Tag Archives: mystery

The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

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The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce

published by Montlake Romance, 2016


Pryce’s newest novel is set in 1884 and stars Jonathan Vane, who is the Viscount of Thaxton. His father is still alive, but the man appears to have dementia and is rapidly deteriorating. In order to hide his father’s condition, Thaxton (as he is called) stays away from polite society and earns the name “the Ghost.”

Yet, when Thaxton’s dear friend Percival Spencer, Earl of Spencer, coordinates a two-week long house party with his new bride, Thaxton attends. Granted, he looks sloppy, drinks all the time, and his moody as hell, but friends are friends. On the first two pages, Thaxton and Spencer are fencing in the library so the new wife won’t catch them. On page three, the wife catches them. With her is Cassandra Seton, a pretty daughter of a marquess. By page five, Thaxton thinks Cassandra is hot. So quick!

The problem is Cassandra is engaged to be married to Thaxton’s cousin, Miles Markwick. She was promised to Miles when the two were born, and when she came of age they were officially engaged. However, Miles ran off to Scotland to fix up a run-down estate . . . and was gone for nine years! Certainly, such a man could not be faithful, despite his lady’s reputation slowly diminishing as a result of only time. She’s done nothing wrong — she is, of course, a virgin.

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While I dislike covers with real people on them, I found this image appropriate because it reminded me of the clothing of the time and gave a sense of an attractive man, but left his hair and eyes to the imagination.

While I’m no Victorian expert, I did take a class at the University of Notre Dame called “The Victorian Universe” where we learned about the culture, plight of the poor, influence of Darwin, and read three massive door stoppers of the time: Vanity FairBleak House, and Middlemarch. I’ve watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I talked with my husband, who loves Victorian lit and studied it as well. Thus, I’m not oblivious to the norms in Vic Lit. What is obviously absent? Sex. Sex of any kind. Except when Lidia Bennett runs off with a solider and must be provided with a dowry to entice the soldier to marry her and thus save her reputation.

The Thirteenth Earl‘s pays no attention to Victorian courting rituals, to the point of distraction. Right away, Thaxton asks why Cassandra doesn’t use her title. She says she prefers not to, and he replies, “Little rebel.” That expression is too bold. Also, these two are constantly alone in public. In Victorian society, women never walked alone; they were escorted by an older, preferably married, man. No contact between unmarried men and women was allowed, even hands. Only after engagement could a couple hold hands in public. Women weren’t allowed to speak to a man of a higher class than she until she was spoken to. A man couldn’t show any special attention to an individual woman unless he intended to marry her (no casual dating!). Early on, a mysterious wailing woman is heard; Cassandra and Thaxton each investigate and bump into one other. Thaxton had felt naked because he wasn’t wearing his jacket and gloves. Cassandra is in her nightgown. Remember, a ruined woman is in danger of death if no one will provide for her. The social behavior was pushed so far that I felt impatient with the novel.

I didn’t get excited about the plot for the first half of the book. The sexual tension came so early that there was no build up. The secret kissing and hand massaging in public under the table, the moaning and “growling,” wore on me. On the same page Cassandra “tried not to be distracted by how handsome he was” and “she had been preoccupied in thinking about Thaxton’s arms around her inside the waltz.” She’s practically unable to think around a handsome (alcoholic) man, a characteristic I found weak and frustrating.

But then Chapter 6 — 95 pages in — the plot starts moving. A seance is held to learn more about the wailing woman voice, but instead Thaxton is told he is cursed to go insane like his father and the 11 earls before him. The characters must find out what’s going on, and why. I plotted through my head: what could be the motive for scaring Thaxton? Was his father really insane, or was someone playing the long game and poisoning him? If he is being poisoned, were the 11 earls before him also poisoned (assuming there is some foul play)? Cassandra’s malicious, jealous fiance isn’t in line to take over Thaxton’s property should Thaxton go insane. I couldn’t figure out the mystery, and that made me really get into the book.

It also helped that I spoke to my husband, who felt that the book is clearly not written in the style of Vic Lit, but simply set during the time period. Surely, people were getting it on at parties. Just because there are norms for polite society doesn’t mean everyone is following them. I used this mid set to stop paying attention to the ways The Thirteenth Earl fails to adhere to history and started enjoying the mystery and sex scenes, which are deliciously well-written. By the time the novel was done, I was having fun and feeling saucy — but it certainly took a lot of time and thinking to get there.

I want to thank Evelyn Pryce for sending me a copy of The Thirteenth Earl in exchange for an honest review. Be sure to check out my review of Pryce’s 2013 romance novel, A Man Above Reproach, a romance set in a brothel during Victorian times!

Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

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Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante by Monica Nolan is the 3rd book in the pulpy Lesbian Career Girls series. While I maintained that Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (LCG #1) and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (LCG #2) could each be read as stand alone novels, Maxie’s story is depending upon you knowing the characters from Lois’s story.

In Lois Lenz, we hear little about Maxie Mainwaring other that she has an allowance that she gets from her rich family. Happy to loan small town girl Lois some fancy clothes for her secretary job, Maxie appears to be a generous friend.

Yet, Maxie’s own story tells otherwise! In Maxie Mainwaring, she frequently cheats on longtime girlfriend Pamela with the excuse that she can’t be tied down. While her friends on the 5th floor of her apartment, the Magdalena Arms, count their pennies and hold down careers, Maxie spends indiscriminately and runs up tabs everywhere she goes. That is, until her mother sees her kissing another girl in the power room during a socialite gathering! Maxie is cut off and forced to find employment and learn to balance a budget. The girls at “the Arms” help Maxie out by loaning her work-appropriate clothes, teaching her basic finance skills, and encouraging her to hold down a job.

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Maxie on the right and “the beautiful butch” Lon on the left.

I appreciated Nolan’s attention to women’s relationship to money, especially in this 1960s setting. It wasn’t until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in the U.S., allowing women to get a loan without a co-sign from a male relative. Maxie’s notices that she had “always made affectionate fun of the earnest ideologue [Phyllis, a statistician]; now she felt a new respect for her friend, who knew how to stretch a dollar until it screamed.”

But a dilettante by definition doesn’t typically “do” a career. Like it says on the cover, “She had experience in everything…except employment!” My guess was the plot of Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante would be the eponymous young woman struggling with job after job and failing in hilarious ways; it’s right in the title! However, Maxie has two actual jobs in the entire book: one is hilarious like I expected, the other is a highly-coveted position with a magazine, as if readers are to believe someone with no resume could jump into such work. To be fair, Maxie tries to freelance writing gigs, but neither play a big role in the book. Mostly, you’ll get mobs, FBI, tailing people, and girlfriends fighting. So little about employment! How disappointing!

If you’re wondering why I’m writing with so many exclamation points, it’s because Nolan uses this under appreciated punctuation mark to really amp up the camp, so to speak. The tone of the Lesbian Career Girl novels is always fun and dramatic. The book is full of puns:

“That’s government property. I know all about you and your madcap ways, Maxie Mainwaring — I’ve read your file. But this time, you’re playing with fire!”

“I’m a Campfire Girl from way back,” Maxie assured her. “I know how to stoke the flames and put them out.”

Although I enjoyed meeting new characters in the previous Lesbian Career Girl books, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante overwhelmed me with names and occupations to remember. During a very brief stint writing for a volunteer-run magazine, Maxie is introduced half a dozen new women, though only one comes back later. I wished the book were shorter. By chapter 7, only 24 hours had passed! By chapter 13, I was having trouble remembering who did what and was related to whom.

