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strawberrypanic

I have to preface this review by saying that I haven’t read much manga in general, nevermind yuri in particular, so I don’t have a lot of knowledge to draw from in evaluating this against other examples in the genre. For the most part, though, this is what I was looking for from it: a cute, fluffy story about schoolgirls in love.

When I first started reading I was intimidated by the huge cast of characters. Although there is one girl, Aoi Nagisa, who I suppose is technically the main character, all of the girls on the front cover play big roles in the book, and the story is from many different perspectives. The plot revolves around a competition between three schools, a kind of couples contest (all three schools are girls-only). Two of the characters are new transfers into these schools, who are picked by upperclassman to be partners in this competition. The older girls are admired by the whole school and vaguely “experienced”, while the younger girls are naive and “innocent”. It’s a trope that made me roll my eyes a few times, but it’s also one that can be fun to watch play out (there’s a reason why Xena-inspired stories are so prolific).

I did find myself getting used to the large cast of characters, but I did have some other issues with the story. For one thing, the main romance between Nagisa and Shizuma (the back cover describes her as a “serial heartbreaker”) has some troubling power dynamics, as well as some of the similar relationships in the book. While Amane has a similar power position in relation to Hikari, she tends to approach the younger girl a lot more gently. Shizuma, on the other hand, is forceful to the point of nonconsent.

What surprised me in the story was that although there are established couples, there is also room for other relationships to develop. I was rooting for Nagisa to pair up with her roommate instead (partly because of Shizuma’s overbearing personality). The competition aspect was also a lot of fun, and I found myself–despite the tropes at work–not sure how things were going to play out by the end. Unfortunately, and this is my biggest complaint about this collection, I was under the impression that “The Complete Manga Collection” was going to tell the complete story. Instead, the narrative abruptly ends mid-competition, with nothing wrapped up. Apparently Strawberry Panic is a franchise that was originally short stories, and also includes an anime and light novels. The manga seems to have been an add-on, and was never completed. It’s a shame, because I was really enjoying the story, especially all of the girls’ personalities and how they played off each other. I’d like to see the anime or pick up the novels, though apparently they differ substantially from the manga. This is a story I would recommend, but the manga probably isn’t the best place to start with it. Hopefully I can get my hands on the light novels and let you know if they’re a better place to start.

apprenticequeen

Mitti is only ten when she’s taken from her family to be trained as an apprentice to the queen of Egypt. Her parents, having grown up in this political world and escaped it, are horrified despite the huge gain in stature for their daughter. As Mitti grows up and becomes more and more embroiled in vicious court politics, she struggles to find the balance to survive in this environment without losing herself completely.

Apprentice Queen was an interesting read for me. I was immediately intrigued by the premise, which places the main character in an excruciating position. She is basically held prisoner by Sekma, the queen, who controls the political climate of Egypt from the behind the scenes and would have Mitti killed instantly if she were to disobey or try to escape this life. Mitti has to learn these lessons on politics by heart if she is to survive, but despite being exactly the protege Sekma is looking for, she loathes the queen and the position she has put Mitti in. In order to keep herself and her loved ones safe, though, she needs to use these same tactics that she has been taught.

Sekma is a dictator and is ruthless towards anyone who stands in her way, but as Mitti is taught how to navigate the political arena and the repercussions of every possible action, I found myself accidentally getting swept up in her logic, mentally nodding along to the sentiment that of course it makes sense to assassinate one person rather than allow a civil war that would slaughter thousands of innocent people. I had to abruptly pull myself out of the story when I realized the I was getting sucked into this tangled logic trap. It really show you how people become indoctrinated into this life.

This is a setting that I know very little about–the Ancient Egyptian royal court–but I felt completely immersed in it. I’m not usually someone reads political thrillers or books that deal with court intrigue, but I was interested in the directions that the book went in terms of political maneuvering. And it was nice to see the relationships between Mitti and other women seamlessly integrated into the story, neither the entire focus of the book nor swept under the rug. Mitti’s attraction to women is a driving force in her life, but it’s not the only one. It’s nice to read a story that balances those so well, not reducing her sexuality to a single line or paragraph, but also giving us something other than a romance or coming out story.

I did also have some issues with the book, however. The writing was overall functional, but there were some awkward sentences, and it has a habit of jumping back forth in time–first describing an event, then describing the lead-up to the event, then continuing from the middle again–and although it worked sometimes, I think it was overused. At other points, large periods of time are skipped, and there were some relationships that I would have liked developed more. My biggest problem was with the conclusion. I was enjoying Apprentice Queen‘s slow build, which establishes Mitti as a character and how she changes over time, and establishes all the nuances of the final conflict. As the pages began dwindling, though, I started to worry that it was not going to wrap up satisfactorily.

