Songs Unfinished, by Holly Stratimore (2015)

(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

In many ways, love is like music. It can soar with passion and verve, or it can ring dissonant and harsh. In most relationships, we experience both of these, and endless progressions in between.

Thus, music is the perfect backdrop for budding lovers Shawn Davies and Jaymi Del Harmon. Shawn is a survivor, a former hustler whose L.A. music career was going nowhere. She packed up, and worked her way back to her New England home town. She spent many days playing for whatever people would throw in her guitar case; she spent many nights in her car.

When she got back home, her father refused to see her. He had never forgiven her for coming out as a lesbian back in her teens. When everything seemed lost, she heard the band Passion Play on a local radio station. Shawn had been friends with Passion Play’s guitarist and songwriter, Jaymi Del Harmon, and Jaymi agreed to take Shawn in, just till she got her life together.

That period of time kept stretching, as the two women grew closer and closer, till something had to give. At risk? Their burgeoning music careers, close friendship, and blossoming love. The question remained whether the two women’s bond could endure new temptations–as well as ghosts from the past–and make their song a joyous melody, or would the entire relationship crumble like the clash of cymbals.

Author Holly Stratimore does a wonderful job melding music and romance into a parallel narrative. As the characters’ lives ebb and flow, so does their music. They suffer from writer’s block, and their relationship hits snags. It’s deftly handled.

I liked the two protagonists, too. Shawn comes off as tough but vulnerable, while Jaymi seems to have it all together, though there’s a giant hole inside her. They complement one another beautifully.

I also liked the supporting characters, especially Passion Play’s super-brash lead singer, Nikki. Beneath the growl and arrogance, we find an unexpected soft side. It was a nice twist.

Ms. Stratimore throws in enough curveballs so that the story never gets stale, and she brews up plenty of steamy scenes to keep up the sizzle.

“Songs Unfinished” works as a romance. However, there’s plenty more to the story. It’s obvious the author has a deep knowledge of both music and relationships, and she blends them together into a beautiful chord of a novel.

Highly Recommended

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The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year, by Annameekee Hesik (2012)

You know who
The last place Abbey Brooks wanted to be that day was at the mall with her fashionista BFF, Kate, but she couldn’t have imagined what would happen next.

She orders fries and a small lemonade from Hot Dog on A Stick, and finds herself entranced by the beautiful girl behind the counter. A few days later, when she and her mom take Abbey’s father’s guitar in for a tune-up, imagine her shock when that same girl works there, too.

The girl’s name is Keeta, and soon she’s all that Abbey can think about.

Abbey and Kate are starting their freshman year at Gila High, and Kate makes Abbey pinky-swear to avoid going out for basketball, and to stay away from “the you know who girls,” who are apparently legion on the basketball team.

This is one pinky-swear Abbey ends up breaking. She ends up being the JV center, and soon finds herself becoming one of “the you know who girls” herself.

And falling ass-over-tea kettle in love as she does so.

This is the first in “The You Know Who Girls” series, and I loved this book. It moved as quick and sure as a well-executed fast-break play, and Abbey is a charming and funny, yet vulnerable, narrator.

Yes, the person who so ensorcels Abbey is another girl, but author Annameekee Hesik also shows straight relationships as they ebb and flow, glow and explode. The same is true for you know who girls, except most have the extra pressure of trying to hide that they’re lesbians.

When I was in high school, I fell ass-over-tea kettle myself for a girl who happened to be three years younger than I was. I loved her to pieces, but I couldn’t let my friends know, because she was so much younger. If they’d found out, I would have been in for some razzing, but nothing serious. After all, she was a girl, and I was a boy.

The stakes are higher for the you know who girls. There are people who are filled with hate, sometimes to the point of cruelty or violence, just because of sexual preference. Add that risk into the pressure cooker-like atmosphere of high school, and things could get ugly fast.

Ms. Hesik does an excellent job easing Abbey into this world, and showing the joys and pitfalls she can expect, and not just from her relationship with Keeta, her lovely Hot Dog on A Stick girl. Keeta’s a senior, and Abbey’s a freshman, so there’s that. They’re gay, which of course complicates things more. But what I like is that they still have to deal with the basics: they’re teenagers in love, and they still have to go to classes every day.

Abbey and Keeta may be lesbian, but they also have basic teenager lives to lead. It’s sweet that they can lean on each other for support, despite the bitterness of having to hide their affections.

At day’s end, Abbey still needs her mom, her BFF, and–most of all–seriously good grades to get by. It’s almost like lesbians have lives just like straight kids.

It turns out that–good heavens–they do. If everybody could accept this, the world would be that much better a place.

This book’s a winner.

