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intothedarknessfinal

Ridge Falls is an unusual town. A mining community created in the late 1800’s, after the construction of a hydroelectric dam, the town was moved. Old timers said the dam was a bad idea. Bad things would happen.

They were right. Now, evil seems to haunt the reservoir. It manifests itself to different people in different ways. Come with us. Sit down. Visit. Have a glass of sweet tea at the local diner. We have some stories to tell you.

So, this book. First, I have to be honest. This book doesn’t have any lesbian (or any other permutation of ladies-into-ladies) content. There’s about a paragraph of a monster in a woman’s body killing another woman and I really don’t think that counts.

Warning: the book opens– on the first page – with the sexual abuse of a child, and sexual and physical abuse occur in quite a few of the stories.

Into the Dark is otherwise a series of very short stories, theoretically connected by the setting, about terrible things happening to people. Most of the people are terrible, too. There’s no framing device inside the book itself – the stories don’t occur at the same time or feature the same people (with one reoccurring character).

I like horror, particularly the psychological terror-in-the-dark flavor. But the over-the-top grotesquerie in this book pulled me out of the story every time. There were no characters to connect to, so the violence and gore didn’t have any emotional impact. The biggest problem was that I kept finding myself asking “What was the point of that?” There are so many disparate elements within the stories that I just wound up bored and vaguely lost.

There is one story in this that I enjoyed – “The Wilsons” – about a woman dealing with germaphobia and the loss of her husband. That story had atmosphere and a character I liked. It also doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the book, so take that as you will.

The author is apparently writing a novel set in this universe, and perhaps that will work better. This book felt like an experiment, the sort of thing that winds up in your notes for a story but never published. And again, I’m disappointed that the author submitted it to the Lesbrary, because it really doesn’t count.

NoStraightLines   dogsofwar   SpitandPassion

Autostraddle posted Lez Liberty Lit #61: Snowing Pages.

Elisa posted 2014 Rainbow Award Winners.

GLBT Reviews posted

acupofwaterundermybed   zami   lieswetellourselves

Lambda Literary posted

Malinda Lo posted 2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers and A Holiday Gift Guide to My Books.

Robin Talley was interviewed at R U Coming Out.

“Outhouse library: a new home in Dublin for LGBT literature” was posted at Irish Times.

seasonsmeetings   mara   justgirls

Love Enough by Dionne Brand was reviewed at Lindy Reads and Reviews.

Season’s Meetings by Amy Dunne was reviewed at Far Nerdy and Lesbian Reading Room.

Just Girls by Rachel Gold was reviewed at I’m With Geek.

Somewhere To Run by Anna Goldman was reviewed at The Rainbow Hub.

Under a Falling Star by Jae was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

An American Queer: The Amazon Trail by Lee Lynch was posted at GLBT Reviews.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters was reviewed at Lindy Reads and Reviews.

Year of the Monsoon by Caren Werlinger was reviewed at C-Spot Reviews.

Mara by Brian Wood was reviewed at crunchings & munchings.

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.

afterworlds

It clocks in at literally just under 600 pages. It’s two books in one. It’s a heck of a new young adult experiment for Scott Westerfeld, whose previous YA series have done well. And they’ve all been very different–steampunk (Leviathan), dystopian (Uglies), and apocalyptic (Peeps), to name a few. (Also, he is married to Justine Larbalestier, which is neither here nor there, but her Magic or Madness trilogy is excellent.) “Afterworlds” is a doorstop of a book that takes on first love, the publishing world, the co-opting of cultures for the creation of art, the nature of ghosts, dreams, obligations, New York City, and a host of other things. It is, in a word rather than in a list, ambitious. And it mostly works. Which is great, because it’s a Commitment; I only picked it up because I was processing it for my library and noticed that one of the subject headings was Lesbians–Fiction.

Darcy’s barely a high school graduate, but back in the fall she gritted her teeth and committed herself to NaNoWriMo (seenanowrimo.org). She triumphed. The novel she completed is called “Afterworlds,” and not only has she sold it, she’s managed to get a two-book contract for an obscene amount of money. And she’s moved to New York to be a writer, to do the revisions of “Afterworlds,” and to come up with the elusive second novel she’s now contractually obligated to deliver.

