Category Archives: Commentary/Reviews–Books, etc.

Lesbian Books, Baby!

I’m still reeling from the amazing experience of Women’s Week in Provincetown, or as I now think of it, the Provincetown Lesbian Literary Festival. There were so many book-related events all over town, you couldn’t possibly attend them all: panel discussions, readings, signings, lectures, parties, workshops. (Although I certainly did my best!)

Sometimes Only a Book Will Do

Books have been known to inspire strong feelings

And wherever I went, I had the same reaction every time: how fabulous it was to be in a room full of people who were all there because we were excited about books in general and lesbian fiction in particular (especially in contrast to the way I felt not so many years ago when feminist, queer, and other independent bookstores were disappearing right and left, publishers were shutting down, and things seemed very bleak),

All week long, what I heard over and over from participants—presenters and audience members, readers, writers, and publishers—was passion. Delight in the joy that well-told stories can give, gratitude for the effect that books have had on our lives, and dedication to creating the best literature we possibly can and ensuring that it reaches potential readers far and wide.

Books have shaped me, comforted me, instructed me, brought me pleasure and inspiration throughout my life. I am proud and honored that as a writer I am able to contribute to something I love so much. And after spending a week immersed in so many wonderful presentations and discussions, I am excited and hopeful indeed about the future of lesbian literature.

(Re)Discoveries: The Secret Rooms

I recently picked up a copy of The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, and I’m glad I did. The cover offers “a true story of a haunted castle, a plotting duchess, and a family secret.” How could I resist?

The Secret Rooms lives up to its promises. It is vividly written and allows the mystery to unfold gradually, building suspense as effectively as a work of fiction.

Strange Doingssecret rooms cover

The book opens in 1940, describing the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland (a prominent member of the aristocracy that in those days still had a powerful—though declining—role in English society). Servants whisper in dark passages. The ailing duke shuts himself away, refusing to see a doctor until it is too late. After his burial, someone breaks into the castle in the dead of night. There is talk of curses and hauntings. Much is implied, but little is revealed. Of course, I was hooked.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Belvoir Castel, ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland

Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland

The second part of the book describes the author’s first visit to the castle. She had been granted the rare opportunity to examine historical documents stored in the former duke’s forbidden rooms. Once there, she discovered that the material she needed had vanished—and appeared to have been deliberately removed. Her attempt to uncover the truth about what had happened is the focus of the rest of the book.

The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually

So what does she find out? No spoilers, but I will say that the answers turn out to be both terrible and deeply moving, and the satisfaction of accompanying the author as she tracks down the solution makes it worth the wait. If you enjoy history, detective stories, family drama, or just a well-written, suspenseful book, read The Secret Rooms.

Bottom line: 5 Stars (5 / 5)

[p.s. File this under art imitates life, or deja vu all over again, or something: As I read The Secret Rooms, I found myself feeling inspired as a writer. The idea of a modern scholar searching the nooks and crannies of a historic home and sifting through old papers to solve a mystery involving people from a bygone era fired my imagination. This would be a great basis for a novel, I thought. I should write about it. Then I realized I already had.]

Addendum: I couldn’t resist writing about the secret, so here goes:

When I started reading The Secret Rooms, I thought the book would feature the sort of scandalous goings on that are fun to consider when time has sufficiently distanced us from the human suffering involved—say, the involvement of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her husband’s murder, or who all Byron slept with. I didn’t expect to be infuriated and saddened, but I was. Continue Reading (Caution: Spoilers!)

Reviews of Romance by the Book

I’m very pleased to share not one, but two very complimentary reviews of my new novel. I’ll be standing over there blushing modestly while you read them.

Review from

Review from



The Women of My Dreams: Alex, Artemisia, Anne, and Helena (Guest Blog)

I am guest blogging today on the Bold Strokes Books Authors’ Blog.