[spoilers, highlight to read] And sadly, I didn’t think it did. I had understood that she was likely going to kill Nyserra, but I was left still confused by why she did it, which was the mystery I had been waiting the entire book to find out–what could drive someone to do something so monstrous? Was the answer really just “To serve as a distraction”? I didn’t get enough explanation to see why that was necessary. I also felt like the disconnect between Nyserra and Kham happened abruptly. I would have liked to see their growing tension, instead of straight from blissfully in love to saying “I hate you”.

There were other details that I appreciated, including Mitti’s surprisingly positive relationship with her husband (though I didn’t like that she later thought his life was worth less than an animal’s and like it was cruel for him to be alive, considering he always seemed happy when she saw him)  and some of the interesting side characters that populate the book. On the other hand, I hated that the first time Kham and Nyserra have sex, Nyserra repeatedly tells Kham to stop and pushes her away. That’s not romantic, that’s rape. I know it’s not meant to be, but that’s how it’s written, and I hate when sex is described in that way. [end spoilers]

Overall, Apprentice Queen is a fascinating read for its exploration of how people adapt to a political life, but it also has some flaws that detracted from the reading experience for me. If you’re intrigued, I still think it’s worth picking up and giving it a try, but I wish the ending especially was a little more of a payoff.

houseyoupassontheway

You may have heard of Jacqueline Woodson from her recent win of the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, but you might not know about some of her older books, or that she’s written lesbian books. The House You Pass On the Way has been on my radar (and my shelves) for a long time, but the recognition that Woodson has gotten recently finally convinced me to pick it up. This is a tiny book, only 99 pages in my edition. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout.

This is a book that tackles some quintessential young adult topics: confusion around identity, isolation, and, of course, falling in love over a summer. But these are topics that are handled so well. Some stories I feel like I can just sink into and be absorbed by, and within a few pages, I knew this was one of them. It’s an atmospheric novel, as well as an emotional one. Woodson somehow managed to evoke a lot of feeling within a very small space. It’s subtly done, and there are layers at work here. Not just sexual identity issues, but also being mixed race, as well as dealing with being a minor celebrity due to her grandparents’ cause of death.

I wouldn’t go into this book expecting a love story, but it is an interesting and moving story about accepting yourself and finding a place in the world. I would highly recommend this one.

lovesperfectvintage

Would you let your mother find your next girlfriend? Beautiful thirty-two year old African-American Aisha Watson works hard all week as a budget analyst and plays hard all weekend as a competitive longsword fighter. But her heart was recently broken, and she’s not even so sure she wants to be in love again after a series of dating disasters. Aisha’s mother decides to find her a nice girl and introduces her to Kris Donnelly.

Kris, with long chestnut brown hair and vibrant green eyes, is Aisha’s former high school classmate who is all grown up and become one of Chicago’s leading sommeliers. In between choosing fine wines, she’s just getting back into dating as Aisha is leaving the scene, but Aisha is about to learn that her mother may be right about something. Could Kris be the woman for whom she’s been searching?

To be released on February 19th, Love’s Perfect Vintage is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of ‘Lesbian Light Reads.’ Despite being light on page count (42 pages, according to my Kindle) as well as tone, Love’s Perfect Vintagemanages to give us a believable Meet Cute and happy ending for a well-adjusted lesbian couple.

Right off the bat, both Aisha and Kris feel like fully-fledged adults. Aisha has a career and hobbies and a life before she meets Kris and she continues to enjoy them once she and Kris start dating. Neither heroine is a flat archetype, and I really enjoyed Aisha’s relationship with her parents. Andre also sells the chemistry between Aisha and Kris when they meet at a barbeque thrown by Aisha’s family. A short line establishes that they were acquainted in high school, making the instant “Wow, you’ve grown up” feel believable.

The narrative feel of the story puts me in mind of the story a new friend might tell you about how they met their partner. There’s no real conflict, just a couple of months of them getting to know each other, working dates into their schedules and realizing the relationship is a serious one. I appreciated that both Aisha and Kris continued to go out on exploratory dates with a few people (though we don’t see the dates) before realizing how well they fit together. The whole situation feels like the organic growth of a healthy relationship, and it really does feel realistic.

If you need a reminder that happy lesbians in healthy relationships exist this Valentine’s, this is definitely the story for you. I’m so impressed with what Andre managed to do in 42 pages and I’ll definitely look at her other work.

(And the blurb mentions it, but a black lesbian heroine! We absolutely need more of that).

princessaffair

“You deserve a princess, Kerry, but a princess who will hold your hand in public” – Harris

I admit that I am not much of a romance book reader, but this summer I was travelling and wanted to read something light that didn’t get me hooked, so I could drop it if I needed to. The Princess Affair, for being a romance story was quite good. I was in the awkward position of liking a few clichés but disliking others and I think that this book, did well with that.