Very Highly Recommended

(nb: I received a review copy of the second installment in the series–“Driving Lessons”–and rated it 4/5. Though it’s not 100% necessary–Ms. Hesik does a good job presenting backstory in that one–I highly recommend reading “The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year” first. I purchased this book on my own after reading “Driving Lessons.”)

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Driving Lessons: The You Know Who Girls Soph Year, by Annameekee Hesik (2014)

driving lessons

Abbey Brooks is ready for her sophomore year. She’s determined to get her driver’s license, come out to her mom,, live through basketball season, and get–and keep–a girlfriend.

With Abbey Brooks, though, nothing is ever as easy as it sounds.

I love Abbey as a narrator. She’s funny and effervescent, not to mention self-effacing at times. Mostly, she’s honest when dealing with her feelings, and her ever-changing world of friends.

“Driving Lessons” is the second book in the “You Know Who Girls” series, which centers on a group of high school lesbians. The first novel in the series is “The You Know Who Girls: Freshman Year,” where we meet all these characters for the first time, including Abbey’s first girlfriend.

I haven’t read the first book (yet), so I missed much of the background on some of these well-drawn characters. However, author Annameekee Hesik has framed “Driving Lessons” so that even a newcomer to the series can follow along. If there is background information necessary to further the plot, she seamlessly weaves it into this narrative. It’s a difficult thing to do in series fiction, and Ms. Hesik pulls it off with great aplomb. I never felt lost from not having read book one; I did, however, go and buy book one, just because I’m curious about Abby and her Freshman Year adventures.

Although I think anyone would enjoy this novel, one of the most valuable things “Driving Lessons” does is acknowledge that high school is difficult enough without the added pressure of being lesbian. “Driving Lessons” helps show that such readers are not the only ones in that situation, and that it is possible to find friends–even parents–who will love and support you no matter what.

Also, in the Acknowledgements section at the end, Ms. Hesik provides numerous resources where LGBTQ teens can turn for advice or other help. Not everyone’s parents are as cool as some parents in the book, and these websites and phone numbers are there to help.

Abbey Brooks may not be the smoothest kid in school, but she has a huge heart, and that makes her adventures–and this book–well worth reading.

(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

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Maxine Wore Black, by Nora Olsen (2014)

“Maxine Wore Black” is basically two stories mashed into one. Mostly, it works.

The first–and primary–story is an updating of Daphne du Maurier’s classic, “Rebecca.” In the acknowledgements, author Nora Olsen calls “Maxine Wore Black” an homage to “Rebecca,” and it does this admirably.

The other story follows the struggles of a transgender girl named Jaylen. She has to deal with things I’d never even have thought of: regular hormone pills, laser hair removal, even getting a valid photo i.d. so she could prove her new identity to the world.

The stories mesh one night at the Queer Prom, where wallflower Jaylen spots the beautiful Maxine from across the dance floor. They exchange numbers, but Jaylen deletes Maxine’s from her phone–she figures Maxine is way too high class for her.

Maxine doesn’t quite see it that way. Although she has a girlfriend–Becky (get it? Rebecca?)–who goes to Princeton, Maxine still contacts Jaylen.

One night, Becky dies, banging her head and drowning in the waters off Fire Island. Maxine is devastated, and Jaylen is there to pick up the pieces, as the two fall in love. The questions start to arise, though: just how devastated was Maxine? Was Becky’s tragic death a suicide or an accident, or maybe something more heinous? And just how far would Maxine go to control Jaylen’s life completely?

“Maxine Wore Black” is a good book, with some great parts. The mysterious death plot was beautifully handled–Nora Olsen has serious storytelling skills, and she draws Maxine as a truly insane witch. Jaylen is an interesting narrative voice. We know she’s not educated–she repeatedly mentions she doesn’t even have her GED yet–but she seems to have some intelligence. She quickly realizes that Maxine is controlling and manipulating every facet of her life, from showing up at her jobs to going through her phone messages.

Like many abusive partners, though, Maxine can go from vicious to loving in a finger snap. That’s why Jaylen stays with her, even though we, as readers, just know this isn’t going to end well.

The second, underlying story–Jaylen’s transgender obstacles–doesn’t always mesh with the mystery surrounding Becky’s death. At times, it feels like the transgender part is just forced into the story randomly. This is a shame, for there aren’t a lot of books that handle transgender issues well. “Maxine Wore Black” doesn’t downplay the issues–Ms. Olsen deals with them in an honest, caring manner, in my opinion. The problem is that this particular mystery might not be the place to raise the transgender subject, or maybe it could have been handled more smoothly. I honestly don’t know. It just felt like the novel’s flow kept getting interrupted, which is a shame.

Maxine is a truly terrifying figure, and her scenes just crackle with insane electricity. “Maxine Wore Black” is worth the read just for her. There are many other positives to be said for this novel. Sometimes, they just don’t quite fit together well.

