close proximity to other people in their wagon train.

Luke and Nora agree that this will marriage will be a business agreement and there doesn’t need to be anything else to it. However, when dangerous challenges befall them on the Oregon trail, they can’t help but grow close and sparks fly.

The characters really made this story come alive. In some romances it can be hard to imagine the characters outside their relationship, but here I could easily see Luke and Nora with their own stories. There was also a good amount of side characters that felt equally real and interesting to the main characters, which I always appreciate. Tess was really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading one of her stories in the short story collection. Other families on the Oregon trail were also really engaging. There was Nora’s friend Bernice who helped her learn how to be a pioneer woman and her husband who becomes a good friend of Luke’s. There was Emmeline, who’s husband is abusive.

This is also a serious slow-burn romance, and it’s done so achingly well. Both Luke and Nora have baggage and issues that need to be worked before they can begin to open up to each other. They take their sweet time with it, but it’s so satisfying in the end. This also made it much more believable and engaging as their relationship progressed.

Another thing I really appreciated was how clearly well researched this was. The setting and historical time period really felt like it came alive.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about hidden identities, westerns, or just a good old slow-burn romance.

Mary Springer reviews Calendar Girl by Georgia Beers

Calendar Girl by Georgia Beers

Addison is a complete workaholic, and in trying in earnest to prove to her mother she can take over the company, she ends up pushing herself into a stomach ulcer and being rushed to the hospital. Her mother forces her to hire a personal assistant to try to make work easier. Katie Cooper is rapidly loosing her father to dementia and is in need of money to help her mother with the bills. But Addison resents having to let Katie into her space and do her work. Meanwhile, Katie is determined to do her job and get past Addison’s cold, detached demeanor.

As someone who is a type A personality herself, as well as who is a little too familiar with Katie’s struggles with her ailing father, this book had a lot to relate to. The author clearly had done her research, and I greatly appreciated that. These parts of the book jumped off the page and really helped engage me.

I enjoyed how Addison was honestly portrayed in a way that made sense for how her employees didn’t like her, but at the same time we could understand where she was coming from. In the first chapter she has to fire two employees for acting inappropriately in the office. I could understand why they would be upset, but also understand why Addison had to do it. Sometimes when authors try to create “ice queen” characters, they either go too far to try to make them mean, or do too much to make them understandable. The author here does a great job of finding a balance.

Katie Cooper was relatable in terms of her struggles with her father, and trying to find a job that was in her major. She was very sweet and kind, but was also willing to confront Addison and call her out on her mistakes. I liked that she was able to take control of her narrative.

The kiss and sex scenes were very steamy and fun. However, the romance between the two could have been a bit more organic. There were some scenes where I was definitely rooting for them, but then some where I couldn’t find the same energy for the narrative.

However, my main problem was in how the conflict was resolved. Throughout the novel it felt like Addison’s mother was the antagonist to her goals. I didn’t feel like that conflict was satisfyingly dealt with. At the end I was left crying out, “But what about that? Aren’t we going to confront that person?” This also meant that Addison’s whole narrative felt unsatisfying. I like to feel triumphant at the end of a story through the character’s arcs. Addison does have character development, but she doesn’t seem to receive much reward for it.

Overall, this was a fun romance I would recommend to someone looking for a light and quick read.