Bursting at the seams, full of characters who come and go without consequence, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante should be passed up in favor of the more cohesive Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher.

The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

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The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Audiobook narrated by Imogen Church

Published by Simon & Schuster Audio, July 2016


It feels so weird to me that I am reviewing a book that pretty much everyone else has read. That doesn’t happen often at Grab the Lapels, as my original mission was to champion little presses, find new voices, and focus on women. However, my book club chose this book, and I was mostly happy that Ware fits into my “ladies only” theme! The Woman in Cabin 10 was difficult to procure (a protest I raised when the book was chosen), and I was only able to get the audiobook. If you’re never tried audiobooks, the good voice actors tend to have more emotion and bring multiple characters to life rather than simply “reading” the story. The bad voice narrators: pee-yew! The big downside, though, is that audiobooks take what feels like forever to get through. And I listened to Imogen Church read Ware’s book for almost two weeks.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is about British journalist Lo Blacklock, who has managed to settle for a job at Velocity, a magazine about travel. Not exactly the investigative stuff Lo dreamed she’d do after college. When her boss cannot attend a work event on a luxury boat, the Aurora Borealis, Lo goes instead, hoping this is her chance to show she deserves a promotion. The night before she is set to leave on the ship, she wakes to find a man in her apartment. He traps her in her room and robs the place. Lo is frazzled, feels violated, perhaps breaks up with her boyfriend (she’s not 100% sure that’s what they decided), and boards the Aurora Borealis for a week. As a result, Lo doesn’t sleep much for days. She has a drink (or several) to calm herself down. Ware sets readers up clearly to have an unreliable narrator. Because, of course, something has to happen.

The first night, as Lo dresses for dinner, she remembers her purse was stolen during the break in, so she has no mascara. She bangs on Cabin 10’s door and borrows some from a young woman, whose room looks unkempt like that of a teenager’s. Later, sleepless, Lo is startled in the middle of the night on the Aurora Borealis, sure she’s heard a scream and a splash, sure she see’s blood on the railing of the veranda to Cabin 10. But when ship security finds nothing and shows her Cabin 10 is empty, the doubts flood in.

Imogen Church is an excellent voice actress. Her voice soothes; I wanted to listen. Church narrates Blacklock’s fear with trembles in her voice and urgency in her pleas. Every sentence is rich with emotion. However, this is what slows the reading time down. Also, the audiobook has really long stretches between tracks. The chapters of the book are each one audio track, meaning if I didn’t have 30-45 minutes, I couldn’t start a chapter for fear of losing my place. With a book, I may read 10-15 pages and stop, which takes about 10 minutes.

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Since my husband is in the book club too, he procured a copy of The Woman in Cabin 10 and was patient enough for the hardcover version. I compared his text to what I had listened to. During the break in, Lo thinks the following: “Please, I thought. Please don’t hurt me. Oh God, where was my phone?” But Church’s voice digs up the terror. I was scared for Lo! Honestly, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the hardcover book. All the pleading might have sounded forced, and thus I recommend the audiobook over the hardcover edition.

I also noticed that Church uses different voices for all characters. Many of the employees on the Aurora Borealis are Norwegian. Church does them all with accents in addition to male and female British passengers, some who sound husky, others who are jovial. Church captures Lo’s boyfriend, Judah from Brooklyn, too. In the hardcover version, though, none of the voices are written in dialect. It would have been easy for me to forget that so many characters are Norwegian and that the Aurora Borealis is headed toward Norway. Basically, the voices reinforce the setting.

While I tend to avoid mystery-thriller books for their predictability or outlandish plots that attempt to avoid the unpredictable, I mostly appreciated The Woman in Cabin 10 for all the smaller issues Lo points out. For example, she doesn’t feel like she belongs on the Aurora Borealis because the rooms are around $8,000 per night. Lo notices the ship is like a doll house: everything extravagant, but sized down. The staff have such small quarters compared to the guests. The staff rooms aren’t bad — the staff note that their quarters are much worse on other ships — but the smallness of the rooms for the workers strikes Lo, and I appreciated Ware’s attention to class differences.

Also, Lo points out that the women guests are tiny, sleek, hungry-looking, while the men are rotund and could survive a shipwreck for ages. The double standard — men can be fat and powerful while women must almost disappear to be noticed — stood out to me in a positive way. Ware’s narrator doesn’t float through reality, she pays attention to it. Smartly, the narrator’s attention to class and gender come back ever so subtly in the last ten or so chapters of the book. You may have even forgotten there’s a connection, but if you’re paying attention too, you will be rewarded.

Although Hollywood films would have us believe strong women must shoot weapons, save worlds, and practically be ninjas (all while wearing form-fitting leather), Lo Blacklock is a strong woman with a regular personality and body.

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Notice her breasts and abs; that’s how tight it is. She’s amazing with weapons, and the wings suggest a divine savior of sorts, like an angle. Spare me.

She can’t climb over high walls, and the stairs may make her a bit winded. But she defends herself. When security on the Aurora Borealis suggest Lo may have not seen or heard anything that first night, she tells the man to stop speaking because he doesn’t have a right to make her feel crazy or shut out her voice. Security mentions that another passenger said Lo drank a lot and that she takes anti-depressants. Such a combo is sure way to destroy a person’s authority, but Lo throws security out of her room for such utter disrespect and lack of concern. If only all women could stand up for their own voices — and that includes me — what a different world it would.

Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
published by FC2, September 2012

“As you can imagine, I have never been very successful at being a girl, though, for my mother’s sake, I have tried. I have wambled about on gimlet heels that left divots in hardwood floors, permed my hair into a fungal fuzz, wrestled my hips into girdles, painted onto my face a bright hoax of come-hither allure, following closely the prescription in those fashion magazines that advise women how to be more woman than they already are (or less), but this was all a disguise that fooled no one, least of all my mother; an authority on feminine.”

Going into any FC2 book is about like jumping down the rabbit hole: I know it’s going to be different (see FC2’s motto), and I want to experience different whole-heartedly, and yet I’m not sure how much plot will be a factor versus other forms of storytelling. Wells’s novel begins with quite a bit of emphasis on plot and goes off into many tributaries of stories from there.

Fat Girl

Meet Wallis Grace Armstrong, a giant of a woman. She’s 8 feet, 11 (and-a-half) inches and 490 pounds. We first get to experience Wallis in the present; she’s walking alone at night when a man presses a knife to her throat and threatens her. What she doesn’t know when she blasts him with pepper spray is that he’s asthmatic, so her aggressor, Hazard Planet, dies. Wallis’s police report is viewed skeptically, for who would dare attack such an enormous woman? Fortunately, Wallis sticks up for herself to the police, reminding them that “a violent crime against an individual occurs every eighteen seconds and an assault occurs every twenty-nine seconds….You never know when some…flour enthusiast might set up a mill and start grinding…” Wallis decides to meet Hazard’s family, which includes a mother and his sister, Vivica Planet. Lo and behold, Vivica is a giantess as well, “solid as a diamond.” What will this family think of the woman who accidentally murdered their kin?

Something is a little odd about Vivica’s response to Wallis’s visit: “You believe I’m angry with you for what you’ve done, think perhaps I hate you for killing my brother. You imagined no matter what my brother was like I must have loved him very much, because he is, he was, after all, my brother, and that’s what people do, love their brothers, isn’t that right? Brothers, like fathers and husbands, tycoons, magnates, deities, kings, presidents, despots, dictators, do what they do knowing, in the end, we have no choice but to love them?” Vivica’s comparisons of Hazard to male figures that we can deduce are associated negatively in her mind make readers suspicious of what Vivica’s and Hazard’s relationship was like before his death. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we learn more.