Recommended

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Season’s Meetings, by Amy Dunne (2014)

(nb: I received a review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley)

Catherine is a type AAAAAAAAAAA (read that, extremely type A), and she hates Christmas. When her boss suddenly demands Catherine’s underlings turn in reports just before Christmas or lose their jobs, Cat takes it upon herself to do all the reports herself. This means she misses out on her flight to Scotland, where she was to spend Christmas with her best friend and her partner.

The weather forecast is dire, and the only option left for Cat to get from London to Scotland is riding with her best friend’s cousin, Holly. There are instant sparks between the two, as they drive through the rapidly declining weather. Things get so dire, that they make a pact: if they survive the blizzard, they’ll make it a Christmas to remember.

Before long, the two are finding just how physically compatible they are, and how much joy they bring to one another’s lives. They’re falling in love. There’s just one problem…an old promise that could ruin everything.

Amy Dunne’s “Season’s Meetings” is a fun, easy read, perfect for this hectic time of year. I loved vivacious Holly from the very beginning, and it was wonderful to see how she gradually draws Catherine out from her self-protective shell (she’d been hurt before). Add in a special Cairn Terrier named Kimmie, and you have a perfect little family…except for that promise.

There’s nothing in “Season’s Meetings” that should surprise anyone. But it’s Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with a little steamy sex and some joyful tears to make the holidaze (sic) a little more bearable.

Recommended

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Treasure, by Rebekah Weatherspoon (2014)

treasure

(nb: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

“Treasure” is a fun book to read, a concentrated lesbian romance between a shy college freshman and a stripper from her sister’s bachelorette party. The two connect immediately, initially when one of the revelers pays for eighteen-year-old Alexis to enjoy a private-room dance with the stripper of her choice. She chose the girl known as Treasure.

Treasure’s real name is Trisha, and when the two turn out to have the same Computer Science class at the local university, they find themselves drawn to each other. Friendship comes first, followed by an unabashed physical relationship. Throw in a little family drama on both sides, some difficult past issues, and you have the makings of a short, sweet ride of a novel.

I’ve read some other of Rebekah Weatherspoon’s work–I gave a five-star review to her novel “At Her Feet”–but this one was a purely fun read. I loved how Ms. Weatherspoon seemed to be having a ball writing this story of two scared, scarred young women meshing perfectly.

The romance was portrayed sweetly, and the sex was steamy without going over the top (much was hinted at, if not described into graphic detail).

Best of all, this is an easy novella to knock out during a lazy afternoon or evening. I loved both Trisha and Alexis, and how their mutual yearning for love and friendship enabled them to span their different backgrounds.

This book is not for everyone (if you have a problem with lesbian relationships, you should’ve stopped reading this review a few paragraphs ago and moved on) but for fans of well-written LGBT romance–hell, or romance in general–“Treasure” is…a treasure. (Sorry, but I had to do that)

Highly Recommended

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The Melody of Light, by M. L. Rice (2014)

(N.B. I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

The only constant in Riley’s life has been the love and support of her older brother, Aidan. The two endured childhoods that would’ve crushed many kids’ souls, but as a team, they endured.

As childhood ended, Aidan moved on to his further adventures, and Riley found an outlet for her own passion and genius through her virtuosity on the cello, which earned her a scholarship to The University of Texas.

It’s at UT where Riley is really left on her own, with her big brother away. She clings to him as her only source of protection at first, but soon–with the help of new friends (and her first love)–Riley finds she can endure her past, and even face the most-crushing blow yet.

It would be difficult to write a huge synopsis, and not give away too many spoilers, so I’ll leave that to the other summaries and reviews you might read.

“The Melody of Light” is a two-fold tale. First, we have Riley dealing with PTSD from a nightmare of child abuse, something she’s only handled previously with help from her brother, Aidan. The second story is Riley dealing with her own romantic awakening. During her freshman year at UT, she finds herself torn between two women–one the brashly sexy Tori, the other the nerdily cute Beth.

For me, the book really picked up once we got Riley to college. It has nothing to do with her new girlfriends, or anything salacious as that. It’s simply that Riley seemed to blossom as a character once she started making her own way through life.

Big brother Aidan was there as much as possible to lend support, but in the end, it was her friends–and girlfriend–who saved her.

This book works well as a YA Romance, especially for LGBT readers, for whom there is a tragic shortage of decent fare. Some of the early scenes seem to drag with Riley at one age, then the next chapter zooms her ahead six or seven years. That aside, I liked the pacing of the book, and most of the characters were pretty well-drawn (though one I won’t name seemed a bit cliched to me).

The last quarter or so of “The Melody of Light” dragged the bow pretty hard across the heartstrings, but then again, isn’t that what a romance is supposed to do?

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