In the blog I discuss Anne Lister, a real-life Regency lesbian who in part inspired the character of Artemisia in my novel Romance by the Book. However, I’m mainly paying homage to the fabulous, amazing Helena Whitbread, the scholar to whom a lot of people (myself included) owe a huge debt of gratitude for editing and publishing Anne Lister’s diaries.  Over 6,000 pages of teeny-tiny writing intermixed with secret code, and from this morass Ms. Whitbread has crafted engaging, informative books that bring Lister’s words and deeds to vivid life. Apparently she’s now working on a biography of Lister, and I for one can’t wait.

(Re)Discoveries: Seven Days in May

Did You Bet on the Preakness?

Triple Crown season always reminds me of Seven Days in May, the political thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Well, I should confess, it has always reminded me of the *movie* Seven Days in May. Because—shame on me—I had never actually read the book. Last week I decided it was time to finally give it a try.

Unfortunately, there is no way to talk about the book without giving away the central premise, but since the hero figures it out by the end of chapter two, it’s not much of a spoiler: Seven Days in May is about a military coup against the President by members of the American military. It’s set in an imaginary near future (a decade after the publication date), so technically that also makes it science fiction (or if you prefer, speculative fiction).

Alternate History

Chep Morrison and some other guy in the Oval Office, June 13, 1961

In the Oval Office, 1961

Seven Days in May is definitely a period piece. What makes it so fascinating is which period that happens to be. I was happily reading away when I stumbled over a casual reference to Mrs. Kennedy redecorating a room in the White House. Something about it made me pause and check the book’s publication date—1962. That gave me chills. John F. Kennedy was alive when this book was written. The future stretched out in front of him, in front of the whole country, limitless and unmarred, full of possibilities that those of us living in the aftermath of his assassination can’t even imagine.

Reading Seven Days in May is part time travel, part journey to a parallel universe. It gives a fascinating glimpse of old Washington. This is a very small world where even senators drive themselves around and answer their own phones. Wealthy lobbyists host cookouts in their back yards attended by women in spike heels, and men drinking gin and tonics. Everybody smokes. Fast women drink martinis and tempt married men to stray, but only in New York City.


We may not have learned to love the bomb, but we’ve sure stopped worrying.

However, the real sense of dislocation comes from the constant presence throughout the story of the threat of nuclear war with Russia. The coup is precipitated by a disarmament treaty that the conspirators fear will leave America at Russia’s mercy. Although today the hands of the Doomsday Clock are much closer to midnight than they were when this book was written, we have lost the sense of imminent danger that the novel portrays. To really understand the characters and their actions, we need to appreciate that in the world of the story, what is at stake is not just the existence of the United States as a constitutional democracy, but the very fate of the human race.

Rated PG

Another sign of the times is the dearth of violence in the story. The stakes are as high as could possibly be imagined, and the villains are threatening to overthrow the rule of law through military force, but there is no overt threat to the President’s life, or anyone else’s. The only guns in evidence are sentry rifles (never fired), and interpersonal violence is limited to a few fisticuffs. A modern thriller would doubtless have a corpse in the first chapter, and the main character would be fleeing for his or her life before the story was halfway through. In Seven Days in May there’s a lot of sneaking around in the dark and fast driving, but no sense that anyone is in actual danger. When something bad does happen to someone (that’s a tease, not a spoiler), it comes as a real shock.

A Good Read

Aside from nostalgia, is this book worth reading? Definitely. It’s well plotted (though not as exciting as the movie—which is not the criticism it might seem: the movie was scripted by Rod Serling!) and the characters are nuanced, particularly the “good guys” (most of whom are guys—the portrayal of women is very much of its time1), and the main villain is acting (mostly) in what he believes to be the best interests of the country.

One of the story’s major themes is the role of the military in American society, and the other is duty. What does it mean to be a good soldier, and what do you do when you have to choose between following orders and doing what is right? What does it mean to do one’s duty—as a government official, as a member of the military, as a citizen? “Democracy” and “the Constitution” are fine ideals, but if it came down to it, what would you be willing to risk for your country?