There are some more moments in the present of the novel, including Wallis visiting a family who claims their future daughter-in-law hanged herself in their barn. Wallis’s specialty is finding small clues in crime scenes that no one else notices because she creates teeny replicas of the scene at home. The problem is that Wallis has always seen her very body as a “crime someone had committed, a Class 1 felony, a crime [she] was determined to solve.” Should she ever find who committed the crime, she would punish him, which would make her “immediately shrink to fit that girly frock, and [her] mother would love [her] and coddle [her] and wish [her] no harm.”

Crime is not new to Wallis as an adult. When she was a girl–very large but young–Wallis tried to get kidnapped so she would feel like she was worthy of someone’s attention. Fortunately for her, she encounters a nice man who has a daughter of his own, though he looks how Wallis perceives criminals who steal little girls. She also helped a bit on the case of a girl missing from her hometown. Wallis and her brother Obie appeared in the newspaper as a result. It’s very early in the book (about five pages in) that we learn that Obie will disappear later, and that the present is about twenty years after that disappearance. Except Wallis can’t help find Obie and is of no help to authorities. She doesn’t know where he is or what happened.

Obie is a strange boy, one who we would never find in real life (though life is stranger than fiction, so, really, who knows). Obie sees Wallis as a god. Why wouldn’t she be? Only someone that large who walks the earth with her head that close to heaven could be a god. He prays at the foot of her bed at night and asks her to tell the biography of god. If you don’t think a giant woman and her devoted brother are too odd, that’s fine. Kellie Wells takes it slowly for us. But then we learn that Obie can talk to animals. His voice is also much more adult that it should be, giving him the wisdom of a learned philosopher. For example, “God is less knowledge than buoyancy in the acquiescence to its inevitable absence.” I know many readers complained of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close being a young boy with Jonathan Safran Foer’s brain, but Obie goes way beyond Oskar. Foer’s character is overly tuned in–or at least this is how we can perceive him if we want–but Obie is like a religious professor and Dr. Dolittle mixed into one (in fact, the detective looking for the missing children is named Doolittle, though this may suggest he isn’t worthy of his occupation).

The more I read Obie, the more I struggled with his character. I was especially perplexed when trying to think of reasons why Kellie Wells would choose Wallis’s brother as worshiper. Wallis also has a dance instructor (in the present setting) who is attracted to her and how large she is. A romantic relationship might help readers see why Wallis is so close to a character who sees her as deity. It’s not until much, much later that we learn that Wallis and Obie are meant to be foils to Vivica and Hazard.

It is the interest in a god and who god is or isn’t that causes the tributaries in the story. An assignment from when Vivica was a girl is shared, suggesting how Vivica feels about men and worship. The assignment is to write a letter to a historical figure, and Vivica addresses the letter to “King Hatshepsut, Former Dowager Queen, Vivifier of Hearts, Wife of God, Divine Adoratrice of Amun, United with Amun in the presence of Nobles, Matkaare, Truth is the Soul of the Sun God, Esteemed Pharoh.” Hatshepsut becomes a gender bender when she marries her brother (making her the wife of god in her lifetime), who dies, which means she wants to rule (as god), so Hatshepsut dresses like a man. Her stepson, however, ruins her reign by essentially erasing her from history’s memory. If his predecessor is a woman, he will be humiliated. When Hatshepsut’s mummy is found, Vivica raves that a god of the past isn’t allowed to be so small. How can a god be small? Vivica doesn’t appear to want to be ruled by men and admires those who agree with her, but she’s also not listening to any small women, either.

There are many other stories of creation and gods in the book: a modified Adam and Eve, the tale of a baby born out of an ear, how man is created by Allah, the Book of Ezekiel (a homeless prophet), and a pied piper who takes children after destroying rabbits. Kellie Wells’s last spiritual tale explores the crucifixion:

“…and he saw the swelling serry of the people of posterity whose perishing his sacrifice would reverse (far too many, he thought, to fit inside the most generous paradise) would find more and more ways to inflict suffering–they’d have a genius for it–sometimes in the name of vengeance, often in the name of nothing, and he saw that they would learn to do so with staggering efficiency and that there was a vast and endless freshet of the blood of humans and animals waiting to boil across the millennia to come (today was like every other that would follow), and just before the beating of the man’s heart came kindly to a halt, this heart turning its charity at last on him, he realized there was no such thing as love and never had been and that an empty heart would be the heavier for daring to rise again, a plummet in the airy ectoplasm of his risen chest, all the heavier for existing without at least the avocation of animating the flesh, but it was too late now not to die, and so he did.”

You can almost feel Wells asking, “Do gods still walk the earth? In what form? And do we believe those who say they are close to god?–because we never really know what is meant by god. Are we worthy of a god?” These questions are intriguing inquiries into the world of what isn’t readily available for us to accept. Stories are the only way we can make that connection to a spiritual realm — we can’t see or touch or hear or smell it — and Wells use of a woman-god who’s learning what it means to be a god (even to one person) and comparing her to a woman who wants to be a god, is an ingenious vehicle for exploration.

I want to thank you Kellie Wells for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

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Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (Lesbian Career Girl Series #2) by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2010

I eagerly jumped into my second Monica Nolan book! Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary was a delight to read, though sometimes it felt just a tad silly. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher felt more grown up, in a way, because she knows she’s a lesbian. Lois Lenz took 80% of the novel to figure it out (despite making out with women through the whole thing). Thus, I enjoyed Bobby Blanchard’s story a great deal more. Mind you, you don’t have to read Lois Lenz first. However, I would recommend that you read the books in order (there are 4 lesbian career girl novels) for maximum enjoyment.

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It’s 1964 and we learn that Bobby Blanchard is a field hockey player. She played in high school and college, but then a stupid accident causes her to break a bone, leaving her unable to go pro. Now what does she do? Going pro was her whole plan, despite majoring in teaching in college. Miss Watkins, a guidance counselor (who was the guidance counselor in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary) visits Bobby in the hospital and reminds the sad athlete of her teaching credentials — and says there is an opening for a gym teacher at Metamora Academy for girls! (By the way: Bobby and Lois did not go to the same high school, so Miss Watkins is a bit like a guardian angel guidance counselor for lesbians, which I find funny).

Bobby has concerns about being a teacher, though:

“But my grades — my brains –” Bobby struggled to express herself. “A teacher has to be smart.” How she’d sweated over those lesson plan assignments in Pedagogy II, how lost she’d felt when the class discussed the pros and cons of module-based teaching!

But off to Metamora she goes. I’m not sure if all academies have the same labels, but instead of “gym teacher,” Bobby is the “Games Mistress.” Instead of grade levels, like 9th or freshman, the girls are “formers,” as in “4th formers.” I could never keep track of what each form meant, which made it hard to image the students’ ages. The alternative titles were something I did not enjoy.

Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor, almost never gets it wrong when she advises young lesbians! But not all the Metamora faculty are that excited by newbie Bobby, especially the new Math Mistress, Enid:

“And when you teach something as basic as gym, you can always tell them to do laps when you run out of material. . . .That’s what my high school gym teacher used to do.”

How insulting to Bobby! Author Monica Nolan seems to enjoy writing the prim, snippy, librarian-type. In Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary it was Netta Bean. In Bobby’s world, it’s Enid. When there is always a know-it-all with a secret and a grudge in Nolan’s novels, readers can predict that the librarian may let her hair down and whip off her glasses for some between-the-sheets fun. Sometimes, the stereotype helps with expectations, and Nolan uses the sexy librarian stereotype beautifully.

