On Loving Women is a graphic novel made up of several short stories. The artwork is all done in the style of the cover: simple, clear illustrations depicting all the characters as animals. Each story is short, and most of them don’t have an arc. They are just snippets from their lives. Basically, although this collection doesn’t have any official framing device, they all seem to be answering a set of questions, dealing with, of course, loving women. These aren’t necessarily “coming out stories”, but they deal with the first loves, first kisses, and realizations about being queer.
The language in this book, like the illustrations, is simple and pared down. It reads to me like a group of queer women sitting around, trading anecdotes. They seem like a conversation. Coming out stories are still so essential to queer narratives, and to queer identities. They can easily become our defining stories. It becomes traditional to trade them, and despite the emotional weight attached to these questions (“When did you know? When did you come out? When was the first time…?”), by telling them so often, they become almost like small talk. On Loving Women reads like those honed answers to these questions. Like a story you’ve told quite a few times, so you’ve got it pared down to the essentials. And they’re simple, but powerful because of that. Because the practiced casual nature of telling these stories almost makes them more raw.
So this conversational nature explains why the stories don’t have a narrative arc. They are real life stories, and they are very small portions of people’s lives. These glimpses are fascinating, though, and they suggest a lot about the person telling them. A couple of stories do have a continuing theme within them, which adds to the story, but isn’t essential to enjoying them. Because the artwork is the same throughout (though different stories use different animals), the stories do run together, especially since the writing is similar, as well. There are differences between the characters, but they are all Obomsawin’s friend group, so they share similarities as well. I liked that there were stories about falling in love with a woman for the first time at four years old, and a few that took place much later in life.
I think this collection is almost impossible to not read in one sitting, but it would benefit from being read slowly. I highly recommend picking this one up.
Rare is the romance that speaks to the journey of two lovers as they grow fully into themselves just as they merge into one another; yet, that is precisely what Diane Marina offers within Imperial Hotel, a novelette that takes the reader on the most intimate of journeys, lingering in eternal moments of innocence and passion as well as empowerment and transcendence.
Introduced by their mothers over tea and finger sandwiches at the Imperial Hotel on an unseasonably brisk autumn morning in 1948, Joan Blackstone is instantly drawn to Lily Dandridge, the stunning young socialite who is to assist her in the quest for a proper husband; and, although Lily initially purses her lips and averts her eyes in disinterest, the moment her gaze falls upon Joan, the sense of intrigue grows mutual. As Joan explains, “The expression on her face changed from diffidence to curiosity as she studied my eyes, then the rest of me, before landing back on my eyes, which had never left her face.” As the four share polite conversation and Mrs. Blackstone inquires into Lily’s recent engagement, Joan finds herself inexplicably troubled at the thought of her new friend marrying Andrew, who Lily enthusiastically references as “the most marvelous man who ever walked God’s green earth.”
As their friendship blossoms over cafe lunches, shopping and strolls through Central Park, Joan and Lily become inseparable; and, as a first kiss confirms a love beyond friendship, visits to the Imperial Hotel take on new meaning as the two young ladies enjoy many a discreet intimate encounter within its rooms.
In spite of the genuine love they share, so tender and raw in its innocence and intensity, their relationship is not without its perils. Not only is Lily to be married, but she is also bound by convention in a way that Joan refuses to be. For Lily, not only are there the expectations of family to consider but also appearances and the consequences of two women in love attempting to live openly in New York City’s high-society of the 1940’s. Given the chasm between Lily’s sense of propriety and Joan’s principles, resolution can only be found within the deep recesses of the heart and a commitment to living with authenticity.
The intricacy with which Marina pens the evolution of Joan and Lily’s love affair is most profoundly witnessed as Joan processes each glance, word and caress exchanged between them, encountering a plethora of feelings she knows not how to name. I couldn’t help but to vicariously experience the breathlessness of their first kiss or the all-consuming mingling of fear and desire which accompanied their first intimate encounter; and, as the story continued to unfold, I found myself increasingly invested, for just when I settled into an idea of what was to come, I found myself swept into another unforeseen and unforgettable moment in time.
The plot itself drives an understanding of Lily’s plight; yet, it is Joan who shows herself as the true heroine of this tale, for her honesty and courage prove beyond what one would expect from a young woman who finds herself utterly smitten, navigating the most tender emotions in a world that has yet to recognize the travesty of societal pressure to live one’s life contrary to one’s truth.
Although the story of Joan and Lily’s exquisite connection could easily fill the pages of a full-length novel, there is something so very perfect in the telling just as it is. After all, at its core, it’s the precious history shared across an ornately decorated table within the Imperial Hotel that underscores the most profound moments of these two women’s lives.