Darcy’s protagonist is Lizzie, and no, Darcy doesn’t pick up on the Darcy-and-Lizzie thing until well after she’s completed the novel, and once it’s pointed out, it doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s just acknowledged for the Janeites. Darcy’s tale and Lizzie’s tale (that is, Darcy’s novel) are told in alternating chapters, so quite seriously, this is two full books. There’s the story of a young girl moving to New York City to test out the possibilities of what might be a charmed life, and the story of a young girl dealing with the challenges of her own new life in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.

One of the great things about Darcy is that she has a little sister who’s smart and plucky. Another great thing about Darcy is that she’s clueless and doesn’t know it. She’s from a Hindu family, but has written a book about a white girl who survives a terrorist attack by slipping into the spirit world, becoming a spirit guide, and falling in love with a Hindu death god. There’s some good stuff going on in the book, but the leads are a bit vanilla. Darcy wanted her protagonist to be relatable, though, and she based the death god on a Bollywood actor she thought was hot. That’s her model for love. Until she moves to New York. Until she meets Imogen.

And then New York gives her an experience she hadn’t anticipated. Darcy and Imogen are both writers, both Word Girls who appreciate language and its nuances. Their relationship isn’t entirely transparent, though. Darcy has maybe skipped class once or twice. But Imogen has a past. Emotionally, Imogen is more complex than the people Darcy’s used to. From the beginning there’s a sense of something being off-kilter, and that sense only grows until things come to a head–I was disappointed with Westerfeld’s resolution here. There’s lots of attention given to how Darcy deals with the ending of Lizzie’s story, but that ending was fine. It’s the ending of Darcy’s story that disappoints. It feels as if Westerfeld lacked the conviction to carry through the momentum he built throughout an entire novel, because the original ending perhaps didn’t test well. Maybe it’s a meta-statement on publishing?

The genre story is riproaring and page-turning. The frame story offers a little wish-fulfillment peek into YA heaven, and a mostly lovely and restrained look at the amazingness of awakening feelings, and first love, and finally understanding what everyone else has been obsessing about for years. There’s no graphic sexual content, but lots of F-bombs, which is necessary to know if you’re a YA librarian. Nobody cares about murder (there’s some of that) or terrorism (yup), but is there sex (not described)? Bad language (all over the place)?

Where this book will find its readership is up for debate. Usually, the teenage girls (or “new adults”) to whom it seems to be marketed are lots more self-aware than Darcy. Her naivete may turn them off. Adults may find this to be wish fulfillment all around. Not only does Darcy fall into her publishing contract and a lovely apartment and her first relationship, she’s in an extremely accepting community. There’s only one uncomfortable moment, when she admits that she doesn’t want to go home and tell her parents she’s dating Imogen. Imogen has to point out that not everyone has it so easy, and “Not all of us make it, you know.” This is no one’s publishing story; maybe it’s no one’s coming-out story, either.

What’s the verdict? I loved the parts about the publishing world and the beginning (and pieces of the middle) of Lizzie’s story. But there’s a lot going on here. This wouldn’t be something to recommend to someone just looking for a good lesbian romance.

tellmeagain

Sara Farizan’s second novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, is a genuinely sweet story of high school queerness. It can definitely be categorized as a “quick read” – but perhaps that is just because once I started reading, I never wanted to put it down.

The story revolves around Leila, an Iranian American teenager attending a small private high school in Massachusetts. Leila has been with the same group of classmates for as long as she can remember, so when a new girl named Saskia arrives with some international flair and a whole lot of personality, Leila can’t help but be attracted to her.

Leila discovered her attraction to women at summer camp, but she is definitely not ready to share this fact with anyone at home. When Saskia seems to be interested in her as more than just a friend, Leila is thrilled, but extremely nervous about what could happen if her classmates and her traditional Persian family discovered her secret. What follows is an absorbing story of Leila’s pursuit of love and acceptance, where she learns more about herself and her peers than she could have ever predicted.