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Another distinct aspect of the world Nolan created is that everyone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. You can guarantee that married or not, man or woman, teenager or adult, everyone is (note that very few men appear in Nolan’s novels). Nolan doesn’t make her character’s sexuality much of a secret, either, which is interesting. You just keep reading and become part of a world in which no one is straight, and it all is perfectly normal. You don’t have to wonder who’s point of view is the focus; it’s the titular character, and she’s a lesbian who doesn’t feel shame. I still remember Lois Lenz declaring, “I’m a lesbian career girl, too!” and feeling very excited about such a world.

Nolan does add a lot of subplots and points of contention to keep the story going like a mystery novel. When the mystery was solved at the end of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, I thought it was a bit silly. Some subplots circling Bobby’s life are:

  • How to integrate “Angle,” a frustrated teen with divorced parents who are of different faiths, with the other girls.
  • The Headmistress whose lover fell (or jumped!) from the tower last term and was killed.
  • The new field hockey team with most inexperienced players that Bobby put together at Metamora that keeps winning — because terrible “accidents” happen to the other teams’ players.
  • The ghost on the glowing bicycle.
  • Who stole one of the girl’s beloved locket.
  • A student who keeps buying Ouiji boards to summon the dead.

There’s a lot to take in! I’m not sure why Nolan heaps it on, but she did in both Lois Lenz and Bobby Blanchard. Piling on subplots was something I noticed in the mystery novel Terror in Taffeta. I want to call the Lesbian Career Girls series “cozy mysteries.” There is sex, but it’s mostly off page. There is almost zero violence. Things are wrapped up happily in the end. Perhaps plenty of subplots to misdirect readers is a key ingredient of a cozy mystery, one that other readers will appreciate more than I did. On a positive note, the books aren’t about the mystery, though; it’s about watching the main character develop into a stronger woman (YES!).

Most notably, Bobby Blanchard is just plain fun and funny. She’s always using sports metaphors to explain her feelings about other women. Early in the book Bobby meets up with her girlfriend, Elaine, a young woman who refuses to be seen in public with Bobby. Elaine wants to marry a boy so her father, who has lots of money, will stop threatening to send Elaine to college if she won’t get hitched (Elaine loves being lazy and having money). In reality, Elaine says, she will keep sneaking off to have sex with Bobby and marry some guy with even more money! The gym teacher let’s her have it:

“You may not be off the team, but your team loyalty is certainly in question!” Bobby responded hotly.

Elaine’s temper, never placid, began to fray. “Maybe I need a more competent coach,” she shot back. “One who understands the point of the game!”

“What are you saying?” demanded Bobby indignantly. “Are you implying my ball-handing skills are slipping? Why, I taught you everything you know! Your technique, your wide knowledge of plays…”

Keep in mind, they’re talking about whether or not Elaine is a traitor to lesbians, and if Bobby is sexually experienced enough. The metaphor goes on for just long enough to have any reader in stitches!

Furthermore, Nolan includes other bi-sexual women in the book who want Bobby in bed but not public, giving the reader serious food for thought. There is no shame in the characters regarding their sexuality, but the 1964 setting means society may have something to say about two women (and at one point there is a raid on a lesbian bar). Society is never one character; it’s a presence, though, allowing Nolan to overlap her imagined world and reality. In a way, Nolan asks the reader to consider her attitude toward LGBT couples — and not just feeling liberal, but actually seeing LGBT couples in public and not making untoward comments.

Monica Nolan does some fun world building when Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor from the beginning of the book, runs into Bobby while she is with Netta Bean, one of the main characters of Lois Lenz! Netta is a teacher, too, so she tries to help Bobby feel better about yelling unreasonably at her students by sharing some mistakes she’s made, including when she “failed to take a student’s threat to the assassinate the principal seriously.” The author keeps the characters just over-the-top to move you to gently snort with laughter. And the cross-over of the author’s novels is such a delight to read! I feel like I’ve run into an old friend, since I learned so much about Netta before.

Bobby Blanchard is an enjoyable read, one that I was happier to pick up and read to my husband each night than Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary. Beware: Bobby’s story is definitely more risque: she knows she’s a lesbian, she is promiscuous, and at one point has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student (legal, but questionable ethically). Overall, though, a great, fun book!

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore Review on Goodreads, as Grab the Lapels is a ladies only site! 🙂 I had to read Fluke earlier than I originally planned because book club was 8/28. *Rilla of Ingleside is still coming!*

Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

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Terror in Taffeta #bookreview #mystery #wedding #20BooksofSummer #ReadWomen @kindacozy

This is book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. Please note that I read Fire in The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol immediately after I read Nickel and Dimed. The books pair well together, but since Grab the Lapels is #NoBoysAllowed, you can find my review on Goodreads.

Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper

published by Minotaur Books, March 2016

The premise: at a destination wedding in Mexico, unlikable bridesmaid Dana falls over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The bride’s demanding mother insists that wedding planner Kelsey figure out whodunit — especially since the police have said no one can leave the city. There are many suspects Kelsey uncovers and interrogates, giving the book several twists as she works toward finding the murderer.

Terror in Taffeta is the first book of its kind that I can remember reading. I think this is what readers call a “cozy mystery,” but I’m not sure. There is no violence or sex, and Cooper gives the story over to first-person narrator Kelsey, who navigates police, the bride and groom, the rude mother, an ex-boyfriend, and a best buddy who just can’t quit her. Quickly, the police take the bride’s sister into custody, claiming they have undeniable proof that she’s the murderer.

terror in taffeta

The book does have some seriously funny moments. When Dana collapses in the first few pages, Kelsey knows she needs to tell the bride, but she runs into the bride’s mother, first. Mrs. Abernathy, a wealthy white woman, insists Kelsey not ruin her daughter’s special day with bad news. Kelsey asks her friend Brody (whom she hired as the wedding photographer) what she should do. Brody asks, “What would Emily Post do?” Emily Post, of course, is the mother of the etiquette book — if you’re ever unsure what to do in a given situation, turn to Ms. Post.

Another great scene that had me in stitches was when Kelsey was trapped at the funeral of a man she didn’t know. She thinks, “I did the only appropriate thing there was to do: I pretended to pray.” In another example, the bridal party must move from their current luxury hotel. They’d planned a week-long visit, but the death of Dana expanded it to two weeks, and people with hotel reservations were about to show up. Kelsey worries about sticking Mrs. Abernathy in a shoddy hotel with “a room with a bed that vibrated if you inserted a couple of pesos.”

Kelsey isn’t just funny; she avoids the stereotype of the wedding planner who spends so much time planning weddings that she’s single and lonely. Instead, Kelsey uses an analogy:

People always assume that when you’re a wedding planner you want to get married really badly, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like if you worked at an ice cream shop. For the first month, you’d eat ice cream every day and think, Wow, I’m super lucky; I can have ice cream whenever I want. Then you’d start gaining weight and getting bored with the ice cream. You’d eat it less often, and after a few months, you’d find that you preferred salty snacks.

Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend does play a role in the book, but he’s not what you’d think, and Cooper avoids the sticky-sweet love stuff.

Yet, there were a two big things that drove me insane in Terror in Taffeta, things I couldn’t get over that really spoiled the story for me. First, Mrs. Abernathy: she’s so contrary in every single situation that she felt unrealistic and under-developed. She’s classic racist white lady: “No live-o here-o” she tells Mexican police. And she’s obviously one of those moms who think only her birth children are “real” family.