This is a romance story between sporty, nerdy and American Rhodes scholar Kerry and Princess Sasha (Alexandra) from the house of Carlisle. The chapters varied in POVs between them. The Royalty factor is the cliché bit, but I have to admit that I could be a bit of a romantic and the idea of a royal romance story leaves me with a warm feeling. I wanted the story to be realistic; to be romantic because it was do-able and I think this book succeeded in that.

Princess Sasha comes off as pretentious and wild (“the princess seemed wild around the edges”) but there is more to her and she had depth, she’s not perfect but she’s human. Kerry is quite likable and I could relate to her a lot. Sasha and Kerry learned to see through each others’ masks and see the baggage the other one had. I liked the chemistry that the two women had together it seemed genuine. They also talk about their relationship and though at times there are misunderstandings they work for the relationship to work but they have trust issues. Sasha doesn’t think she can have a real relationship while Kerry doesn’t think Sasha will stay with a women for the long run.

A thing that I liked was that they did not have sex from the start; at first not for lack of trying but then they decide to take it slow so it was towards nearly the middle of the book when it happened. It was not insta-love although there was insta-attraction.

As usual, I have a tendency to like side characters. I liked Ian and Harris as characters and what they gave to the plot. I liked that they were gay and their friendship and working relationship with queer women. I also like how Ian warms up to Kerry while still being protective of his charge and how Harris helps Sasha and still being on Kerry’s turf. However, I didn’t particularly like Miranda. In her scene with Kerry in the club towards the end, she was less annoying but I still do not think she was redeemed from haven proven that she was not a good friend to Sasha.

The cherry on top was their trip to (North) Ireland. I was reading that bit when flying to (South) Ireland so that gave it more perspective for me.

In the end I love how Sasha stood up for herself and all she represented. How she stood up for gay rights (though I think she meant this as an umbrella term for queer people considering her previous comments) and learning (dis)abilities. I liked the tidbits of politics and architecture thrown in and media assumptions and affects. It has a good ending I think and worth a read if you want to read a queer women romance.

kissandtell

 

Right off the bat I have to let you know that this isn’t a lesbian book. MariNaomi seems to be attracted to more than one gender, but the vast majority of this book deal with her relationships with boys and men, with the occasional experiment with girls, though there are hints throughout the book that she accepts a queer identity later in her life.

Kiss & Tell is a graphic memoir that spans MariNaomi’s life from childhood to 22, with brief (usually only a page or two, sometimes a handful of pages) stories about each of her romantic interests, whether they lasted a day or years. The art style is similar to Marjane Satrapi’s in Persepolis, and the style and storytelling really grabbed me, even though each story is so brief. By following these romantic interests through the years, we get a sketchy look as her life in general, and it’s one that’s intriguing and occasionally melancholic. Although the art style is usually fairly basic, there are sequences that receive a lot of detail and are even more affecting for the contrast.

Although I’ll admit that I was expecting a little bit more queer content from this collection, I still ended up really enjoying it. This was a really quick read and totally engrossed me; I read it in two sittings. Despite the book chronicling dozens of characters, each was drawn distinctly enough that I never mixed them up, and the stories never felt repetitive. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her books in the future.

2teenagersin20

Coming out and living as a gay or lesbian teenager can be hard. Or it can be liberating. Everyone’s stories are all different, and Two Teenagers in Twenty, a compilation of true coming-out stories by homosexual teenagers, touches on all the emotions. From acceptance and understanding to fear and disgust, this book is a must-read for any gay, bisexual, or lesbian teen.

Published in 1994 as a sequel to One Teenager in Ten, both edited by Ann Heron, Two Teenagers in Twenty was made to show the lives of coming-out teens and the reactions of their families and friends. Though outdated (the stories in the book range from the 1980s-1990s), the hardships and fears young gays and lesbians face still resonates deeply today. The youth in these stories are between twelve and twenty-four years old, but each of them had to deal with realizing their sexuality, coming to terms with it despite society’s negative portrayal, and telling their loved ones.

This book accurately showed how different each individual’s story was. You get to know the plight of Joanne, a young woman raised by her parents and her school to believe homosexuality is wrong; Jim, whose mother and father react badly to his being gay; Robin, a girl exposed to only negativity about gays and must come to terms with herself; and Jennifer, a bisexual woman into gay rights activism. Though some stories are short, the authors clearly describe their troubles and their triumphs. You get to know each person, and you cheer them on or grieve for their problems and sadness.