I loved the plot and pacing of this book – it was accessible, quick, and much funnier than I expected it to be. Farizan also creates a fantastic cast of characters, developing the voices of various high schoolers to bring Leila’s story to life. Many of these characters are modeled on teenage archetypes – from the vampire techie who works backstage at the school play to the brilliant but hopelessly innocent faculty brat – but Farizan is skilled at manipulating their quirks in order to counter the stereotypes.

Leila (and the reader, by extension) really get to know the personalities behind the facades of those students who are on the fringes of the high school social scene. This sets up some great parallels between Leila’s hidden gayness and the other characters’ concealed true selves; Farizan’s story ultimately sends the message that we all have our secrets, that people are not always as they seem, and that sometimes you are rewarded when you decide to trust another person with your story.

In this way, Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel is as much about friendship as it is about crushes. In questioning what it means to truly be friends with someone, Farizan reveals how friends and allies often exist in unexpected places. One of my favorite examples is Leila’s adorable relationship with her English teacher, Ms. Taylor.

It was also really refreshing to see that Leila’s best friend is a guy. Although this was a complicated relationship at times, it was really nice to read a story that depicts a deep, sibling-like bond between a female and a male character that [spoiler alert] doesn’t end in romance. Even in the realm of queer YA novels, I’ve found that these bonds between male and female characters are sorely underrepresented.

Recently, I saw Farizan speak on the Tough Topics in YA Literature panel at the Boston Book Festival, where she explained that Leila was definitely more like she was as a teenager than the leading ladies of her debut novel, If You Could Be Mine. This became clear as I read Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel – Leila’s genuine voice and sarcastic humor read very naturally, and seem to reflect Farizan’s personality. I could not be more thankful that Farizan has decided to contribute her unique voice to young lesbian literature, and can’t wait to see what she writes next.

51vLOiEuWDL

After I got married earlier this year, a surprising number of people started asking if my wife and I were going to have kids, and when, and how we were going to go about it. The answer is yes, we’d like to in a couple of years, and I’d probably like to be pregnant. Perhaps prompted by these questions and my lifelong tendency to over-prepare, I picked up a copy of Rachel Pepper’s classic. With caveats, I recommend it to anyone interested in getting pregnant without having sex with a man.

I’m glad I read this book a few years before I was hoping to conceive, because I had no idea how expensive getting lesbian-pregnant can be or how long it takes, even if you don’t have fertility challenges. We’d probably go to a sperm bank, and I learned from this book that sperm is really pricey. I also learned that without fresh sperm it’s more difficult to get pregnant, but using fresh sperm (from, say, your best guy friend, via jar and a plastic tube) can put you in a murky legal position that allows your donor to claim parental rights and fight about custody. There is no perfect solution, and this helpful section of the book lays out the pros and cons of different gay lady conception options so you can find the best choice for you. It also covers in detail how to figure out when you’re ovulating, a necessity if you want to get pregnant with sperm donation.

Unfortunately I think if you read this book while trying to get pregnant, you’ll panic because it sounds like everything takes so long and costs so much. If you are interested in possibly becoming pregnant one day, or hoping to have a pregnant partner in the future, read this book sooner rather than later. It won’t nag you to have babies before you’re ready. It will provide useful information about the process so you’ll know about getting sperm and how to most effectively use it, what pre-pregnancy tests and nutrients you need, and how to determine your peek fertility days.

Where the book falters is in its prescriptions for your pregnancy, birth experience, and your parenting. Pepper’s opinions are presented as facts. Her passion for home births, attachment parenting, and breastfeeding, and against circumcision, make no allowances for people with different values or circumstances, and could needlessly make you feel guilty. I think this unintentionally is another reason to read this book before you’re in the thick of trying to conceive: when you’re trying to get pregnant, or you’re a new parent, people will give you a lot of unsolicited advice. Some of it will be terrible, very little of it will be necessary, and it will almost always be more about the person giving the advice than it is about you. If you can start tuning out the “right way to be pregnant/give birth/be a mother” noise you’re subjected to from Pepper, you’ll be ready for that same noise from strangers, friends, or relatives. But it would probably be tougher to question Pepper’s claims if you’re reading it while you’re waiting on a pregnancy test and you’re feeling anxious and vulnerable.

