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.

Susan reviews Not Dead Enough by J. M. Redmann

Not Dead Enough by J. M. Redmann

I didn’t realise until I was halfway through J. M. Redmann’s Not Dead Enough that it was a continuation of a series; I thought it was the first book in a series where all of the characters had very detailed backstories! Either way, Not Dead Enough follows Micky Knight, a private detective who’s been asked to track down a woman’s missing sister, only to find that someone matching her client’s description has been murdered.

The mystery is convoluted, with a tangled web of identities that could be Micky’s client or the client’s sister turning up in the unlikeliest places. I thought it worked really well, especially for the parts where Micky does the sensible thing and actually loops her detective friend in on what she finds! PIs who actually do the sensible and legal thing are still a novelty to me. Some of the twists seemed a little obvious to me, but for the most part the way that the different strands, cases, and Micky’s personal life all tie together stood up well! There were a lot of moving parts, and a fair amount of coincidence and overlap in the problems that felt a little too coincidental, although those were mostly minor niggles!

The fact that Micky’s backstory and friend group are explained well enough that I didn’t realise that I was starting with book ten of a series was really helpful, but I do wonder whether that means that people who are up-to-date on the series might be frustrated by the explanations. As part of that convoluted backstory, though, I do like that Micky’s non-crime problems are things like who gets custody of their friend group after she and her partner broke up, and that she does actually start to realise her flaws and work to fix them.

But anyway, it’s fun! I liked Micky and her circle, I liked how practical and done she was, and I liked this take on the classic pulp tropes! I don’t think it’s necessarily doing anything new, but if you’re like me and still revelling in people queering mysteries and giving characters happy endings, this one is pretty good!

[Caution warnings: Spousal abuse and murder, misogyny, homophobia, drug overdoses] [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.

Marthese reviews All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick

“I don’t want her to grow up with only the voices of the Fellowship and our parents in her ears… most of all, I don’t want her to grow up to be afraid of me”

All Eyes On Us by Kit Frick promised to be a mix between Pretty Little Liars and People Like Us. I don’t usually like books that compare themselves to something else because surely they are not original and they are piggybacking on something else. However, from time to time, I am in the mood to revisit plots similar to other ones.

The TV show Pretty Little Liars–never read the books–was a hit, but it was also messy. All Eyes On Us has a clear plot with some surprises.

The story follows Amanda and Rosalie in alternate chapters. Amanda is the popular girl at school, who acts more mature than her age and has her life paved in front of her. What people don’t know though, is that her family is just keeping appearances of being wealthy. Amanda also knows that her boyfriend, Carter, is cheating on her. Rosalie comes from a religious family who are deeply rooted in the Fellowship of Christ denomination. She is also casually seeing Carter for her own agenda: she had previously been sent to a conversion camp and is traumatised by it. Rosalie wants to protect herself and her (cute) relationship with Paulina; she doesn’t want to lose her parents or her little sister but it feels inevitable. She never wanted to hurt anyone, but inevitable, people end up being hurt.

Both Amanda and Rosalie start receiving anonymous text–and sometimes paper–messages from Private, who wants them to humiliate Carter before his birthday, or else things will turn sour. Things do in fact turn sour. The two girls, especially Amanda, are reluctant to work together, but that too, feels inevitable.

As I mentioned, this book has a clear plot and sub-plots. It keeps you at the edge of your seat trying to see who did it because sometimes it felt too obvious and you just want to solve the mystery and see the motivation behind it.

I liked the characters in this book. They are all flawed, and the parents are all bad at parenting. It’s heart-breaking how the protagonists cannot rely on them, because their words or actions will be turned against them. There is more than one type of violence represented in the book. There’s a lot of toxic adulthood thoughts too, but in a way, both Amanda and Rosalie are growing in their own skin: one by figuring out what her identity is and one standing up for it and living her truth.

Let me say that Pau is the most supporting girlfriend ever. They are super cute together and from what I read, I like Paulina’s aesthetic too. Rosalie has several flashbacks and the trauma is deep. What she had and has to go through is horrific, and knowing that this is reality for some people, it’s just sad.

Amanda is both too much of a grown up in her actions and not a grown up at all, because she is set to live her life according to other people’s needs and expectations. At times, she is really mean, but she does eventually realise this. While Rosalie acts out because she’s scared, Amanda acts out because she’s hurting.