Bottom lineSeven Days in May 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)  And be sure to see the movie.

So, what does any of that have to do with the Preakness?

[Yes, this is a spoiler, but not a major one.] Operation Preakness is the code name used by the conspirators, who send messages to place a bet on the race as the signal that they are ready to strike. When one military commander refuses to make the measly ten dollar bet, the hero realizes something strange is going on. So betting—or rather, refusing to bet—on the Preakness is the key to uncovering the conspiracy.


Banishing the Ghost of Xmas Letters Past (I ♥ Facebook)

For the longest time I carefully avoided Facebook (and every other version of social media). I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but now that I’ve been on Facebook for a month, I’m definitely having fun.

Do You Hear the People Snore? 

I was of course a little leery about the whole privacy thing, but my main concern had to do with what to post. After all, the point of being on Facebook is to interact with people by sharing about yourself, and while the details of my life are endlessly fascinating to me, I had a hard time imagining that they would be quite so enthralling to others.

What on earth could I post about? Offering regular “and then I scrubbed the bathtub”-type updates didn’t seem like a good idea. (Or maybe I’m thinking of how to be boring on Twitter. Anyway.)

Even if I managed to ramp things up a bit (“Sitting in the kitchen eating madeleines and trying to remember why I never got around to reading Proust”), I would then be in danger of something much, much worse…the dreaded “Christmas Letter” effect.

Christoalphabetaphobia (Fear of Xmas Letters)

The Last of the Spirits (from A Christmas Carol), John Leech, 1843 (cropped)

The Heartbreak of Christoalphabetaphobia (The Last of the Spirits, John Leech, 1843)

For those of you lucky enough never to have seen one of these concoctions, here’s a sampling of what you missed:

 Dear Everybody,

                Once again we’ve had a fabulous year. Fifi graduated summa cum laude from obedience school. Pat got another promotion (which makes three in eighteen months). Since I’ve been spending so much time raising all that money for Save the Ferrets, I’ve cut back to only five days a week at my ice sculpting studio.

And so on and relentlessly on for an entire page (or worse, two pages), single spaced (extra points for using a background in a shade of green or red so dark the words can barely be read).

Needless to say, not the sort of thing I’m anxious to inflict on others, even accidentally.

Everything, All the Time (Except Christmas Letters)

Now that I’m actually on Facebook, I can see why people love it. It’s a huge, friendly free-for-all with everybody chatting and posting and commenting all over the place—lots and lots (and lots and lots) of posts that are thought-provoking, silly, informative, funny, intriguing, and—Danger, Will Robinson—fun to read.

Facebook, it turns out, is like a giant newspaper full of human interest stories [and for those who know exactly what I’m talking about, let us pause a moment to sigh over the decline of the daily paper].

In fact, the main problem I’ve discovered is that there’s just too much going on. I bounce around, reading what other people have to say and chiming in with my own ideas, and suddenly hours have gone by and I haven’t done any actual work (like, say, writing a few more pages of my new novel). Oops.

People on Facebook have been very welcoming—“Come on in, splash around, the water’s fine.” I’m looking forward to finding out what I have to contribute to the conversation.


News: Stevie Talks Funny (Another Guest Blog)

I’m extremely pleased to be guest blogging today on Women and Words, Jove Belle’s wonderful blog (you should seriously subscribe). My subject is why my pirate, Stevie, talks the way she does throughout my brand new, just-released first novel, Revenge of the Parson’s Daughter, or The Lass that Loved a Pirate.

Here’s the short version:  I love, love, love the sounds and variations of the English language. And throughout the blog, Stevie gets a chance to speak for herself.

Yeah, Stevie Talks Funny (How the Music of the English Language Led Me Astray)

News: Revenge of the Parson’s Daughter Now Available from BSB!