This book is also almost a decade old, and some of the information is out of date. For example, since I live in California and my wife and I are legally married, we wouldn’t have to go through second parent adoption if one of us has a baby. That wasn’t the case when the second edition of this book was published in 2005, and the legal preparations suggested in this book may be unnecessary depending on where you live. Likewise, Pepper’s information about charting your fertility was written before the age of apps, and now there are several apps that make it easy to keep track of your cycle, possibly much easier than the methods Pepper suggests. It did make me wonder if reproductive technology options have evolved too, and I’d want to do more research before I try to get pregnant.

[trigger warning: transphobic slur]

Another strange thing about this book is Pepper’s references to “tranny pops,” which sounds like a really offensive snack food. She’s trying include transgender fathers, but using a slur that’s often aimed at trans women just made me wince. It’s particularly strange because the book doesn’t mention trans women in lesbian relationships even once. Since I know a few trans women who date women, and a cis woman and a trans woman who have biological kids together, I thought it warranted a couple of pages. Even without bottom surgery, trans women can have fertility issues from hormones, so if they want to have a child with a cis female partner, they might need to do some planning. Or at least they could be acknowledged, since transgender men get a few shout-outs in this lesbian book.

I also thought the book was a tad more focused on single women than it was at lesbian couples. The book is rooted in Pepper’s personal experience, and she’s always been a single parent. The writing is mostly aimed at the person who’ll be pregnant, without as much exploration of the non-pregnant mom-to-be’s experience as my wife and I would have liked. I might eat my words on this, but Pepper spends a bit of ink preparing you, future pregnant women, for your possibly unsupportive, non-pregnant girlfriend who won’t take your pregnancy as seriously as you do. Clearly, people have this experience, but there are also plenty of dedicated non-biological lesbian moms who are there every step of the way. I wanted a little more support and advice for expecting mothers who aren’t pregnant and whose experiences are often minimized or erased. I also would have liked some suggestions about deciding as a couple how you want to parent and sorting out the conflicts that will inevitably arise between a pair of new moms.

If you want nothing to do with pregnancy, definitely skip it. But it is well worth a read if you’re interested in the subject matter, ideally a few years before you’re ready to conceive. Don’t make it your only pregnancy or parenting guidebook, and skip or side-eye Pepper’s advice after the section on conception. For the business of getting pregnant the lesbian way, though, it’s great resource.

happinesslikewater

It’s perhaps best to begin with the fact that happiness you won’t find much in Chinelo Okparanta’s short story collection Happiness, Like Water.  After all, as one character points out, happiness is like water if “we’re always trying to grab onto it, but it’s always slipping through our fingers.”  What you will find, however, are some tenderly written stories about Nigerian women, sometimes in the US or in Nigeria, grappling with the demands made of them in a racist, sexist, and homophobic world.

If that sounds depressing, well, maybe it is; it’s important work that Okparanta is doing, investigating the myriad of ways in which her characters are bound by a limited set of choices in a world that often doesn’t value them; however, she does have this to say in an interview with Saraba magazine: “in some ways I write about what is positive. I write about brave and ambitious men and women. I write about intelligent people. I write about kindness, about love. I write about people who, like me, are trying their best to make sense of their lives within the societies in which they find themselves.”  In this way, I didn’t find Happiness a sad book, despite the often bleak subject matter.

Okparanta writes simply but beautifully, something which also helps break the sometimes gloomy circumstances in which her characters find themselves.  It is also not a collection without hope.  For example:

And I think perhaps all this will do. The waterfowls are still quacking, and the sun

is high in the sky.  The river is still glowing in shades of silver and gold.  Grace

is sitting next to me, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps the verge of joy is its

own form of happiness.