One thing that really surprised me was that I rarely blamed Carter. He’s not just the cheating boyfriend or the white over-privileged poor-him wealthy career-already-held-for-him star. He had a lot of expectations placed on him, ones that are toxic and are destroying his own happiness. Yes, he does act like an asshole sometimes, but so do the other characters. He acts compassionate, understanding, confused…and so many other emotions.

Of course, there is a plot twist. Thinking who was Private was too easy. The conclusion to the mystery of who did it and why was done well. Paulina and Rosalie are still the best couple.

I’d recommend this book if you like stalker mysteries, unlikely alliances between 1 gay and 1 straight character and characters growing to be more courageous.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November follows Millie, Elise, Victoria, and their coven of witches as they learn their powers in the aftermath of World War I. The coven is under the employment of The Allied Directorate for Alternative Means (ADAM), a government-sanctioned operation that wants to use magic to fight wars.

On Christmas night, Victoria goes missing. The split point of view narration reveals that she has lost her memory and doesn’t know she’s a witch. After a series of strange mishaps that seem impossible, she submits herself to the mercy of a psychiatric hospital, hoping to find answers. But the kind doctor and hospital are not all they appear to be. It’s up to Millie and Elise to rescue their lost friend.

The mysterious plot combined with historical fiction and a bit of romance between Millie and Elise make this novel a delightful read. It’s easy to keep turning the pages as the action never gets bogged down in too much detail. The moments of character development give the reader an opportunity to breathe and get inside the characters’ heads.

Each character has a strong, distinct voice that makes readers want to get to know each one on their own. But that doesn’t mean their relationships with one another fall by the wayside. The bond that is created between the three new witches as well as their mistresses, ancient witches who are mentoring the new generation, comes through clearly as they do anything and everything to protect one another.

While the writing is strong and compelling, it’s not particularly tight. There are moments where the story is hard to follow because typos and convoluted grammar make it hard to follow. It felt like the book needed more effective editing before going to publication. But the narrative is still strong enough to keep readers wanting more.

Darrow’s writing ability shines through during moments of introspection. Each main character is developed within their own thoughts. As Millie and Victoria navigate their world and consider their relationships with other characters, their voices are clear and distinct, making them complete and rounded-out people. It’s an impressive feat with Victoria, as for most of the book she is without her memory.

The novel establishes Elise and Millie’s romantic relationship early on. But for fans of a slow burn, their pining makes up a great deal of this romance. Everything about their feelings always feels genuine and organic. Millie’s characterization is especially sweet as her demeanor softens when she’s around Elise, whereas with others she tends to be sarcastic.

As the story unravels and readers go along for the ride, there are clues and details that may lead them to certain conclusions. That’s why the plot twist with how Victoria lost her memory packs a powerful punch. It’s a possibility that doesn’t pop up at the top of the list of answers to the question, “What happened?”

One aspect I wish had been explored more was the correlation between science and magic. Darrow touches upon the relation between two seemingly opposing concepts with Elise and Victoria, but the idea never blooms further than a few buds. The story could have been made richer with a deeper dive into how science and magic go hand in hand.

Danika reviews Bury the Lede written by Gaby Dunn and illustrated by Clare Roe & Miquel Muerto

Bury the Lede by Gaby Dunn

This is the third book I’ve read by Gaby Dunn, all back to back (to back). There are some similarities: I Hate Everyone But You and Please Send Help… also have a bisexual intern reporter whose moral compass may be a little bit off. But while the novels have an unshakable friendship at their core, which keep them feeling light, Bury the Lede sinks into noir territory, with a protagonist willing to follow a story wherever it goes, even if it means bringing down everyone around her.

This collection immediately sets the tone with dark, sometimes off-putting colours and shading. There will often be unnerving details like jam on a butter knife that looks like blood, or splatters in the background of pages. It’s not just the tone that’s noir: the content gets pretty gory, including depictions of a mother killing and dismembering her child. We see the same murder play out multiple times as different versions are proposed.

This mystery is what drives the story: Madison attempts to interrogate a suspect and had hardly begun before Dahlia gives her a gruesome account of her guilt. Madison keeps coming back to get more details, and although she doesn’t trust Dahlia or the possible wild goose chases she keeps sending her on, Madison becomes increasingly obsessed with her. The story spirals out, encompassing politics and other, seemingly unrelated crimes. Dunn doesn’t spoon feed the reader: at times I had to stop and reread panels a few times to keep up with the information being presented, and it definitely kept me guessing.