Yes, my book is available for sale. Right now. Imagine a video of me jumping up and down. [www.thisisnotanactualyoutubelink.con]

Exclusively from Bold Strokes Books (until 8/13)

Revenge of the Parson’s Daughter, or The Lass that Loved a Pirate is available now (prior to its official August 13 release date) directly from Bold Strokes Books—for the same low, low price as other vendors, except that you can buy it today.

An E-Book Exclusive!

This is an ebook-only publication, and in case you were wondering, Bold Strokes definitely has all formats available—Nook, Kindle, Sony, Kobo, ipad, whatever. (If you’re not sure what format you need, see the FAQ on BSB’s homepage.)

Buy More and Save

BSB offers a 10% discount on purchases over $25, so why not treat yourself? They publish lots and lots of excellent books by great authors, and I’m not just saying that because I want you to buy my book (or theirs). I’ve been a very happy BSB reader for many years, since long before I ever even finished my novel, let alone had it accepted by BSB for publication.

But Wait, There’s More

Actually, there isn’t. (Sorry. It’s a book, not a pocket fisherman, the amazing Ginsu, or even a bass-o-matic.) But please buy my book anyway. (Did I mention you can get it from Bold Strokes Books this very minute?)

WAC telephone operators, 1945, National Archives

Operators might be standing by (WACs at Potsdam conference, 1945)

True Confessions: How I Learned to Love My E-Reader (aka The Sober Joys of the Virtual Book)

Definitely Not an Early Adopter

Considering how devoted I am to the enjoyment of a well-made book as a physical object, it is with some chagrin that I report that not only have I purchased an e-reader, but I’m glad I did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. I love computers. I got my first one sometime around 1985 (and I still miss my Kaypro, even though the screen was the size of a slice of bread and had only one color—green. My computer was even portable—meaning it came with a handle so you could heft all 20 pounds of it around if you needed to, which is more than could be said for the first few generations of PCs.).

Cuneiform Tablet from Assyria

Cuneiform Tablet from Assyria

Still, the minute I heard about e-books, I knew I was definitely not going to be reading any. Not ever. Electronic books just seemed so wrong, somehow (unlike all the other things that I’m quite happy to read from a screen, like online content for instance—but that is, of course, totally different). I used to say (to myself, since nobody was actually asking for my opinion) that the only way to get me near an e-book would be to stick an e-reader into my cold, dead hand.

[At this point, feel free to insert your own version of a “get off my lawn”-type rant about crazy newfangled notions and the decline of Western civilization.]

I suspect the clay tablet fans in Babylon had a similar reaction to that weird new papyrus/paper stuff.

The Irony is Getting Pretty Thick in Here

As time went by and I saw my students happily reading on their cell phones, tablets, and various other devices (when they were actually reading and not snapchatting or texting or watching cat videos) I began to reconsider. After all, anything that can get people reading has got to have some good points, right? But still, not for me. (That sound in the background is the universe snickering.)

And then Bold Strokes said they wanted to publish my book. Which was going to be an e-book-only release. Oh. Well, in that case… And lo and behold, e-books suddenly sounded like a great idea.

So yes, my conversion to the wonders of virtual reading has been largely a matter of enlightened self-interest (translation: I’d like to be able to read my own book). Thanks to some encouragement from my editor (always listen to your editor—she will save you from yourself, if you let her), I finally bought an e-reader.

Beware of Converts—They Tend to be Fanatics

So now it can be told—I really like my e-reader. Aside from the (not negligible) fun I’m having playing with a new tech toy, I’m crazy about the practicality of the thing.

I do love a good hardcover book, but let’s face it, those suckers are heavy. Especially when you’re lugging around more than one (I tend to read a couple of different books at once, usually a fiction and a nonfiction, which I alternate depending on my mood and how much reading time I’m able to snatch in between obligations). Apologies to all of you for whom this has always been obvious, but I’m getting a huge kick out of being able to hold a hundred-plus books in the palm of one hand, in an object the same size and weight as the (pen and paper) notebook I’m using to draft this post.

