Kayla Bell reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Are you looking for a book with a diverse cast, compelling story, great worldbuilding, and disability representation? Lucky you, because you have The Labyrinth’s Archivist.

This fantastical novella stars Azulea, the newest in a long line of Archivists, the people who interview travelers and make maps of the worlds that extend out from the Archivists’ Residence. Azulea desperately wants to join her family’s vocation, but she is blind and therefore assumed to be incapable. When someone (or something) starts killing Archivists one by one, Azulea puts her mind to solving the mystery.

There were so many things I loved about this book. For starters, there was the amazing disability representation. The author, Day Al-Mohamed, is blind herself, so the representation was very authentic. I love how Azulea’s blindness was incorporated into the story, but didn’t make it seem like inspiration porn. It was also very refreshing to see disability representation in the fantasy genre, where we certainly don’t get enough of it. More than just painting Azulea as an inspirational story, the novella really dives into the challenges of being blind in a fantasy world. Physically and psychologically, Azulea must adapt to her surroundings. The Labyrinth’s Archivist is worth reading for this aspect alone.

Another part of the novella I loved was worldbuilding. The world of the Labyrinth was so detailed and intricate. Every setting was so beautifully described. I could picture every scene like a movie, which is something I love to see in a book. The world is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture, which also gave it a sense of depth and richness. The opulence of the Residence itself shines throughout the novella, and serves as a wonderful backdrop to the central mystery. The story itself reads very quickly, too. It’s like a fantasy version of an Agatha Christie novel. I flew through it. If anything, I thought it was too short.

Even given everything else, for me, the best part of this novel was the characters. Azulea is a really wonderful protagonist. She is spirited, resilient, and determined. I was happy to spend the entire novella following her. Her relationships with other characters also stood out. I loved reading the interactions between Azulea and her mother. They had a difficult, but ultimately very authentic relationship. Same with the relationship between Azulea and her grandmother. Finally, the romance was also very sweet. I wish we had gotten more of that as a plotline, because it does come up quickly towards the end of the story. Still, the engaging and complex characters made this book a real page-turner for me.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a short, refreshing, fun novella that blends fantasy and Middle Eastern culture in a beautiful way. Its characters are very interesting and drive the story forward. It involves disability representation and worldbuilding that are truly unique. Although it is short, this book is definitely worth your time.

Shannon reviews The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka cover

I’m constantly on the lookout for new mystery series that feature strong, independent female characters, and if they’re lesbian or bisexual, I count it as a bonus. For the past several years, I’ve been hearing all manner of positive things about Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary books, and so, I finally decided to give them a try.

Roxane is a private investigator who is pretty much going through the motions of living. Her police officer father died not too long before book one begins, and his lost has hit her hard. Plus, she’s struggling to make sense of her feelings for a woman she’s been seeing for quite some time, but who seems unwilling to take their relationship to the next, more serious level.

When Roxane is hired to take a second look at the long ago disappearance of teenager Sarah Cook, she throws herself into the investigation. Sarah’s boyfriend Brad was convicted of killing Sarah, but Brad’s sister isn’t convinced he’s guilty and she’s desperate for Roxane to find the real killer. Initially, Roxane isn’t sure the first investigation had any real flaws, but as time passes and she turns up far more questions than answers, she finds herself ever more convinced something went terribly wrong for both Sarah and Brad.

To make matters worse, her investigation into Sarah’s disappearance has a possible link to one of her father’s unsolved murder cases. In hopes of laying both matters to rest, she joins forces with Tom, her father’s former partner on the police force. The two have always gotten along well enough, but as they begin spending more and more time together, Roxane finds herself developing deeper feelings for the detective. Of course, a relationship with a man isn’t something she’s interested in. At least, that’s what she tells herself.

The Last Place You Look is a dark and gritty mystery with a plot that kept me glued to my iPad until I reached the end. I couldn’t wait to figure out what really happened to Sarah and how her disappearance linked back to the case Roxane’s father had been working on years before. The author does a phenomenal job sprinkling small clues throughout the text without giving the big twist away too soon. I’m often frustrated when I solve a mystery early on, but this one was complicated enough to keep me guessing right along with Roxane.