“You think I’d let a murderer on the guest list? I approved every last person myself….But if it was one of the guests, it’d have to be one of his,” she said, jerking her thumb toward the groom.

What does Mrs. Abernathy have against her new son-in-law? Nothing readers have been told. However, I’ve met parents who don’t consider spouses “real” family. They indoctrinate their children with the notion that spouses come and go, but blood is forever. Ew, creepy, cultish.

abernathy

How I picture Mrs. Abernathy — photo from AVclub.com

Mrs. Abernathy isn’t above a bit of aggression, either. She’ll jab Kelsey in the ribs to get her attention. Rib jabbing is common in books, but have you ever allowed someone to assault you in real life? I hated the way Mrs. Abernathy was a cliche.

Much worse than a cliched character was the premise stretched to nearly breaking: why is a wedding planner playing detective? Well, she doesn’t want Mrs. Abernathy to cancel her final payment. I kept mulling over the logistics: if you hire someone to do a job, you can’t cancel payment because they refuse to meddle in police affairs.

Kelsey does have the good (realistic) sense to call the police when a room has been ransacked and to turn over physical evidence. But then she demands the police do something with the evidence to release the bride’s sister.

“I don’t know why you have this vendetta against [the bride’s sister], but you can’t prove she did this. You know why? Because she didn’t. So why don’t you stop acting like Barney Fife and start doing your job — pronto!”

barney fife

photo from tumblr

Who demands the police do things — and for a person she doesn’t really know? Well, in books people do, which makes the police look like they don’t care. I was so frustrated that Kelsey was playing detective in Mexico when the police have told her she’s in the way, but I was also frustrated that they weren’t doing things with the evidence she gave them.

So, I talked to an actual police officer (thanks, Brad!). He said that the police don’t determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which is what Kelsey is demanding, but rely on the court system to present the evidence and come to a verdict. I see readers ask why police always seem so stupid in books; I’m pretty sure it’s because writers give “the mic” to characters running around trying to save the day for no good reason.

In the end, the nagging question — Why the hell is a wedding planner risking her life and career in a foreign country on solving a mystery without giving readers any real reason for doing so? — wouldn’t go away, and I was happy to be done with the book. That’s not to say plenty of readers didn’t love Terror in Taffeta. I read this book on recommendation from crime/mystery writer Margot Kinberg, the book has blurbs from excellent sources, and most ratings on Goodreads are five stars. Perhaps the genre wasn’t for me, so you’ll have to decide! Are you able to suspend disbelief when a realistic character makes unrealistic choices repeatedly?

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

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Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

Welcome to my review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Since this is an older book, published in 1938, I’m going to have lots of spoilers. I don’t feel bad about this, as many of you have mentioned how much you love Rebecca already. I’m also going to share images from the film, as images are awesome and the book and film follow each other fairly closely. But this is the book review.

My introduction to Rebecca came only recently. It all started with my immense hatred of the horrible movies coming out these days, which led me to my local library, where I began checking out old black-and-white movies like a crazy person. I skipped social events to watch them in the dark (you can’t watch black-and-white movies with the lights on. Everything looks wrong). And then I got to Alfred Hitchcok’s Rebecca, a gorgeous film with the indescribably expressive Joan Fontaine and the handsome (I can easily describe why) Laurence Olivier. I told my husband Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghost.

Rebecca

The novel begins with a narrator describing Manderley and how “we” can never go back. The wilds of nature have taken it over. To my knowledge, readers aren’t told who “we” is at this point. Then she explains how “we” sit in boring hotels and talk about boring subjects for the sake of their nerves, which are shattered at any memories of Manderley. Then, the narrator remembers how it all happened. Nice hook, du Maurier!

A young woman (our narrator), who is a twenty-one-year-old paid companion, travels to Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy, fat lady (my fellow fatties, please forgive me). There, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, the forty-two-year-old owner of the renowned Manderley, an estate so grand it’s all anyone talks about. After Mrs. Van Hopper is laid up sick, the narrator is asked by Maxim to spend time with him. Over the course of a fortnight (that’s two weeks, folks), the narrator falls in love with him, and Maxim asks her to marry him (though he expresses no love). Should we be suspicious? Is this a shotgun wedding? Snoopy Mrs. Van Hopper certainly wants to know!

the naughty

As Mr. de Winter explains to Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out  a paid companion, the narrator holds a book Maxim had loaned her earlier. It’s signed “Max from Rebecca.” Yes, that Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who tragically drowned at sea ten months ago! The narrator, in an odd moment of defiance, tears the page out, rips it up, and lights it on fire. And now we’re done with Rebecca, right? Wrong.

She’s everywhere at Maderley. The servants tell the narrator how “Mrs. de Winter” did things (I put it in quotes because the narrator is also Mrs. de Winter). The woman who runs the house is the skeleton-like Mrs. Danvers, a villain in this novel, who mechanically obeys the de Winters but also schemes to get the narrator out of Manderley, even encouraging her to commit suicide! Maxim is distant, possibly because he’s twice the narrator’s age; the housekeeper is a sabotaging nutbar; and it’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. If only Maxim could stop loving Rebecca and love our poor narrator!

Suicide.gif

Rebecca gets to be the title, and a woman, bur the current wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s so insignificant to Manderley. At twenty-one, she’s constantly referred to as “the child” because she’s half everyone else’s ages.

When they first met, the narrator expresses her love like that of a child:

“There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”

I remember that, for I was young enough to win happiness in the wearing of his clothes, playing the schoolboy again who carries his hero’s sweater and ties it about his throat choking with pride, and this borrowing of his coat, wearing it around my shoulders for even a few minutes at at time, was a triumph in itself, and made a glow about my morning.

This scene was so familiar to me and recalled how important it was in high school to lay claims on your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, one that said his name so everyone would know you were involved. You felt like a superhero all day long in that sweatshirt.

Near the end, a sailing boat is discovered at the bottom of the sea near Manderley…and Rebecca’s corpse is in the bottom. Someone’s jabbed holes in the boat and the seacocks were opened, which you never open while afloat because the water pours in. Rebecca was an expert sailor. Was it foul play? Did she kill herself? Was she really just careless for one moment and the sea ate her up?

The pacing of the plot of Rebecca is, for the most part, spot on. Daphne du Maurier knows just when to summarize an event for us, like much of the time Maxim and the narrator spend together when they first meet. She knows when to let the plot linger. Maxim is convinced to have a fancy dress ball at Manderley, just like he and Rebecca used to do all the time, and the narrator decides her costume will be a surprise. Problem is, she can’t think of what to dress as! Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy one of the family portraits hanging on the wall, and the narrator thanks Mrs. Danvers for her kindness.

the costume

Unfortunately, as she descends the stairs on the day of the party in her costume, Maxim, his sister, and brother-and-law are shocked and appalled! It’s the same costume Rebecca wore to the last fancy dress ball! Dammit, Mrs. Danvers and your shenanigans! The narrator spends the whole night standing near Maxim, not talking to him and responding the same way to everyone who thanks her for hosting the party: “I’m so glad.” This “I’m so glad” scene goes on for several pages, lingering in this horrible moment during which Maxim is distraught and won’t comfort his poor, deceived young wife.

The ending, however, gets a little slow, and I wondered if I felt this way because in the movie so many things are squished together to make the ending speedy. Maxim reveals he shot Rebecca and stuck her in the boat, there’s an inquest, Rebecca’s death is ruled suicide, Rebecca’s favorite cousin calls foul play, the police get involved, they track down a mentally disabled witness, they play with the telephone a lot, they track down a key witness, wait a day, go to the key witness, talk to him, drive home, stop at a gas station….it was so long compared to the quick dashing around in the film, in which everything is resolved in one day.