Plus (again, sorry to be Captain Obvious) you can read your e-book no matter how dim the light is, and bump up the type size, too (who knew?)—which are both huge recommendations for someone with aging eyeballs.

One Teensy Concern

8" Floppy Disc and Friends

8″ Floppy Disc and Friends

I do have one small worry about my e-reader. This whiz-bang piece of technology is—wait for it—technology. Which means that sometime between tomorrow and twenty years from now, it will be obsolete, and all of my hundreds of virtual books will be unreadable. (Skeptics: Eight-track tapes. Betamax video. Floppy discs. ‘Nuff said.)

Yes, I know that there will almost certainly be some way to convert all those e-books to whatever the next big tech thing turns out to be. But all that converting is also bound to be a big old pain in the rear.

A physical book, on the other hand, remains readable, as is, for hundreds of years. All you have to do is open it. Even if part of it gets damaged, the rest of it is still perfectly fine. A damaged e-book is just a bunch of scrambled electrons. Try using it to prop up a table leg, practice your posture, or fend off a zombie attack, and you will end up with coffee in your lap, a sad stoop, or a prominent spot on some undead chef’s bill of fare.

Heck, speaking of clay tablets, those little squares of hardened mud are still in great shape and easy to read (or so I’ve heard—unlike Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Model of a Modern Major General,” I claim no skill with cuneiform) thousands and thousands of years after they were created. It doesn’t get much more practical than that.

Try It, You Like It

Despite my one teensy concern, I do suggest that those of you still leery of taking the virtual plunge consider giving e-books a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Sensual Pleasures: The Book as Physical Object [Part One: Nostalgia]

Heritage Books

Heritage Books. That phrase may mean something to those of you of a certain age, who like me can remember when Wonder Bread was health food (“Helps build strong bodies 12 ways!”). Back then there were Heritage Books, and we had a whole bookcase full of them.heritage books moll flanders

These weren’t just books, they were Books. All hardcover, of course, but there was more to them, much more. Each one had been carefully designed to be a beautiful and inviting embodiment of one classic work of literature. They had Size. And Weight.

Not that they were big for the sake of being big, like some giant, glossy offering that would work better as an actual coffee table than a reading experience. They were well balanced and easy to handle. Many were smaller than an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, though they were usually quite thick (most classics are pretty long, after all).

They had substance. Just picking one up, feeling its solidity, you knew you were about to enjoy something wonderful.

Delicious Design

Unlike most hardcovers, they didn’t have dust jackets—they had slipcases. Holding that case in your hands, gently sliding the book out, was like opening a treasure chest, because you never knew quite what to expect, but you knew it was going to be special. The cover design, the endpapers, the illustrations, the very typeface had been specifically chosen to complement this one book, to present the author’s words to you as carefully as a master jeweler creates a setting for an exquisite gem. [And you knew all this because the people at Heritage Press would helpfully explain the choices to you, in the introduction or afterword or the “Sandglass” newsletter that my father always tucked inside the front cover.]

I only remember a few specifics. Picasso was commissioned to do the drawings for Lysistrata. The words on the spine of Moll Flanders were stamped in metal, but in copper (rathermrs-bennet helen sewell than the more usual gold) because copper tarnishes (or mellows with age, depending on your perspective), which seemed a good match for the lady’s career. Pride and Prejudice was perfectly illustrated with warm yet slightly acid sketches that poked more-or-less gentle fun at all the characters (by artist Helen Sewell).

Everything about a Heritage Book was designed to increase the pleasure of reading it. Sewn bindings (of course), thick, smooth paper with an easy-on-the-eyes creaminess, the entire volume a solid size and weight but never too big or too heavy.

Easy to handle. Lovely to touch. Sit down, it whispers. Open me. Spend some time. You won’t regret it.