I was pretty eager when I picked up writer, performer, and activist Julia Serano’s latest book, Excluded: Making Queer and Feminist Movements More Inclusive. I had read her first book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity back when it came out, and thought it was totally mind-blowing and so overdue and just plain old awesome in every way. It taught me a lot about femininity, gender, sexuality, feminism, and transmisogyny (actually, I’m pretty sure it taught me the term transmisogyny). Whipping Girl is one of the best feminist books I’ve ever read, and I really think that it should be read by, like, everybody. If you haven’t read it yet, go do that right now!
So, given my high expectations, it kind of makes sense that I could only be disappointed by Excluded. Whereas in Whipping Girl Serano is tackling queer and feminist movements head-on, specifically for their transmisogny and devaluation of femininity, Excluded is trying to do something broader. I say trying, because I don’t think this book really succeeds in doing what it wants to. Serano writes that she wants to stop focusing on specific groups that queer and feminist movements have excluded and continue to exclude but rather to look at the idea of exclusion more generally. This is interesting in theory but not really in practice.
To be honest, I just think Serano is at her best when she’s speaking to her specific circumstances, not when she’s trying to formulate over-arching theories. Her experiences both as a biologist and as a feminine trans woman offer perspectives on gender, femininity, and bisexuality that are often overlooked, both in queer feminist and mainstream circles. She writes really well about the exclusion in queer and/or feminist spaces of trans women, bisexuals, and femmes—all her own identities. This is what she does in the first part of Excluded, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found fresh and thought-provoking.
She writes convincingly and admirably, for example, about the ways in which anti-feminine sentiments are used to undermine and delegitimize trans women, coming out as bisexual after identifying as lesbian, and transmisogny in cis queer women’s communities. She passionately describes how “cis dykes’ unwillingness to consider trans women as legitimate partners translates directly into a lack of community for queer-identified trans women.” She debunks the idea that the label bisexual is inherently gender binary-enforcing, pointing out that gay and lesbian identities are hardly ever accused of this, despite the fact that they also rely on a woman /man binary to make sense. Hmm, it appears that it’s bisexuals, trans people, and femmes who are constantly accused of reinforcing the gender binary, whereas their privileged counterparts aren’t. Serano also brilliantly points out that
The sad truth is that we always seem to create feminist and queer movements designed to challenge sexism on the one hand, while simultaneously policing gender and sexuality … on the other… radical movements practise exclusion and police their own boundaries just as fiercely as conservative ones (as can be seen in many self-identified radicals’ pronouncements that certain individuals or identities are not feminist or queer enough.)
She argues that this exclusion is a “systemic problem that stems from the way we conceptualize sex, gender, and sexuality, and the way we frame sexism and marginalization more generally.” In other words, we view things hierarchically, no matter where we stand. I can totally get behind this, and appreciate that she is critiquing both radical/anti-assimilationist and liberal/assimilationist movements.
It’s in the second half of the book, however, where Serano begins to lose me a bit. For one thing, I simply don’t agree that we need to “stop pretending there really is a gender system,” because exceptions such as the way some genderqueer folks look down on men and women, or how straight women aren’t welcome in certain radical feminist movements don’t fit in our hegemonic understanding of patriarchy and heterosexism. I, do think, though, that these situations can be explained by the gender system. To me, these exceptions are reactions to institutionalized oppression (i.e. the hetero –patriarchal gender system) but not examples of oppression itself. To be fair to Serano, I don’t agree with her because my definition of sexism isn’t the same. I certainly think these exceptions are wrong and unfair, but I don’t think that makes them oppression; this is because while these situations show prejudice, that prejudice doesn’t coincide with societal/economic/cultural power.
Frankly, those kinds of exceptions just aren’t that high on my list of priorities, despite the fact that in one of these scenarios as a woman I would be on the receiving end of what Serano calls a double standard, which is the terminology she wants to use instead of referencing a monolithic gender system. A lot of what Serano does in the second half of the book, trying to reframe what has been seen as part of the gender system or the patriarchy or heterosexism or etc. as double standards, just kind of read to me like, uh…and? So what? The reframing doesn’t add anything to the debates Serano is intervening in. At this point, Excluded begins to sound repetitive and the language becomes clunky.
The other thing is, Serano’s theory about making queer and feminist movements more inclusive isn’t that inclusive of marginalizations that she doesn’t face herself, race and class in particular. There’s a distinct lack of attention to the material effects of privilege in this book, as if we all just stopped thinking there was a hierarchy between groups like cis / trans and man / woman and stopped applying double standards everything would be hunky dory. To be clear, I don’t think it’s a problem that Serano focuses on monosexism, cissexism, and sexism—after all, that’s her experience. But you can’t claim to have formed a general theory of inclusivity in queer and feminist communities that doesn’t apply to class and race! It’s just plain ignorant.