As for the queer content, Madison is a bisexual Asian-American woman, and her love interests include a queer butch black woman and a bisexual white cop. There are f/f sex scenes on the page–and I have to add that on a recent Buffering podcast, Dunn shared that she got to give her favourite note on this page: “No, the femme is the top.” I also appreciated that Madison is chubby. She’s clearly desirable, and she also has a belly. I can’t get enough of positive fat representation in comics.

I recognize that Madison is meant to be complex, and possibly even “unlikeable.” Usually, I love an “unlikeable” female character. This time, though, it was pushed far enough that I no longer wanted to root for her. [Spoilers] She roofies a woman to get information out of her, for one thing. [End spoilers] I’m sure that this is consistent from what we’d expect from a classic noir detective: pursuing the truth no matter who it hurts or what gets in the way. But while most times I can see where a flawed character is coming from, in this case it felt like she was willing to throw absolutely everyone she knows under the bus to get a byline.

Having said that, maybe I don’t need to be able to relate to this character to still find her story compelling. I was sucked into the story, and I am curious to see what happens next. Despite having no interest in male noir detectives, I keep being drawn to similar stories with female main characters. If you’re looking for a gritty graphic novel with a femme fatale, questionable ethics, and a bisexual chubby Asian main character, Bury the Lede should be at the top of your list.

Marthese reviews The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

The Labyrinth’s Archivist by Day Al-Mohamed

“May your memories keep you warm”

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is a novella by Day Al-Mohamed that follows Azulea, a trainee from the Shining City that wants to be an Archivist. An Archivist interviews cross-world traders and keeps an updated archive and repository. She has a lot of vision and intuition even though she is blind.

She and her cousin Peny complement each other in their learning and work. This is not looked at kindly in the Archive, where each Archivist has to be self-sufficient. Azulea especially wants to prove herself and be taken seriously. She gets this chance when a terrible tragedy occurs. Her Amma dies and Azulea believes it to be murder.

For such a short novella, the story is action-packed. I read it nearly all in one day. This novella is a mixture of fantasy and mystery: my two favourite genres. The murderer was a bit predictable, to me. Although there were many suspects, however, the new spins to the world and the plot kept the story interesting. There definitely were some twists and turns, some of them were refreshing and not tropes.

This is also a novella about the importance of asking and getting help while still being independent. This is also an exes to lovers story, that is not explicit and the importance of understanding where each other is coming from, control and clearing misunderstandings in relationships.

Melethi is Azulea’s ex. She is also the leader of the market guard and arbiter and of course, gets involved in solving the crimes that happen. Even though it’s short, there is character development.

The Labyrinth’s Archivist is part of the Broken Cities series and was released in July 2019. So far, there is only this book but I look forward to keep up with this series. It looks promising. Most world building in fantasy novels, especially if short, could be confusing. There were times where I found myself asking ‘What is that?’, but with time, it all cleared up.

One small thing that I liked about this book is the culture. I live in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and my language is a creole one that combines Semitic (Arabic), Anglosaxon and romantic languages. The culture and especially the words felt similar and I could connect to this world. The souq (market) is like my suq and the fūl (broad beans) are the ful that I eat each summer.

I feel that such a series, like my favourite the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman, would be appreciated by people living in the Middle East and North Africa and the Mediterranean region or people interested in non Eurocentric/Americanized  fantasy, of which there aren’t that many, especially if queer.

All in all, it’s a good introduction to a new series. Azalea has many opportunities ahead and I look forward to see which she will take. I wish to read more about this world and the Labyrinth of worlds and want to see new worlds and exploration.

Susan reviews Sawmill Springs by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Spring by Gerri Hill

Sawmill Springs, while not perfect, is what I’ve been wanting from Gerri Hill’s police procedurals all this time: a competent-enough mystery with less of the gender- and sexuality-absolutist nonsense that’s put me off her other books. Sawmill Springs is about Murphy, a former Houston homicide detective, and Kayla Dixon, a former FBI agent, who both independently decided to move to small town of Sawmill Springs in search of a quieter life… Which they don’t get, because shortly after their arrival, the murders begin.