Many of the pages of Rebecca are devoted to setting. It’s not hard to picture Manderley. The rose garden out the east wing, the angry sea at the west wing, the morning room, the library with the China cupid, the brazen rhododendrons up the driveway, Happy Valley and the azaleas, the shingle beach. In many books, so much description would seem extraneous to me, but in Rebecca, the appearance of Manderley is important, not only because everyone loves it so, but because it’s appearance is all due to Rebecca’s demands: where things were placed, which flowers grew, what to hang on the walls. It’s lovely, indeed, but our narrator doesn’t care for much of it, and the decorations only remind everyone of Rebecca, emphasizing the focus of the book — REBECCA.

Now we’ve come to my two favorite aspects of the novel: the characters, and the imagining. All of the characters are memorable, distinct, and unique. Bravo! Mrs. Van Hopper is the first memorable character. She’s a gossipy fake, whose “one pastime, which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post-office.” Our poor narrator is embarrassed by Mrs. Van Hopper, but “there was nothing for it but to sit in [her] usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.” I almost lost it when I read “net of tedium.” What a funny way to think of someone! When Mrs. Van Hopper is saying something especially stupid, the narrator thinks, “…she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved…”

Maxim’s older sister, Beatrice, is my favorite after the narrator. She says any and everything she’s thinking, and she’s antagonistic to her brother, like all siblings. After meeting the narrator the first time, Beatrice ends the visit with “Come and see us if you feel like it….I always expect people to ask themselves. Life is too short to send out invitations.” When the narrator and Beatrice travel (Bee driving at break-neck speeds), the narrator feels a bit down. Beatrice wonders if she’s been experiencing morning sickness, and the narrator tells her no. Beatrice continues:

Oh, well — of course it doesn’t it always follow. I never turned a hair when Roger was born. Felt as fit as a fiddle the whole nine months. I played golf the day before he arrived. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about in the facts of nature, you know. If you have any suspicions you had better tell me.”

And in that moment, thanks to her matter-of-fact personality, I loved Beatrice and her shame-free talk with her new sister-in-law.

Jack Favell, who is Rebecca’s favorite cousin and her lover, is a slinky, memorable guy, but also a “bounder” (thanks for that word, British friends!). When Favell explains to Maxim why he’s not embarrassed to admit he was sleeping with a married woman, his sexist nature rears it’s ugly head:

All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? And some of ’em just can’t help playing Othello. They’re made that way. I don’t blame them. I’m sorry for them. I’m a bit of a socialist in my way, you know, and I can’t think why fellows can’t share their women instead of killing them. What difference does it make? You can get your fun the same. A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her the better she goes.

Even the way Favell drinks is unique to me: “Favell drank it greedily, like an animal. There was something sensual and horrible about the way he put his mouth to the glass. His lips folded upon the glass in a peculiar way.”

Jack Favell.gif

I’m not surprised the actor who played Favell also voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Have I ever told you that my imagination once almost killed me?

Yes, I was riding my bicycle up and down our long dirt drive way, which led to a dirt road. Up and down I went, and I began to imagine, though I don’t remember what. Suddenly, I found myself underwater, looking up into the sun beams shimmering through. (If you think I’m making this up, I have two witnesses). What happened: I was so deep in my imagination that I never made the turn at the end of the driveway and instead went right across the road, into the deep ditch full of water, and lay at the bottom with my eyes open (to think this is the only time I’ve had my eyes open under water). I didn’t breathe in water, I wasn’t destroyed by a car.

Long story short, I absolutely deeply relate to the narrator of Rebecca.

She’s constantly so lost in her imagination that whole mini-scenes play out. Frequently, she refers to how things would have happened in a book, but more often she imagines the scene. When she’s changing out of her costume — after the big humiliation of wearing what Rebecca had — into a new dress for the ball, she overhears the workers on the lawn who are checking bulbs on the party lights. She imagines the man’s continued narrative:

Later in the evening he would stand with his friend in the drive and watch the cars drive up to the house, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his head. He would stand in a crowd with the other people from the estate, and then drink cider at the long table arranged for them in one corner of the terrace. “Like the old days, isn’t it?” he would say. But his friend would shake his head, puffing on his pipe. “The new one’s not like our Mrs. de Winter, she’s different altogether.” And a woman next to them in the crowd would agree, other people too, all saying, “That’s right,” and nodding their heads.

“Where is she to-night? She’s not been on the terrace once.”

“Mrs. de Winter used to be here, there and everywhere.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

And the woman would turn to her neighbors, nodding mysteriously….

“Of course I have heard before the marriage is not a wild success.”

“Oh, really?”

“H’m. Several people have said so. They say he’s beginning to realize he’s made a big mistake. She’s nothing to look at you know.”

And this scene continues a page and a half. The imagined voices stir up the narrator, she confirming her own worst fears: that she’s not good enough, that she’ll never be the real Mrs. de Winter, that everyone is judging her like “a prized cow.” If the narrator were real, we’d both have Xanax.

Rebecca is absolutely a must-read book. It’s funny, mysterious, vivid, tragic, and well written. I don’t often look for books to relate to me, but this one really did. However, the fears and anxieties of this curious younger person will relate to any number of people, regardless of their unique identities. My only hesitation is that if you decide to buy a copy, the Avon mass-market paperback edition has a dozen or more typos.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffetaby Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2007

I picked up this book on a recommendation from Chance Lee, one of my Goodreads buddies whose reviews are funny and insightful. I couldn’t get over the title and so further looked into Monica Nolan’s work. After Lois Lenz comes Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym TeacherMaxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante; and Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlandy. There’s also the superbly titled The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. According to her Goodreads profile, she “has experience in three out of the four careers she’s written about.” Please, please, let Monica Nolan be an ex-gym teacher! I bought all four of the lesbian lady novels.

monica nolan

Monica Nolan

Monica Nolan’s whole “Lesbian Career Girl” series borrows from the old pulp novels, from the writing style (lots of shocked characters yelling with exclamation points) to the cover. According to the NewYorker, Robert de Graff started Pocket Books in 1939 and switched to cheap paper — pulp — to make them affordable and mass-marketable (the first press to do so in America). Finally, feeling that it wasn’t enough to have Americans ordering their books from catalogs because there were so few bookstores (only about 2,800), he decided to cash in on the “more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters — not to mention train and bus stations.” According to the author of the article, “People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.” (Fun Fact: de Graff felt books should never cost more than a pack of cigarettes).

Suddenly, books with titles like Hitch-Hike Hussy and The Daughter of Fu Manchu were available, along with “whodunit?” novels, hard-boiled detective fiction, and romances. Pulp novels are especially famous for their covers:

lady killer

Image from pulpcovers.com

 

 

blondes

Image from pulpcovers.com. Can you image reading this on your commute to work??

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary follows in the tradition of having an eye-catch pulp cover (though I must add the quality of paper is very good):

best lois lenz

The novel, I’m pretty sure, is set in the 1950s, when women are starting to do things out of the house, but it’s looked down on as selfish. Lois and her best friend, Faye, are about to graduate high school in Walnut Grove, home of the Nutshells. The plan is for them to go to a junior college together, marry their high school sweethearts, live next door to each other, and have babies!