And how are we supposed to explain to privileged folks the fact that we face a gazillion more double standards than they do? It just strikes me as an unfeasible practical strategy, that could fall into the kind of thinking where men argue that they are wronged by the patriarchal gender system too (it’s true, they are) so that means they aren’t overwhelmingly privileged by it or that it wrongs everybody so why bother with this feminism stuff. If we do away with the idea of the over-arching system— that men are seen to be more valuable, authentic human beings than women—and all we are left with are these double standards, how are we supposed to argue against such faulty lines of reasoning?
All this to say that while Excluded is an interesting and well-done book in many ways, it fell short of my expectations. I would still recommend it to anyone who’s already read Whipping Girl, but it’s definitely Whipping Girl that I would steer first time Serano readers to. Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts about this book, to Serano’s credit. I’m interested in seeing how she responds to criticisms of Excluded.
Like Jazz, by Heather Blackmore
Although newcomer Cassidy “Cazz” Warner finds herself entranced by the most popular girl in high school, Sarah Perkins, their mutual attraction doesn’t go beyond more than a few kisses before Cazz abruptly moves away without saying goodbye. Many years later, they are reunited as Cazz, now a fraud investigator, finds herself investigating Sarah’s charitable foundation. The company’s questionable finances seem to be tied up with the recent death of Sarah’s father and Cazz, through her investigation, finds herself uncovering a truth that endangers them both. In the meantime, the women discover that the intervening ten years have done little to dull their feelings for one another.
I enjoyed this book, despite the fact that the name “Cazz” made me twitch a little each time I read it. The best part was that the flashback to high school was in one big chunk at the beginning of the book, rather than being tediously drawn out throughout the narrative. Cazz’s logic for leaving Sarah in high school without saying a word, and never subsequently getting in touch—especially given her strong feelings—still doesn’t quite make sense, though.
Wingspan, by Karis Walsh
Architect Kendall Pearson has spent her adult life trying to play by the rules and hide as much of her personality as she possibly can, but it just keeps peeking out at inopportune moments. When she spontaneously decides to move to an island, she loses her girlfriend but gains a bit of freedom. She unexpectedly encounters an injured raptor and brings him to the local bird rescue center, run by the beautiful Bailey Chase. Bailey has only ever wanted to help birds, and she’s frustrated by the ongoing involvement of outside forces who claim to help but only manage to interfere with her regimented system. For the sake of the birds, she knows she has to accept the new facility offered by a local university, but she’s reluctant to give up any control. However, she finds herself trusting Ken and wanting to know more about her, even as Ken struggles to keep herself buttoned down. The two women find a little bit of what they both need in each other as Ken designs a beautiful sanctuary for Bailey, and Bailey helps Ken become more comfortable just being herself in the world.
This was a pretty low-key romance with just the two main characters having multiple dimensions to them. I wasn’t completely sure how Ken’s traumatic experience from her young adulthood was informing her current behavior, but it didn’t impede my enjoyment that much. Walsh was very good at showing the developing level of trust between Bailey and Ken, and I learned a little bit about bird rescue!
Safe Passage, by Kate Owen
This novella is set in New Orleans in the present day, but features a mystery that involves some family history from 1939. While remodeling the house she inherited from a great-aunt, Jules discovers a safe that contains a gun and some old letters—written in French. She enlists the help of the extremely attractive French teacher at the school where she’s a math teacher and crew coach. They discover that the letters are written in code, and work together to solve the mystery and unravel the truth behind Auntie’s secret love—and Jules’s great-grandfather’s death.
Safe Passage was my favorite of this bunch—short and sweet, with great chemistry between the characters and a good balance of romance, humor, and mystery. Plus, it was so short that there wasn’t time for angsty separation! I look forward to reading more from Owen.
Prairie Ostrich is the story of Egg, an eight-year-old Japanese girl growing up in Alberta, Canada in the 1970s. Her brother recently died, and her family is reeling from the death. Her father stays in the ostrich barn. Her mother drinks. And her sister, Kathy, tries to take on the role of looking after Egg. Egg is desperately trying to make sense of it all, from her shattered home life to the relentless bullying at school. She clings to science, the dictionary, and stories to sort everything out.