The depiction of Sawmill Springs as a small town was pretty good for the first half of the book – Gerri Hill manages to create a real sense of a place where everyone knows everyone else (and their business), although sometimes the characterisation of the town as a small, quiet place goes a little too far – you really expect me to believe that a police officer doesn’t know better than to gossip about the details of the case? Or that people need to be kept out of crime scenes? Or that someone would extend their “But they can’t be the killer! I’ve known them all my life!” field to an entire town? As this lack of professionalism and lack of resources is the cause of half of the drama on the investigation front, it’s a bit jarring when the characters are isolated for the second half of the novel and suddenly no longer have to deal with these problems.

I also had a slight problem with the resolution of the mystery, in that it felt too obvious and too simple to me; it felt like the book was setting up a bigger, more emotional pay-off with the mysteries of “Who is Mr X? Is there more than one killer in town?” weaving into the actual murders, but no! I might just be disappointed because it means that a character that I thought was playing at incompetence while actually masterminding the whole affair is actually just really bad at their job, so the tension and the mystery just dissipated without any real payoff, and the plot holes than I thought were foreshadowing were never resolved.

As for the romance: I actually liked most of it! Kayla and Murphy actually have decent chemistry and bounce off each other well, but I wasn’t really impressed with the artificial drama created by Murphy’s assumption that Kayla was straight. In isolation, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but in the context of Gerri Hill’s other works it felt disappointing – especially because the assumption seemed to be based entirely on the fact that Kayla is femme and married a man once. Could the constant flirting Kayla did suggest that she was bi? Who knows, it’s never mentioned as a possibility. The other thing that bothered me was that the sex scenes and romantic confessions seemed really weirdly placed. “Running away from a serial killer” is maybe not the best time to evaluate your relationship? And the chapter transition that went straight from “discovering a corpse” to “in media res of a sex scene” without any pause or decompression was terrible pacing. So bad that I had to check the book to make sure I hadn’t accidentally skipped some pages!

Basically, the mystery was slightly disappointing, but the romance was probably one of the best in all of the Gerri Hill books I’ve read. I think if you want to read Gerri Hill’s works, this is the best place to start!

[Caution warnings: murder, hostage situations, homophobia]

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

Twisted at the Root by Ellen Hart

I’m pretty new to reading mystery novels, but I picked up Ellen Hart’s previous book and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give this a try. It’s part of the Jane Lawless series, which has been going since 1989! Jane is a part-time restaurateur, part-time private investigator. There is a big cast of characters, obviously growing in size as the series continues, but I found it pretty easy to jump in at this point.

I can definitely understand why cozy mysteries are popular! Reading about Jane sitting in front of a roaring fire, dog curled up her side, going over her thoughts about the case–I can see how this subgenre got its name. It was a book I wanted to read leisurely, not racing to find out the final reveal, but enjoying the ride to get there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as A Whisper of Bones, and that was primarily because of the characters involved. Although there were some that carried over who I enjoyed seeing again: Cordelia, her theatrical (in every sense) best friend, and Julia, her on-again-off-again girlfriend. Jane and Julia’s relationship is flawed and intriguing; I’d like to see how it began. The new characters, though, grated on me. Jane’s brother makes an appearance, and I’m not sure if he is a regular in the series, but I didn’t connect with him, partly because he seemed almost interchangeable with one of the suspects, Eli. [spoilers: they are both ex-drug addicts with a marriage that fell/is falling apart, and they both want to be with Kit despite that clearly being a terrible idea.]

Kit was a character who grated on me. It’s not that she wasn’t believable: I’ve known toxic people like this, and I get the allure. But it’s not just one person who is so attracted to her that they don’t notice her flaws: it’s basically every guy she runs into. This is the woman who married her boyfriend’s dad while said boyfriend was in rehab. There are some definite red flags there! [spoilers: I hope we’re not supposed to be invested in Jane’s brother as a character, because I lost all respect for him when he continued to be pulled in by Kit despite overwhelming evidence that she was in the wrong.]

I think the Jane Lawless series is strong, and I will come back to it (maybe from the beginning this time), but this one felt like a weak point to me. The mystery didn’t feel like much of a puzzle, and the introduced characters were forgettable and sometimes interchangeable. Characters are a big part of what I concentrate on in a book, so that was a letdown for me.