But something happens when the guidance counselor, a strong women (possibly a lesbian), tells Lois her grades in filing and typing are fantastic and that she should consider going to live in the “big city” to get a job as a secretary. It’s interesting to watch an 18-year-old girl get so excited about being a secretary. Faye is mad and Lois’s mom scoffs, but the guidance counselor says she has a job and a supervised boarding house — the Magdalena Arms — lined up for Lois. Lois is going to miss all the practice kissing she does with Faye, but her boyfriend is no big deal (it turns out he’s using Lois as a cover to date an African American girl…I mean, it’s like having a “beard,” but for race). Lois bucks tradition and goes…to the hot, stinky city to find the Magdalena Arms is pretty dumpy. Her room on the 5th floor is shabby, too.

At lot happens the first night in the Magdalena Arms when the friendly girls of the 5th floor have some drinks in one of the rooms. This book is full of puns. When Lois is asked if she likes girls, the author uses the verb “queried” Get it? Queer-ied? The Magdalena Arms is described as “quite a special atmosphere — so gay, so liberal, yet closely supervised and cared for all the same.” After Lois discovers an older girl, Pamela, who was on her cheerleading squad in Walnut Grove, visiting the Magdalena Arms, the whole 5th floor does a toast to old friends:

“To the Nutshells,” everyone echoed, and drank.

“Pamela had the highest kick in the state!” Lois told them proudly.

“I’m not surprised,” drawled Maxie. “Pamela’s always been very limber.”

Predictably, Lois very quickly gets drunk, for she is not used to alcohol, and Netta puts her to bed. Lois slurs, “You’re not a white slaver, are you?” and Netta — sweet Netta with her hair in a bun and glasses — replies, “No, I’m a school teacher.”

The next morning, Lois goes to her first day on the job. It turns out she will not be working in the typing pool as she thought she would; she’s going to be the personal secretary to the boss, Mrs. Pierson — whose nicknamed the hyena. When she gets home, Lois tells a 5th floor girl, Dolly, about it: “A promotion practically before you started…You’re going straight to the top, kid, straight to the top — even if you have to ride the hyena to get there!” These kinds of sexual puns are everywhere, and they make the story that saucy kind of light-hearted fun you want every so often.

Most of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary is clear to the reader — namely that Lois is a lesbian, and so is almost every other female in the book. Lois doesn’t recognize what’s going on, so she’s often confused. There are also twists and misleading clues, such as why no one can go in the filing room at work, what happened to a girl who used to live on the 5th floor, where a sexy photo came from, why there was a break in at the Magdalena Arms, and who is a communist.

Yes, Lois is paranoid about communists. Her mother read in the newspaper about communists and “white slavers” in the big city and warned Lois not to take the secretary job. But when the girls of the 5th floor all go out to dinner, they make fun of Lois’s mother for her paranoia. But then things get more serious:

“But honestly, that attitude has ruined thousands of innocent lives,” said Phyllis earnestly, pushing her classes back up on her nose.

“Yes, it is sad,” agreed Netta, twirling her spaghetti expertly around her fork. “One of my professors at Teacher’s College in Minnesota was forced to resign, just because he’d signed some petition about the Scottsboro Boys!”

Lois spoke up. “But Netta, if they asked your professor to leave his position, he was probably much more deeply involved than just signing a petition. Why, he might have been a sleeper agent, teaching you Communist doctrine without you even realizing it!” Lois had read selected chapters from J. Edgar Hoover’s masterly Masters of Deceit her sophomore year and had been vigilant about the Communist conspiracy ever since.

“It was a class called ‘Math Methods for Junior Learners,'”said Netta dryly. “If he could squeeze any Communist doctrine into that, he deserved a prize.”

Lois is so quick to believe anything that she would have been an ideal party member in 1984. Her paranoia, though, is pretty funny. She even believes smoking some weed will land you in the hospital addicted to heroin.

The author doesn’t shy away from Lois getting intimate with many women (while still not realizing she’s a lesbian). The scenes are mostly described as kissing and biting and touching breasts; nothing overly graphic is described in detail. Serious intimacy is loving and sensual. The less serious intimate situations are funny; women try to be super sexy by asking Lois about typing or filing as foreplay. Lois loves secretarial duties more than anyone you’ve ever met; she even files when she’s upset!

Finally, the book does something that caused me to be incapable of putting down any R.L. Stein book ever: it has cliffhanger chapters. Something is always suspicious or surprising in the last line, which made me feel like I was right back to when I was younger and snuggled into books like they were bean bag chairs.

I’m excited to read the next three books in the Lesbian Career Girl series. Both Dolly Dingle and Maxie Mainwaring are characters in Lois Lenz that I liked who will get their own books.

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Saints in the Shadows

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A puzzling cover.

Alana Cash’s self-published novel Saints in the Shadows (2014) follows Maud, a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Maud is from New Orleans, but left when life didn’t make sense after the death of her father. Once Maud feels confident in her job as a waitress at a ludicrously expensive restaurant, she gets her own apartment, which is where she meets her eccentric neighbor from Hungary, Lina,  who works as a psychic using the pseudonym Madam Budska. Lina decides that Maud shows talent for reading people, and that’s all being a psychic is: just listening and looking. When Lina goes away for a week for “the big reveal,” she convinces Maud to meet with her clients in her absence.

There is not a single boring character in Saints in the Shadows, even the minor ones. Dilly Bones, the first person to whom Maud makes love, may only exist in one chapter, but I could hear him and understand his actions. Maud’s mother lives in Montana, but even on the phone her character comes to life on the page. She can tell which boyfriend is bad for Maud, and she knows that when a date winks at Maud, he’s the keeper.

Lina and Maud, the main characters, are people you’d want to know. Alana Cash describes them just often enough so that my mind doesn’t let an image of me take over (if I don’t know what a character looks like, I assume she looks like me). But it’s mostly Lina’s and Maud’s conversations that are unforgettable. What Maud finds ethically objectionable, Lina sees as normal:

“How much is too much money, Maud?”

“Enough to buy people or manipulate them,” Maud said.

Lina smiled and said, “What do you think? Someone hates their job, but goes to work every day because they get paycheck, are they bought? Sure, they are bought, and they are first ones to point finger at Persephone [a woman who regularly visits Madam Budska and mistress to a wealthy man] and call her whore. Saying someone has too much money is just envy. Too much money is just more than you have. You think people making one hundred thousand by year doesn’t think about having more money? Or someone makes forty thousand by year isn’t concerned with money? And what for? They have roof over the head. They have enough to eat. They have work. Then what they need?”

Lina’s argument continues, explaining to Maud that greed is all about perception, and that those who call others greedy would probably trade places with the “greedy” person in a heartbeat to have a better life. Throughout the novel, Lina acts as a sort of guide who doesn’t give anyone–including her clients when she’s Madam Budska–answers.

Some of the characters appear and disappear, like magic moments inserted into the narrative. Take this moment when Maud sits to think to a public square:

One Sunday night in late January, Maud was alone in the Square. It was 22 degrees and beginning to snow. A black man hustled past her carrying a pair of drum sticks.

He called out, “Hey, baby, whatcha doin’ out here? It’s cold!”

She smiled. He reminded her of Dilly Bones.

“It’s not so bad,” she replied.

“Then you must be from Alaska,” he called from the corner and rushed on.

Alana Cash captures these small moments with ease, and uses them to her advantage. This brief scene is what leads Maud to the chapter in which her relationship with Dilly Bones–and his connection to her deceased father–is described. It all ties together, but begins with a moment.