If you don’t like characters with self-destructive tendencies, Roxane might be a challenge for you. She’s strong, smart, and competent, but in many ways, she’s her own worst enemy. I found myself frustrated with her poor decisions on more than a few occasions. Fortunately, the author provides enough backstory to help readers understand why Roxane struggles the way she does, something I found extremely helpful. I don’t expect characters to be perfect, but I’m a lot more forgiving of their shortcomings if I have at least a basic understanding of their motivations and Kristen Lepionka definitely provides that here.

The mystery is wrapped up by the end of this first installment, but there are still quite a few questions about Roxane and those she loves. Fortunately, there are three more books in this series so far, so readers can continue to follow Roxane as she struggles to bring justice to those who need it while also attempting to put the fractured pieces of her life back together. Book one was a solidly enjoyable read, so I’m anticipating more of the same as the series continues.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]

Top 20 Lesbian Mystery Novels

Top 20  Lesbian Mystery Novels

Did you know that there are over 1000 lesbian mystery titles? Or that there are over 250 authors of lesbian mysteries, more than 95 percent of whom are still alive and writing? It’s true, but many readers—probably most readers—have never read a single book in the lesbian mystery genre. That’s a shame, because some of them are wonderfully written, exciting, educational, sexy, emotionally satisfying, and yes, important.

Let’s go ahead and define a lesbian mystery. First, of course, the main character must be a lesbian or bisexual woman in a same-sex relationship. Second, the main character must investigate a crime or solve a mystery or puzzle that is central to the story line. That’s just about it, although the best of these offer a glimpse into some interesting aspect of the lesbian lifestyle. Protagonists can be private investigators, law enforcement officers, or amateur detectives of any profession as long as they are not werewolves, vampires, or other superhumans.

For those of you who don’t want to wade through the thousand plus titles, the following list is an introductory guide to some of the best books in the genre. The list is in alphabetical order—there is no first, second, or third. They range from the highly literary to the pure and simple whodunit. And remember that the books on this list are my personal favorites—someone else’s list might be quite different. (Titles are linked to full reviews, covers are linked to Amazon pages.)

beverlymalibuThe Beverly Malibu, by Katherine V. Forrest. There are many good novels in Forrest’s Kate Delafield series, but this one, with its motif of  Hollywood persecution during the McCarthy era, is probably the most important. It is also the book in which Kate meets the person she will live with for most of the rest of the series.

The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, by Mabel Maney. Probably not the most literary read on the list, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, with its parody of the Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew girls’ series books of the mid-20th century. Delightful and fun and more than a little silly.

Death Takes a Hike, by Peta Fox. This is the third and (so far) last book in the Jen Madden series. I list it instead of the first two because it takes some time to get to know Jen and figure out what the author is up to. Take note that the series is so filled with rough sex that it borders on BDSM, but Fox is probably the smartest writer in the bunch. Jen is an absolutely wonderful character with a mindset all her own.

Good Bad Woman, by Elizabeth Woodcraft. A novel about a British barrister who gets involved with a torch singer. This mystery lands firmly in the literary world and includes a very interesting crash course on British law and the way it is handled. Woodcraft’s only other novel, Babyface, is every bit as noir and every bit as good.

gravesilenceGrave Silence, by Rose Beecham. Set near the desert in Colorado, this one is quite a thrilling adventure with characters that sometimes make Erskine Caldwell’s seem tame. The main character, Jude Devine, is an undercover FBI agent sent to the desert posing as a Sheriff’s detective. She essentially answers to no one.

Houston Town, by Deborah Powell. Powell’s superb use of language—and exciting storylines—make this book and its predecessor, Bayou City Secrets, winners on almost every level. A fairly unusual twist in the lesbian mystery genre, this hard-hitting series is set in 1930s.

I Left My Heart, by Jaye Maiman. An honest look at the emotions behind the death of a loved one—and the resolve to find out the reason she died. Its relatively long length (over 300 pages) gives Maiman the opportunity to fully explore the themes of politics, religion, love, guilt, grief, and passion.

idahocodeIdaho Code, by Joan Opyr. Bouncy story with a young protagonist, quirky characters, a cool girlfriend, and an odd mystery. Delightful, and its 321-page length gives the author room to move about. Beware of the sequel, however, which is a disappointing rehash.