The stories these brave teens tell can be shocking and, at times, appalling, making you disgusted with homophobes and bigots. Some kids here have dealt with being picked on at school, beaten up, rejected by their parents, isolation, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Tragically, one young lesbian girl who shared her story in this book succeeded in ending her life. Suicide was and still is a huge problem for gay teens because of the lack of understanding and the hatred directed at them.

A lot of the stories do offer hope. Some parents featured in Two Teenagers in Twenty were accepting of their children, and even marched with them in Gay Pride parades. Some teens were able to find resources and books that showed homosexuality in a positive light, and some were able to meet other teenagers like them. And many of the teens were combating homophobia and trying to raise awareness for gay rights. Some good things have happened for gay rights since this book came out, but there is still a lot to do.

Two Teenagers in Twenty provided homosexual teenagers with people their age to relate to, hope for their futures, and also provided some good resources. At the back of the book are lists of fiction and non-fiction books for gays and lesbians. Granted, some are very old now, but that doesn’t take away the enjoyment of them. As for Two Teenagers in Twenty itself, it’s a wonderful book that still has potential to help gay and lesbian teens and young adults who are coming out to themselves or their loved ones. It’s touching, thought-provoking, and ultimately, hopeful.

teachingthecat

Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.

dontbangthebarista

If truth be told, my initial interest in Don’t Bang the Barista probably had something to do with my long-held crush on the red-headed, fresh-faced beauty who works the morning shift at the coffee shop a couple of blocks from my office. However, with the turn of the first few pages, it became clear that I had stumbled upon something special. Touted as “a fresh take on the classic genre of lesbian pulp fiction,” Don’t Bang the Barista proves intriguing, endearing and utterly captivating throughout.

Lest anyone be put off, the title is simply an allusion to the advice that Cass offers her friend Kate while discussing the politics of pursuing a barista crush. After all, imagine how awkward it could be if, after a few dates, it all went wrong. Who wouldn’t tread lightly? Yet, could it be that Cass’s concern has more to do with her feelings for Kate than a desire to protect the sanctity of their social space? Cultivating a burgeoning friendship via early morning conversations at the dog park, Cass and Kate enjoy an effortless rapport… until Cass begins to act a bit out of character.

Unable to figure out what lies beneath Cass’s tough-girl exterior, Kate assumes that Cass wants Hannah, the barista, for herself; yet, Kate is too preoccupied with her ex’s return to town to truly reach out and discover what it is that’s bothering her friend. All the while, Cass grows increasingly moody as well as distant. Though others find Cass’s feelings for Kate to be rather obvious, it is only upon determining with whom her own heart lies that Kate discovers it just may be too late.

For all of its light-hearted quirkiness, Don’t Bang the Barista does not shy away from an exploration of the challenges often encountered amid non-traditional relationship dynamics — without any disruption in the tone or flow of the narrative. The way in which Kate supports her bisexual friend, Em, in navigating her desire for a female lover while protecting her primary hetero relationship illuminates just as much about Kate and Em’s friendship as it does the validation of polyamory and conscious/consensual decision-making. The emotional impacts of in vitro fertilization, social alienation and heartbreak are investigated without for a moment compromising the novel’s hip and sexy vibe.

I was struck by the way in which the LGBT-friendly locale of East Vancouver allowed for a more nuanced presentation of the issues mentioned above and a more complex understanding of the characters who encounter them; whereas, in less accepting communities, identity issues — let alone physical and emotional survival — supercede more subtle human needs out of necessity alone. It’s basically a manifestation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once we feel safe within our environment, we are better able to enjoy the journey toward self-actualization, creating a meaningful and satisfying existence, which at the end of the day is precisely what the women of Don’t Bang the Barista are seeking.

[Editor’s note: also check out Danika’s review!]

lockandkey

“Air Planes” is a work of short fiction, the first in a series by Anna Macdougal called The Lock and The Key: Butch/Femme Erotic Romance. It’s the story of marketing consultant Stephanie, fresh from the triumph of closing a deal, and her erotic encounter with the chivalrous butch woman she meets at the airport. Their chance meeting leads to high-flying intimacy, and–perhaps–love.

As you might expect from the collection’s title, this story relies heavily on the mystique and appeal of the butch/femme dynamic:

A butch lesbian stood near the exit, browsing the New Titles display. Something happens to me every time there’s a butch woman in my vicinity. Each cell in my body instantaneously comes alive and urgent messages from my femme brain race through my entire nervous system.

If butch/femme dynamics are your cup of tea, you will be quite happy with this promising debut. I found that mentions of “the butch” and “the femme” as objects–stepping back from the interplay between interesting, relatable characters to delve more deeply into that archetypal aspect of lesbian desire–distracted me from the otherwise excellent writing. However, I enjoyed the story immensely and will definitely read anything else that Macdougal produces.

 

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