Danika review Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando

Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.

This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.

Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.

The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:

And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.

I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)

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Link Round Up: January 11 – 31

Sorry about the delay! January was a big month for me, including moving, but I’m ready to catch up, so let’s dive right in!

dirty-river   juliettakesabreath   aimeeandjaguar   TheColorPurple   Valencia

AfterEllen posted Why I Wanted More From “Carol” and Daviel Shy’s “The Ladies Almanack” brings Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and 1920s lesbians to life.

Autostraddle posted

whenwewereoutlaws   theargonauts   TheEveningChorus   LostBoi   sphinx

Babbling About Books hosted the 2016 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event.

Lambda Literary posted Activist and Author Jeanne Cordova, 67, has Died and In Remembrance: Jeanne Córdova.

Over the Rainbow Books posted 2016 Over the Rainbow List: 68 LGBT Books for Adult Readers.

Women and Words posted Hot off the Press, January 2016 and Coming Attractions, February 2016.

patienceandsarah   Ruby-Fruit-Jungle     jamonthevine   apocalypse   foryourowngood

“Lesbian Romance By the Numbers?” was posted at Romance Novels for Feminists.

“10 Old School Love Stories That Should Be in Every Bookish Lesbian’s Literary Canon” was posted at SheWired.

2016 Stonewall Book Awards Announced.

murderunderthebridge   lovingeleanor   tellmeagain   familytooth   dryland

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

The Family Tooth by Ellis Avery was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan was reviewed at Bookshelves of Lesser Doom.

Dryland by Sara Jaffe was reviewed at Autostraddle and ALA GLBT Reviews.

I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems by Eileen Myles was reviewed at Autostraddle.

Murder Under the Bridge by Kate Jessica Raphael was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

This post, and all posts at the Lesbrary, have the covers linked to their Amazon pages. If you click through and buy something, I might get a small referral fee. For even  more links, check out the Lesbrary’s twitterWe’re also on FacebookGoodreadsYoutube and Tumblr.

Thank you to the Lesbrary’s Patreon supporters! Special thanks to Jennifer Holly, Martha Hansen, Emily Perper, and Kath. Support the Lesbrary on Patreon at $2 or more a month and be entered to win a lesbian/queer women book every month!

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Marthese reviews Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue is a phenomenal writer take is able to make you related to her narrative. So when I heard about a new book, I knew that I will someday buy it and read it especially one with such a nice cover!

Frog Music is a historical fiction with some basis in reality as it deals with an unresolved crime. It is based in 1876 in San Francisco and it follows Blanche, a French dancer. Blanche lives with her lover, Arthur and his friend Ernest. She is also friends with one Jenny Bonnet, who ends up murdered in the beginning of the book.

The book follows Blanche in her misadventures as she tries to do what’s best while at the same time searching for answers. Who killed Jenny? Who was Jenny?

Jenny is an interesting character and we get to see her through the story that swings between the past and the present. She’s a butchy character with seemingly no care in the world, but as later Blanche discovers, Jenny had a lot of mysteries surrounding her. Comparatively, Blanche is an open book. She’s a survivor and we see her character grow and mature in the book. Blanche is a character that may infuriate the reader, but one cannot help but pity her in turn.

I think this book should come with a lot of warnings. There is explicit heterosexual activities, some consent issues, victim blaming and slut shaming to begin with. Moreover, there was some gore (there was a murder after all), racism and neglect. A lot of the characters will make you angry as well but I thought that their actions were representative of their times and their believes and were realistic. I went through the last chapter really quick, I must have missed reading mystery and detective novels!

There is queer content in the book, but it comes up later on in the book. Frog Music in general has a lot of interesting thoughts on power dynamics, gender, race, consent and sexual activity, it is also a well done historical fiction book that shows its research and turns it into a vivid account of what it was like living in San Francisco in 1876.

Although I felt uneasy reading some scenes, even in the very beginning where there was gore and seemed like a horror scene (I don’t do horror) I thought that overall the themes were done well. It is an adult book, with adult themes that made me think about how it was to live life in those conditions; from clothes to housing to jobs and vehicles. The story was hooking and things were tied well. Like a good detective story, hints were there for us to notice later and leave us guessing until the very end. The end was not perfect, but it was fitting. It wasn’t happy but it wasn’t sad.