Keeping Secrets, by Penny Mickelbury. This is the first of the excellent Mimi and Gianna series. Although it is a short novel, it introduces the interracial couple of Gianna and Mimi and provides the background for the rest of the series. It is one of the first series with dual protagonists. All four books are excellent.

The Lavender House Murder, by Nikki Baker. Superior writing, craft, a winning but argumentative best friend, and deep introspection make this a standout. Virginia Kelly is the first African-American lesbian sleuth in fiction and Baker the first African-American Author. All four books in the series are highly recommended.

othersideofsilenceLooking for Ammu, by Claire Macquet. Not your typical whodunit, as the protagonist starts out simply looking for a friend. She doesn’t even know what a lesbian is until half the book is over, but what writing! A classic noir thriller that should be at the top of many lists, not just lists about lesbian mysteries. Deep and dark, seamy and satisfying.

The News in Small Towns, by Iza Moreau. A very different setting for this series—a redneck town in North Florida where Sue-Ann McKeown and her girlfriend Gina may be the only lesbians. A story with multiple puzzles, this is one of the most literary books on the list, and one of the most enjoyable series.

The Other Side of Silence, by Joan Drury.  The main draws here include the reclusive protagonist, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, and her main interest in life—to expose violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs. It is a powerful feminist mystery with a surprising and unusual ending.

shescoopstoconquerOutside In, by Nansi Barrett D’Arnuk. Compelling, riveting, undercover mystery that takes place mostly within a women’s prison. Honest, real, exciting, and professional. Another mystery where rough sex also has an important part to play.

The Patterned Flute, by Helen Shacklady. Interesting, free-spirited characters, portrayed well in realistic settings and a wild ride that left me on the edge of my seat. I loved the budding romance between the protagonist and her scheming and determined traveling companion.

She Scoops to Conquer, by Robin Brandeis. This is a stand-alone novel about a reporter in Louisville, Kentucky. Its intriguing and educational plot is interspersed with humor as Lane Montgomery and her erstwhile lover and newspaper rival—both serious femmes—duke it out for the story.

Tell Me What You Like, by Kate Allen. Delves into the S/M leather scene in a way that makes you want to know more. Good characters, good puzzle, good everything.

12221222, by Anne Holt. Exciting, well-drawn, and professionally written and translated from the Norwegian. In this novel, ex-police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen is a wheelchair user and is trapped with other passengers—one of them a murderer—in a train station during a horrible snow storm. The previous books in this series may be even better; but this is the only one I have read.

Unexpected Sparks, by Gina L. Dartt. A darling novel set in Nova Scotia featuring two of the best protagonists in lesbian literature: Kate Shannon, a bookstore owner, and Nikki Harris, a police dispatcher. Their courtship makes this novel—and this 2-novel series—special.

Woman with Red Hair, by Sigrid Brunel. This stand-alone novel is set in France and describes—expertly using the unusual third-person-present point of view—the protagonist’s search for her birth mother. Although maybe not as brilliant or groundbreaking as some of the other books on this list, it is certainly not one you can just read and forget.

There are other writers that came close to making this list: Lindy Cameron, Ellen Hart, Vivien Kelly, Val McDermid, Iona McGregor, and Barbara Wilson, but the titles I read, although very enjoyable, fell just short. See my full-length reviews of over 100 lesbian mystery novels—including the ones listed above—at The Art of the Lesbian Mystery Novel.

Megan Casey is a small-town librarian whose special interest is reading, studying, and popularizing the lesbian mystery novel. She moderates the Goodreads Lesbian Mystery study group.

This post originally ran March 2015.

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Susan reviews Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Four Bodies in Space by Luna Harlow

Luna Harlow’s Four Bodies in Space reads like a queer pastiche of Star Trek: The Original Series. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: our protagonist, Commander Solaris, is a very emotionally-restrained biracial scientist with psychometry and pointed ears on a ship run by a dramatic captain and the cult of personality he’s gathered around himself. Their mission: escort diplomats of different species across the galaxy so they can make advantageous trade deals. Captain Jennifer Li is both brilliant and charismatic, and the person tasked with investigating when the guests and crew are murdered en route.

I’m not saying that this reads like someone’s genderswap AU, but it does happen to ring some bells!