The plot is one that kept me guessing and then assuming I shouldn’t guess, a tangible tug-of-war during which the author wants me to believe and then not. Lina claims that when she is Madam Budska, it’s all about reading body language and listening–that’s it. Also, she doesn’t charge people for her sessions. They give her what they think she is worth: thousands of dollars, gifts to high-end stores, expensive dishes or furniture, etc. In fact, Lina is a trained physicist, not a crystal ball kind of psychic. She uses dominoes as a prop because it’s what clients expect, but the dominoes don’t mean anything to her. Maud protests that Lina is tricking people as Madam Budska, but then something happens in the story to make me think the characters really are psychic. After Maud meets with “Client Waldorf” while Lina is away for “the big reveal,” she has a dream about him. Upon waking up, she calls Lina and tells her about the dream. Lina says, “It’s nothing. You pay attention to him. So, then your subconscious mind learns things that come out in a dream.” Okay, so here I am thinking Lina’s taking about dreams being our brain’s way of sorting through things we’re thinking about.

But then she says, “You feel something in the dream? Something pulling, like rope or string?” Maud had seen a ribbon in the dream, but doesn’t admit to it. Lina says, “If you see a string or ribbon, something like that, do not touch it. Otherwise, it can pull you along.” So, now I’m thinking Lina is a real psychic! The tension in the book goes back and forth like this: chilling moments that can’t be natural and then moments explained away by careful observation. As Maud meets more clients during the week, more dreams come, but Lina is always on the phone to discuss what they mean and question Maud, who is quick to judge people, if she feels differently when she knows more about the lives of these strangers.

One last thing I enjoyed about Saints in the Shadows was the dry humor Alana Cash adds. Lina’s “big reveal” trip takes her to Los Angeles, California. The wealth there is totally different from in NYC, which she explains it to Maud:

“I take a walk in the neighborhood yesterday. Some neighbor lose a little dog and posts flyer on telephone pole offering reward of ten thousand dollars for anyone finding this dog.”

“Really? Or is that a joke.”

“Is true. Someone loves the dog,” Lina said.

A few days later, Maud calls Lina and discovers that Lina is getting paid more to do psychic readings in Los Angeles than she was in NYC. Lina explains, “In California, I am worth the same as lost dog.” Here, the humor stems from Lina not saying the dollar amount she is paid, and from the fact that clients choose Lina’s price, which is the same as a dog.

The only puzzling bits were the title and cover. Saints are mentioned at one point, but they don’t seem to play a role in the rest of the story, and the cover makes the novel appear religious in nature, which it is not. Overall, I highly recommend Saints in the Shadows for it’s smooth organization, memorable characters, and its ability to make me a believer/non-believer. I really enjoyed this read!

I want to thank Alana Cash for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. I do not know the author personally nor professionally. Be sure to check out Alana’s Meet the Writer feature to learn more about her writing process and thoughts on Madam Budska!

Of Marriageable Age

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51AACbxgrlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of Marriageable Age is a saga (546 pages) by Guyanese author Sharon Maas. The book was originally published by Harper Collins in 2000, but Maas has re-released it through Bookoutre. The description of this book alone intimidated me, and sagas are not my usual read. Of Marriageable Age follows three narratives (Savitri’s, Nataraj’s, and Sarojini’s) that start in three different decades (1920s, 1940s, 1960s) on three continents (India, British Guyana, England). Even the names and locations intimidated me, as I was worried about cultural and historical information and pronunciation being a hinderance, which caused me to put off reading Of Marriageable Age for a while.

This saga is actually quite easy to follow. The author makes sure to remind readers often enough of who’s who. If I wasn’t sure of a location, a simple Google search helped me out. In terms of remembering the decades, it’s not really that important. One character’s story, Savitri’s, is set in the 1920s, which is the outlier and easy to remember. By page 130 I was aware of how the three characters were related. But, the exciting part was seeing how it unfolded. There are also Tamil words used, like amma and appa, which were easy enough to figure out. Other words, such as lungisambar, and tinnai were not super clear, though I did get the idea: pants, food, sleeping spot. I was dismayed to find a glossary at the end of the book–dismayed because it was too late for me to use it. Why publishers never alert readers to the fact that there is a glossary, especially e-reader editions that don’t make it easy to flip through the whole book before reading, is beyond me.

The story mostly focuses on the Indian tradition of fathers being responsible for marrying off their daughters to suitable families. Oftentimes, little children are paired up, “officially” engaged when they are about 13, and then married at 14. Brides come from all over the place. Sarojini’s mother was “imported from India.” Her bridegroom, Deodat, who lives in British Guyana, is an “orthodox Brahmin” who “refused to take a wife born and bred in BG [British Guyana]. In such a woman traditions were diluted, culture was dying….He was appalled at the gradual disintegration of Hindu traditions, and the spineless capitulation of Indians to the secular spirit which ruled the colony.” While Of Marriageable Age hits on many important topics, whether or not girls can choose their husbands and whether or not Indians can marry non-Indians is the big theme.

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Madras in India, where most of Nataraj’s story takes place

Maas excels at yo-yoing the reader. At times, I wanted to burn this book for how Maas made me feel. I was faced with difficult moments that made me question what I would be okay with accepting. I hated Maas for making me do such personal questioning. Truly, it says a lot for an author to get the reader so involved and thinking beyond myself and my world. Then, when all seemed to be horrible, a breath of fresh air would rescue me and take the decision out of my hands, for which I was grateful. Some of the heavier topics included: rape, incest, arranged marriages, politics, racism, sexual liberation, and magical realism.

Yes, magical realism. Maas conflates idealized Indians with magical realism, which made me more willing to accept some of what might otherwise be sappy perfection. For instance, you’ll find this sort of thing often: “the dark, deep, all-knowing, all-seeing pools of his eyes.” Every time eyes were called “pools” I wanted to snicker. But, Maas gives some of her characters magical abilities, like this:

“Savitri once believed that everyone could talk to plants and birds and animals, that everyone knew their language. When she was very small, people had been alarmed by her silences….It was only when she discovered that humans didn’t understand silence that she began to use words, and then they came out in perfectly formed sentences, in two languages, and people were astonished. Only the other beings, the plants, birds, and animals, understood silence. People, she knew now, lived wrapped in thought-bodies, which was why they could not understand silence. The thought-bodies got in the way. They were like thick black clouds through which the purity of silence could not enter, and they kept people captive and dulled. Sometimes there were gaps in the thought-bodies.”

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini's story takes place.

Georgetown, British Guyana, where most of Sarojini’s story takes place.

And so, it feels a little more genuine to me that the characters with the ability to hear voices and animals, to heal or bring good fortune, should have deep “pool” eyes (they are magical, after all), and so I forgave the otherwise cliched descriptions.

Although I understood how the three character’s lives were linked, truly I did not fully know. Typically, Maas rotates the stories in a predictable way: Nataraj, Saroj, Savitri, each with their own chapter, and then repeat. Later in the book something tragic happens at the end of one of Savitri’s chapters, so I kept reading to get back to her story and find out what happened. Instead, Maas danced away from the foreboding plot, making the chapters play Nat and Saroj and Nat and Saroj and back and forth between THOSE two! I had to keep reading to know what happened! Maas expertly leaves readers dangling above the plot line they most want.

Whenever I thought I knew how the saga would end, even when I didn’t want it to end the way I predicted, I often found that I was wrong and there was more to know. Although the ending of the book is wrapped too neatly, is a bit too eager, it is Maas’s ability to make the reader feel right and then incorrect that kept me reading way past my bedtime. I highly recommend this Of Marriageable Age.