This is a quiet, powerful story that would be best read slowly. It doesn’t have an action-packed plot; instead, it’s a character-driven story. Egg spends most of the book trying to fix things, particularly with her family. She grapples with religion, believing that maybe if she can make the right sacrifices, everything can be okay again. It’s a heart-breaking story. You can’t help but sympathize Egg, as she wonders what in her has brought in the troubles in her life. Is it the Japanese part of her that’s wrong? If she was Popular, then would everything get better? Along the way, more is slowly revealed about the people around her and their lives, but most of the novel focuses on Egg’s internal struggles.
Kathy is another powerful character in the book. She is gruff and even grumpy most of the time, but she fiercely looks out for Egg. Kathy tucks her in at night, and tells her stories, and picks her up when other people knock her down. The two sisters obviously have a very close relationship. But from the snippets of Kathy’s life that we see through Egg’s eyes, we know that she is going through her own struggles. Kathy is completing her last year of high school, and where she goes from there is up in the air. Does she leave this small town for something better? Or does she stay to take care of Egg? At the same time, the reader can tell that Kathy is obviously in a relationship with her best friend, Stacey, though Egg isn’t completely aware of this. Being in a lesbian relationship in a rural town in the 70s has its own issues, and even Egg can feel the tension.
These strong characters, and the slow unraveling of some of the underlying mysteries, drives Prairie Ostrich. The writing is interesting, almost stream-of-consciousness at times, but definitely reflecting Egg’s inner life. She sees the world as an eight-year-old does, but an eight-year-old who loves the dictionary and science textbooks, and one who often asks uncomfortable questions at Sunday school. I’d say there’s an innocence to this narrative, but her brother’s death and the fallout from it has taken a lot of that from her. I noted one passage near the end that I thought summed up the writing well:
The world does not make sense. Albert is dead, Mama is drunk, and they are the only Japanese-Canadian family on the prairie. This is not fair and fair is fair, that’s what everyone says. And now Leviticus and Romans are against them. All the world’s a jumble and Egg can’t tell up from down.
I really enjoyed the perspective and the writing style. There are several one-off lines and observations that are just gutting. As you can probably tell, this isn’t a light read. Grief permeates the novel. But it is a thought-provoking book, and one that makes you feel deeply for the people involved. I’ll admit, I cried while reading Prairie Ostrich. Egg is definitely a character that is going to stick with me. And yes, the lesbian content isn’t the focus of this book, but it is a theme that is part of the foundation of the story. (Also, Egg has her own heart-wrenching friendship, so look out for that.)
I highly recommend this book, but don’t expect to race through it. It’s a story to be absorbed slowly, letting all the subtlety of narrative sink in.
For my first book review for the Lesbrary, I decided to go with a fantasy novel called Amara’s Daughter by EH Howard. I have a soft spot for fantasy, especially the kind of female-warrior-turned-hero that Tamora Pierce captivated me with as a child. How great it would be, I thought, to read a lesbian strong female warrior fantasy book. It would basically be all the boxes, ticked. So I went into this book with high hopes, as the description says:
“Friend, lover and more, Amara’s Daughter is a turbulent rite of passage story tracing Maryan’s growth from naive schoolgirl to the woman destiny needs her to be.”
Disappointingly, I came away with very mixed feelings. To focus on the good points first, there were were threads of an interesting plot. There was complexity and intrigue in some of the ideas presented, and that kept me reading through to see what the conclusion would be.
The plot itself runs roughly like this: a young woman named Maryan lives in her vanished warrior mother’s shadow. She lives in a small nation of warrior-women called Serenia, where men aren’t allowed to hold weapons. The queen uses her as a pawn in her political games. This goes tits-up when her new husband, the prince of a neighboring nation, is killed by dark forces and Maryan is forced to flee for her life back to Serenia. In Serenia, Maryan and her band of friends must save the country.
But I feel that this book needed a lot more editorial work before it was ever published, and this unfinished feel made it much more difficult to become absorbed in the story. My biggest complaint here was the pacing, which was, to put it bluntly, bizarre. Entire events were skipped or mentioned only in a brief sentence. Plot twists were not explained, leaving me flipping back and rereading multiple times to try and puzzle out what happened. I believe several years are meant to have passed through the course of the book, but there is little to hint at that except for a few sentences like “she’d grown from a child to a woman” etc. There is no hint of character growth, of learning from prior events. Characters die and are whipped away into the past with nary a tear shed nor emotion felt by the surviving characters.
I can’t even call it fast-paced, because it really just feels like someone smashed out a first draft and called it a day. This book would benefit greatly from further editing and revisions. In addition, there were many interesting questions presented in the story that were never answered or brought up again, and one thing I hate is loose plot threads there for no reason. For instance, where did Maryan’s mother go? The title of the book is Amara’s Daughter, for goodness’ sake. I’d imagine Amara’s storyline would rate a passing conclusion, but no. The same with the ‘dark forces’ that eventually kill Maryan’s husband. What are their motivations? What happened to them? Nothing is explained.