The world-setting reads like the a future extrapolated from the sixties as well, like highlighting that the crew is “a series of downcast pale white boys with brown hair” at the Captain’s request, a man married to a woman twenty years younger than him (who flings herself at the protagonists…), or a secondary character asking whether Solaris is frigid or easy based on racial stereotypes, and yes I did have to read that with my own two eyes in this, the year 2020. I assume that the background misogyny has been carried over so it can be engaged with in future books, but it’s not really dealt with here. On the flip side, I did enjoy the way that the references to bizarre events were brought up, because all of the “Oh, I remember this mirrorverse episode!” was worked into the story quite naturally, and treated as normal hazards of the job! I enjoyed that a lot. I did think that the writing of the initial section was a little stilted until the book switches to Jennifer Li’s point of view and I realised that it was just Commander Solaris’ narration. There’s a beautiful level of deadpan snark in her descriptions, which works great with the tropes Four Bodies in Space is using. Like, at one point she describes the competent (female) second-in-command subsuming her life into the (male) captain’s as “unfortunate heterosexual longings” and I was IMMEDIATELY sold. So there is a basis for my idea that these tropes are here on purpose!

The actual mystery plot is quite flimsy. There are some leaps of logic that were a little hard for me to follow, and some of the denouement doesn’t hold together if you’re reading it as a mystery. But if you’re reading it as the lead-in to the inevitable partnership between Solaris and Li, it all works hangs together fairly well! I will say that some of that inevitability is predictability as well – the beats of how their relationship forms will not surprise you! But it’s fun, and it’s a solid set-up to a series, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for future installments.

[Caution warning: sabotage, murder, racism against fictional races, misogyny] [This review is based on an ARC from Netgalley]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Mary reviews A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

A Bittersweet Garden by Caren J. Werlinger

Ireland? Ghosts? A hot horse trainer?  What more could you ask for?!

Nora is spending her summer exploring the Irish town her grandparents hail from when she discovers her cottage is haunted by a tragic history. She falls in love with the country and the people, her cousins and new friends (and one friend that could turn into more), but her vacation soon takes a drastic turn. She’s started sleepwalking and having awful nightmares, and she won’t leave the cottage for anything or anyone.

Briana has lived in relative solitude–by choice. She works with horses, a job she’s passionate about, has a few friends, and a family she rarely visits. Ever since an accident years ago that she refuses to talk about, she hasn’t let herself grown close to anyone. All of that changes when Nora moves to town and ruffles her feathers.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t very engaged with this book for the first third. The plot took its time getting off the ground, but once it did, I was all in! The author makes sure to set the stage for what’s about to happen so that once it does, you can’t stop reading. As the paranormal happenings rise, tensions between Nora and Briana, as well as with her cousin, rise as well. The relationships you’ve spent so much time reading about developing are now at great risk, and so is Nora.

The characters felt real and interesting. Nora had a full personality with a character arc that I felt was complete by the end. The same can be said for Briana, who was a nice contrast point-of-view character to Nora as their perspectives on haunted cottage vary more and more drastically as the book goes on. Their romance was soft and a slow burn that also had its hot moments. It was nice to watch them grow closer over the course of the book.

Nora’s cousins and friends Sheila and Quinn were good side characters that felt real and added to the story. It was fun to see Nora explore her Irish roots and grow some new ones in her grandparent’s new town through Sheila and Quinn and other family members she meets along the way.

The paranormal aspect of the story was a lot better than I expected. I thought it would be more subdued, but as the ghost–or ghosts–drag Nora into their past, I was dragged along as well. It was also nicely wrapped into Irish history and I enjoyed how the setting played a character of its own.

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable read. If you’re looking for a paranormal mystery with some subdued romance, this is the book for you!

SPONSORED REVIEW: Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

 Loud Pipes Save Lives by Jennifer Giacalone

The city didn’t care. It lay serene as they all loved and teemed and scrambled and strove.

Loud Pipes Save Lives is a thriller with a noir feel, following a New York cop, a vigilante women’s motorcycle club, and the many people tangled up in the ensuing investigation. From the beginning, I was pulled in with the writing, which reminded me of an old noir mystery: Sparr’s partner is described as a “blond, butch slab of a woman.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, though: Sparr is moved to another district to try to track down the motorcycle club that has been beating down acquitted rapists and abusers. We’re soon given the points of view of these women, though, so the reader is fully informed of what’s really happening. The real mystery–and the reason Sparr has been relocated–is to investigate the seemingly closed case of her father’s death.