I recommend this book highly to readers that can stomach hard themes. The writing style is just exquisite. You will find yourself repeating sentences just so you can experience the writing again! I would give it as 5 stars for being a historically accurate crime story, whose background in reality was also interesting to read about (and Emma Donoghue did go out of her way and provide us with her research on the story, songs and glossary) and dealt with themes that are still relevant and good to question today.

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Megan Casey reviews The Dead by Ingrid Black

thedead

In a 2013 interview, Anne Laughlin lists Ingrid Black as one of her favorite lesbian mystery writers. It isn’t clear from the interview whether she was aware that “Ingrid Black” is actually two writers—Ellis O’Hanlon and her husband Ian McConnel. Nor is it mentioned whether she was aware that O’Hanlon, a journalist, has written flippant comments about people identifying as transgender.

But having gotten that out of the way, The Dead is a right good serial-killer mystery. Saxon, the main character, writes books on true crime. Like Shiloh in Paulette Callen’s excellent Command of Silence, Saxon has only one name, but this doesn’t seem to hinder her greatly. After all, her significant other—Grace Fitzgerald—is Detective Chief Inspector of the Dublin Police, so Saxon can get away with a lot.

The story begins when a man calling himself Ed Fagan begins murdering young prostitutes and leaving religiously themed notes at the scene of the crime. Trouble is, Saxon knows for a fact that Fagan has been dead for years. In fact, she knew the man well enough to begin writing a book about him. So with the help of two profilers, a medical examiner, and of course her S.O. Grace, she decides to hunt for the killer’s real identity before he kills too many more people.

But maybe it’s me that’s being flippant, because, despite what seems to be a same-old, been-there-done-that plot, The Dead is a wet, cold, and dark investigation. Saxon herself has been numbed by her proximity to death and death dealers. Her point of view is a depressing, introspective, quasi-philosophical one. This is how she describes a crime scene, for instance: “A place where there had been such pain and terror was always afterwards so quiet, and yet it would never be entirely free of its past. Bad things lingered, and it turned those places bad in turn, so that other bad things happened in turn.” This is not light reading and the novel sometimes seems to have as many twists and turns as Dublin has dark alleys.

The writing itself is very good and O’Hanlon and McConnel’s voices blend so perfectly that Anne Laughlin (or any other reader) can be forgiven for not suspecting a collaboration. I hope she can forgive me if I am wrong about suspecting that she patterned the unfortunate ending of her first book, Veritas, on this one. On the other hand, the ending of The Dead is first rate.

Downsides? Well, Saxon doesn’t sound much like the American she is supposed to be–and even less like a Bostonian. She knows that baseball teams field nine players, but most of her expressions are Irish or British. Too, there is no sense of lesbian community here; Saxon’s relationship with Grace could just as easily have been with a man—and vice versa. There is no sex, no romance, not even much touching. It makes me wonder why the authors chose to call either Saxon or Grace a lesbian. Since neither author has evidently had much experience in being a lesbian, why not identify their characters as straight—especially if they are going to act the part?

Despite this, I would give this book close to 4 stars, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, hoping they fix the weaknesses in this one.

For more than 175 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

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Danika reviews (You) Set Me On Fire by Mariko Tamaki

YouSetMeOnFire

This is a story about college, about fire, and also about love.

Before going to college at the age of seventeen, I’d been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad).

From the first two lines of (You) Set Me On Fire, I was hooked. This reads like how a college student really would tell about their disastrous first year. It’s casual, but compelling. The main character, Allison, has had a rough time in high school, and is relieved to find a friend (and possible romance interest?) in her new school, even if that friend is kind of a jerk.

I’m conflicted about this book because I loved the writing style, and I found Allison an interesting main character, and I thought the relationship between Allison and Shar was realistic–but that was the problem. Allison has this toxic friendship (relationship?) with Shar that felt so true to life that it was painful to read about. I desperately wanted better for her, but Allison isn’t a perfect person, either.