But putting all these plot quibbles aside, what about the love? Now, I was expecting lesbian themes here, but what I got at best was bisexual. At the beginning, Maryan shares a bed with one of her fellow female warriors-in-training, which is presented as the done thing in Serenia. Later, she develops a crush on a visiting male, and when she’s shipped off to be married to a neighboring king, she falls in love with him (quickly, with no hint of her inner turmoil, apparently overwhelmed by desire for his penis.) Later still, she quietly goes back to her old warrior friend. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that Maryan’s male relationships are presented with passion and delve into her emotional love for them, while the female relationships are presented in passing, as though they sleep together for lack of something better. This inequality in presentation sits uneasily with me.
Overall, I must give credit to the author for creating a strong enough plot to keep me reading despite the poor pacing, editing, and questionable presentation of lesbian themes. However, I’d like to see this book undergoing heavy revisions and republished, as it does hold promise, but in its unfinished state I find myself unable to recommend it.
Both “Prairie Women in Love” and “Dames with Dames,” by Rachel Windsor, are part of a series about lesbians through the ages. “Written by lesbians for lesbians,” the tagline proudly proclaims. In that sense, these two little pieces do not disappoint. They are both short, easy to read on a lunch break and have charming plots that end with a smile.
“Prairie Women in Love,” set in the late 1800s, tells the story of a young woman who moves to Wisconsin to be a teacher and falls in love with the woman she’s replacing. It’s an engaging plot, there is the ever-looming threat of marriage and other societal expectations, while a young women discovers the limits of her independence. The characters are interesting and we’re happy to see them find a way to be together in the end.
“Dames with Dames” a 1940s noir, is equally charming. Taking many cues from the staples of the detective genre, there is a Sam Spade-esque character and his beautiful secretary who are hired to help a woman in trousers recover a stolen ring. Strangely, for something in the noir vein, there is no real darkness in this story. The only truly dark character, the secretary’s boyfriend, never makes an appearance, and the secretary is quickly whisked to safety in the arms of her new client. Even the detective, usually seen as an anti-hero, is more of a gruff uncle, confused but ultimately kind-hearted. But even without the darkness, it’s an engaging story with a pleasant conclusion.
But for how nice both of these stories are, both of them could use some diversity. Both sets of lovers present the clear dichotomy of a bunch/femme dynamic, which is all fine and good, but it would be nice to see couples on either side of that spectrum. The sex scenes are also mostly identical and it was plenty nice the first time, but I would love to see something more character driven and less based on a continually retelling of the same smut scene that seems appear in all erotica.
Despite the similarities between the stories, they’re both very nice reads and it is always more fun to see more queer historical fiction.
Fire and Ice, by Gaelle Cathy, follows the love story of Emma, a student from Manhattan, and Charlie, a glass blower from New Hampshire. Emma had been stringing along three very different men prior to her family’s temporary move to the ‘countryside’ and the fresh air seems to drastically alter her sexual preference. Sexual tension knocks down Charlie’s door when Emma comes by. And she keeps on coming by, for conversations, moody dates and romantic dinners.
Written for the lesbian Mills and Boon audience, Fire and Ice flits between character development and plot devices. Emma is the young, naive, ‘straight’ woman from the big city. Charlie is ‘handsome’ ladies lady, pleasuring town wives while being artistic, independent and brooding. Both have backstories that fill out as at the plot progresses, making both characters more likeable, depending what your taste is.
Gaelle Cathy poses the question “Does love really conquer all?” in the blurb of Fire and Ice. When I first read this, I thought ‘Yay, lesbian love conquering all!’ Reading this question after I finished the book really challenged me. When the family secret is revealed (and I’m sure some readers, like myself, will awkwardly predict the secret), everything you might have been loving about the loving feels a little off. While the controversial twist is unprecedented in a ‘romance’ novel, what bothered me most was the lack of confirmation about said family secret. Things are left a little undetermined in my opinion and I’d prefer to have had closure, either way.
Without the controversy, I would have enjoyed Fire and Ice as a lightweight romance set within a comfortable plot. The inclusion of the dark family secret crossed lines I don’t like being crossed in my lightweight reading and I felt blindsided and betrayed by Cathy. I feel Fire and Ice is true to it’s name, two very different elements mixed together with predictable results. The fire melts the ice, the water puts out the fire and neither plot wins out in the end.
If you are keen to see what all the fuss is about, check out Fire and Ice and test your own moral compass.