There are a lot of pieces to this story, and it demands the reader keep track of a large cast and their relationships and dealings. There are political machinations, family secrets, romances, and, of course, a motorcycle gang (sorry–motorcycle club). I lost track of how many points of view we get in this story–at least seven? By the fifth point of view change in a row with no repeats, my head was spinning. On top of the POV characters, there’s just a large cast in general: I found myself having to search my ebook multiple times to remember who people were, and some characters felt like they could have been cut out with no consequence for the plot. The frequent POV shifts also made me feel less connected to the characters, because I didn’t spend much time with any one of them. Sparr seems like she should be the main character, but I didn’t feel like I really knew her. The POV shifts also lessened the suspense, because we see almost everyone’s perspective.

It’s a shame to spend so little time with them, because this a diverse, interesting cast! The motorcycle club in particular is made up of many women of different races, nationalities, and orientations, and there are multiple major characters with disabilities. They are often complex and flawed–there are no perfect people here. This adds to the noir atmosphere: there are no clear winners, and justice is murky and undefined. It doesn’t have a catharsis of the good guys beating the bad guys and everyone riding off into the sunset. Instead, we have to sit with the grey areas and complexity.

One aspect I wish we could have spent more time on is the romance between Lily Sparr and Miri. They are partners in the force, and they act just like a couple. They want to be together all the time. They go to each other for comfort. They stay at each others houses. They dance together. But they’ve never pursued anything romantic. [minor spoilers:] It turns out that they are likely both asexual–that word isn’t used, but the text is explicit that neither of them is interested in any sexual acts. [end spoilers] This makes for a sweet couple of scenes, but it is a very minor part of the book. I can actually imagine this volume being expanded into a series, so we could get more of this romance and other characters’ development. There is so much that is touched on, but it competes with the many other aspects of the story.

Ultimately, I appreciated the pieces all working together to bring this story to life. The writing was precise and included some memorable lines. There was a huge diversity in the characters, and they all had their own histories and motivations, complete with complicated relationships with others. But because each aspect was so concise, and there was so much packed in, I would have liked a little more room to explore the characters and their relationships to each other. I appreciated the story on an intellectual level, but I didn’t get a chance to fully engage on an emotional level.

I also wanted to mention quite a few trigger warnings: violence and gore (described); mentions of: rape (incest and pedophilia), cutting, miscarriage, manslaughter, incest between siblings, ableist slur, police shooting of unarmed black man, sex work slur, death of sex worker, and depiction of a mentally ill person as violent.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Mary reviews Cinders by Cara Malone

Cinders by Cara Malone

Since she first moved to Grimm Falls, Cyn Robinson has lived in the shadow of her stepmother’s disapproval, her stepbrother’s resentment, and her father’s inability to fully accept her mother’s death. She has also lived with the unrequited love for Grimms Falls royalty, Marigold Grimm. For a long time now, Mari has been trying to prove to her father she can take over the family business on her own, without a partner.

Now a string of fires brings them together, and sparks fly in more way than one. Cyn is a firefighter determined to find the arsonist, and Marigold’s late mother’s garden is destroyed in one of the fires.

This is a modern retelling of Cinderella that put a really interesting spin on it. I love that Cyn is a firefighter, playing on the original fairy tale’s section where Cinderella gets her name from sleeping in the cinders. It also made her a more active part of the story. I also liked that they changed the evil stepsisters into one stepbrother whose evilness is explored a bit more deeply.

I like a good mystery, and this was a fun one. A few small chapters are from the arsonist’s point-of-view, which added to the tension.

The mystery also played well with the romance, and the two didn’t detract from each other. They both grew naturally and enjoyably. Cyn and Mari were believably infatuated with each other. It’s a little bit of a love-at-first-sight story, but it’s made believable by their well written chemistry and their history.

My one gripe is that the story felt a little rushed. I would have liked certain parts to take longer, to really amp up the tension.

Overall, it’s a nice short and sweet modern fairy tale with an interesting mystery. I recommend this if you’re looking for a quick read.