I don’t think that I can properly articulate my reaction to this book. Much like my experience reading The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (though they are very different books), I found the reading experience uncomfortable because that experience is so skillfully described. If you’re willing to experience some second-hand discomfort and a reminder of the horrors of being 17, pick up (You) Set Me On Fire.

Also check out Casey’s (more well thought out) review!

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Elinor reviews Same Time, Next Week by Emily Smith

sametimenextweek

Same Time, Next Week is an incredibly fun novel to read, though not at all what I had in mind. I picked it up because it’s billed as a butch-femme romance. I love romance and I love butch-femme. But I didn’t like this love story or either of the heroines, and I couldn’t get invested in their relationship. Because this is a love story about cheating on your wife.

I knew this going into it. Same Time, Next Week takes a big gamble in the premise, offering a (mostly unconsummated) romance between single Michelle and married Alex. I was a little leary about the affair angle, but I thought it could be interesting. It was definitely engaging. Reading it was like watching bad reality television without the uncomfortable feeling that you’re watching real human beings embarrass themselves. I don’t think that was the intended purpose of this novel, but after I embraced it as a guilty pleasure I couldn’t put it down.

When the novel begins our butch narrator, Alex, is in her late twenties and has been married to Beth, who’s a little younger, for three years. Beth and Alex were long-time friends who married after a brief romance. Hindsight and regret have Alex wondering if she rushed into her marriage and what she should do about it. She’s also feeling stuck in her career, working as essentially a paralegal despite graduating from a prestigious law school at the top of her class and passing the bar. Alex is unhappy with her life, and magically the answer to all her problems arrives when she goes to a crowded lesbian coffee shop one day. Hot, sophisticated, happy Michelle shares Alex’s table, and before they know it, the pair are meeting twice a week at the coffee shop. Alex tells the reader over and over about her guilt, but that doesn’t stop her from complaining to the audience about how Beth fails to measure up to awesome Michelle. Michelle knows from the get-go that Alex is married, but that doesn’t stop her from flirting, asking Alex to be her plus-one at her ex’s wedding, inviting Alex on a Beth-less vacation to Provincetown, having Alex pretend to be her girlfriend in front of a worried relative, and generally playing the perfect alternative to Alex’s boring wife.

Alex has cheated on every pre-Beth girlfriend she ever had and worries that she’ll end up like her own many-times-divorced mother. Though she’s very concerned about leaving her cheating days in the past, she doesn’t seem as concerned with Beth as an actual person with feelings. Alex lists Beth’s faults, but most of them are petty (Beth wears yoga pants all the time!) and/or things that Alex could address just as easily as Beth (we don’t talk, we don’t do anything fun together, we don’t have sex, the house is a mess). Alex doesn’t make any effort to improve her relationship with Beth or even rekindle the friendship they had for years. When Beth and Michelle eventually meet, Alex relishes the passive-aggressive way the women battle over her, which pretty much killed the remaining sympathy I’d had for her. Plus, a big “flaw” of Beth’s is that she’s an Applebee’s waitress, while Alex and Michelle have white-collar careers. Beth is from a more working class background than the other characters, and Alex and Michelle’s classism started making me like Beth better than either of the “love interests.” Also, they make a big deal out of Beth mispronouncing “merlot,” which 1) isn’t even something worth being snobby over, and 2) doesn’t make any sense because Beth is a bartender at Applebee’s and you know people are ordering hella merlot there.

All this would infuriating if these were real people you had to hang out with but Smith’s brisk writing keeps it all pretty fun. Alex’s lack of self-awareness is dazzling, and Michelle seems to be written as though she’s performing an alluring, and effective, act rather than really showing her authentic self. Michelle wants the attention of unavailable women (her ex who broke her heart was apparently a main character in Smith’s previous novel, also a romance about cheating). I kept thinking of the “cool girl” description in Gone Girl whenever Alex mentioned another way Michelle is perfect. Alex repeatedly exclaims that everything that’s hard about marriage would be fine, if only she were married with Michelle, because everything is fun and easy with Michelle. She doesn’t ever consider the possibility that things might be fun and easy with Michelle because it’s new with Michelle, Michelle’s trying to impress her, she doesn’t have any baggage with Michelle, and she hasn’t lived with Michelle for years, etc. The things she doesn’t like about Beth are some of the same reasons she fell for Beth in the first place: Beth is laidback, younger and less intellectual. But it doesn’t occur to Alex that the things she likes about Michelle (ambitious, “cultured,” slightly sarcastic) could grate on her nerves over time too. The self-delusion was fantastic. At points I honestly started to wonder if it was all intentional and Alex was some Nabokov-style unreliable narrator or if Michelle would snap under the weight of her own charade. It was sort of delightful and definitely kept my attention.

