Women Who Love Women: October Dispatches from FF Romance

Ronica Black, Under Her Wing, and Karis Walsh, Set the Stage. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

Every month, as you may recall, I go to look at the Bold Strokes Books ARCs on Netgalley. Every month I hope to be surprised by something that takes my breath away with its quality.

Most months, I’m what you might describe as hideously disappointed.

For October, most of the offerings weren’t even entertainingly bad. (Though at least one, true to form, opens in transit, and yet more feature women with traditionally masculine names. Not that this is a criterion of badness: it’s just a pattern I’ve been noting.) Most of them are merely boringly bad, with the mediocre lack of any kind of life or competent writing that is pervasive in FF romance — much as I really wish it wasn’t.

However! There are two books that I can commend to your attention. One isn’t what I’d call good — it’s passable, though better than the rest — but the other is actually pretty compelling.

Ronica Black’s Under Her Wing is the book that’s passable. Kassandra is a school librarian — growing increasingly dissatisfied with her job and her life — who’s always thought she’s straight. When her dog goes missing after a break-in, she meets the owner of a no-kill shelter. Jayden, said owner, is a lesbian who plays the field with abandon, and comes on really strong to Kassandra due to a mix-up involving Jayden’s best friend Mel constantly setting her up with other women. After this initial misunderstanding, Kassandra starts volunteering at the shelter, and the two of them grow closer — not without some truly terrible miscommunications and misunderstandings. In the background lurks the Chekov’s gun of Kassandra’s break-in, and the resolution of this plot element is perhaps the weakest part of a not very strong book.

The other book is Karis Walsh’s Set the Stage. After getting out of a toxic relationship where she put her dreams on indefinite hold in order to support her girlfriend, Emilie Danvers finally has a chance to get back into professional acting. With a one-year contract for a place in a company in Oregon that performs plays for a long festival, she’s determined not to let anything get in her way. She’s doubting herself enough without the addition of romance. But romance is exactly what she finds, in the person of Arden Phillips, an employee of the park in and around which a lot of the festival plays take place. Arden has a history of theatre people leaving her: she was raised by her grandparents after her director father and actor mother left to pursue their careers in various cities around the world.

But her attractive to Emilie — and Emilie’s attraction to her — is instant and mutual. Though both of them try to keep things platonic, their friendship swiftly escalates to more. But Emilie’s career goals (and insecurities) and Arden’s background stand between them and any longer-term happiness. They’re each going to work out what they really want, and what they’re willing to give up, if they’re going to stay together.

Walsh’s strongest point is her characters. Set the Stage‘s protagonists feel real and human, and the barriers between them and a lasting relationship aren’t the kind that can simply be cleared up by a single honest conversation. That makes for a pretty decent romance. It’s still not quite my style of thing: I’m not especially fond of contemporaries that don’t have anything else but the romance plot going on. But it’s better than okay.