There’s also some stuff about Alex’s career, which is ridiculous. Alex goes from not ever really working as a lawyer to being lead on cases and being on a partner track in less than a year. I have a couple of friends who are lawyers (hired at the exact same time Alex couldn’t find a job, after graduating from less prestigious law schools), and just from that, I can say this is not how it works. Alex stops short of blaming Beth for her previously stunted career, but just barely.

This probably makes me sound terrible, but what I liked best about this book was the way it allowed me to indulge in moral superiority and self-righteous judgment. Sometimes that’s a satisfying feeling. The writing is smooth, it’s a fast read, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. When you feel like being mildly indignant and judging other’s mistakes, skip the clickbait and the reality TV and read Same Time, Next Week instead.

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Julie Thompson reviews Trusting Tomorrow by PJ Trebelhorn

trustingtomorrow

This review contains spoilers.

Trusting Tomorrow opens with Logan hunkered down in her car, not quite ready to face her father’s empty house.  Having never met Logan, Brooke calls the police to check on a suspicious person parked out front of the duplex where she lives with her grandparents.  Much to her mortification, Brooke learns that the lurker is a longtime family friend and daughter of their recently deceased next-door-neighbor, John Swift.

Death, doubt, and dark family secrets influence the emotionally topsy-turvy course of events.  Logan and Brooke are almost always at loggerheads, following a well-trod path through the land of romantic fiction.  Every encounter ends up souring, no matter how well it starts off.  They are constantly bickering, second guessing, and apologizing.  Yet, Brooke and Logan find each other strangely magnetic, an instant attraction that they don’t understand and can’t pull away from.

Their contrasts are front and center from the very start of the story.  One cares for the deceased and the family and friends of the deceased; and the other cares for the living.  I enjoyed the fact that Logan is a mortician, an unusual occupation among the romances I’ve read.  As a fan of the HBO drama Six Feet Under, I enjoyed how the story explored the effects that living with death had on Logan and Jack, as well as on the surrounding community.

Logan Swift, small town mortician and self-avowed single, takes the helm of the family business, the Swift Funeral Home, following the sudden death of her father.  She runs from commitment, preferring one night stands to a long-term relationship.  No woman, aside from family and friends, has ever crossed the threshold to her apartment above the funeral parlor.  Logan doubts that any woman would be interested in her as a long-term partner if they knew what she did for a living and where she lived.  However, she’s just as wary of women who want to date morticians.

Brooke Collier, a registered nurse, is newly arrived in town to help care for her ailing grandfather.  She relocates for more than just the love of her grandparents.  Several months prior, she found herself suddenly single when Wendy, her girlfriend of three years, moved out without warning.  The bitter revelation of the reasons behind their breakup leaves Brooke wanting nothing to do with love or relationships.

Friends and family conspire to unite Logan and Brooke in happy-ever-after.  Jack Swift, Logan’s younger brother, is home for the funeral of their father.  The two siblings share a close bond in which teasing and telepathy (well, not really, but they know each other well enough to finish each other’s brain waves, sentences, and sentiments) play a large part.  As Jack strives to make peace with life’s disappointments, he seems determined to make sure Logan experiences the same kind of peace.

Brooke’s grandparents and other extended family also nudge her towards Logan at every turn.

My main concern with Trusting Tomorrow is that it’s stuck in a kind of Ground Hog’s Day repetition, with both women repeating the same choices.  After the events of the story and the protagonists’ behavior, I wasn’t convinced of the inevitability of their connection as friends and lovers.  Overall, while this novel isn’t high on my list of contemporary romances, it may satisfy readers who enjoy small town settings, close-knit families, and uncommon occupations.

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