This is an unrepentantly feminist book, dealing with issues such as shadism, beauty standards, domestic violence, gender roles, class, and queer [and straight] sexuality.  Happiness doesn’t feel like an ‘issue’ book, though, I think because the voices of the women play such a big part in the stories.  My two favourites, “Grace” and “Story, Story!” in particular, featured palpable, unique voices.  “Grace” is narrated by a middle-aged divorced woman who’s a (English?) professor teaching a course on the Old Testament.  It’s not clear exactly what her beliefs are, but it seems like she’s some kind of Christian, or maybe has a Christian background.  The story centers around her relationship with a Nigerian student, definitely a Christian and grappling with her sexuality and what the Bible (supposedly) says about queerness.  I thought Okparanta nailed the world-weariness of this older woman’s voice, as well as the youthful one of the younger woman.

“Story, Story!” is, I think, the strongest in the collection, and probably features the voice that is the most different from the rest of the narrators.  I don’t want to spoil this climatic, powerful story by giving away important details, but it is a chilling narrative about the lengths of insanity to which women can by driven by the white heteropatriarchy.  If there were one part from this book I would want everyone to read, it’s the brilliantly titled “Story, Story!”

Despite the innovation of those two I just discussed, several of the other stories featured women whose voices began to run together a bit for me by the end of the collection.  There were a lot of middle-class women who were teachers, which isn’t in itself a problem, if the voices are differentiated; however, I didn’t find that to be the case.  This is a fault I’ve found many a time in first books by new writers: drawing from their own experiences, sometimes they fail to fully turn that inspiration into wide-ranging fiction.  There wasn’t a problem with the voice itself, just that it was shared by characters in different stories in different places and situations, which makes them seem less like, well, real humans.  Okparanta is at her best when trying on distinct voices, such as in “Story, Story!” and “Grace” as well as “Shelter” (whose narrator is a child).

Interestingly, if you look at Happiness as a whole, it seems to be suggesting that heterosexual relationships are doomed, but ones between women have hope.  It’s not that the queer relationships are painted idyllically, but there is a distinct sense of optimism in the stories that feature romantic relationships between women that is lacking in the ones featuring men and women. Relationships with men and /or heterosexual marriage seem to be too steeped in patriarchal power dynamics to offer women any real options.  While I see the appeal of this argument, it also puzzles me; my first thought is, okay but what are heterosexual women supposed to do?  Also, it feels defeatist, like confirming men will and can never be feminist allies and never have respectful relationships with women.  Is that actually how we want to look at the world?

It’s the system, paired with and run by individual men, that creates and upholds the values Okparanta is writing against and many of her stories actually make a point of focusing on the fact that it is the women’s mothers who are the agents of the patriarchal trap of marriage, as well as enforcing racist and sexist beliefs about women’s roles.  In other words, women enforce patriarchy too, and we won’t get rid of it even if we secluded ourselves away and never had any contact with men ever again.  So, Okparanta’s argument there seems to contrast the one that relationships with men are ultimately hopeless.

Anyway, there’s lot of food for thought in this book, as you can see!  If you want to see more from Okparanta, like I did when I finished the book, check out this more recent story published in The New Yorker as well as this interview with Okparanta about the story.

hername

There is a good chance that any woman who has experienced the sense that hers is not the life she was destined to live will find something of a kindred spirit in Madison Andrews, the protagonist of Alicia Joseph’s novella, Her Name. Especially for those of us who have heard the not-so-distant ticking of the biological clock, quiet moments may have a way of calling forth feelings of yearning, disappointment or bewilderment as we contemplate the multifarious forces that brought us to this place in time. Yet, are our lives really destined to turn out the way they do or do we have a greater influence over our circumstances than we realize?

Teetering toward forty, Madison doesn’t lack for a social life, has enjoyed her share of romantic entanglements and maintains gainful employment; but, it just isn’t the life she envisioned for herself. Longing for a loving marriage and family, Madison is admittedly lonely and rather desperate for a meaningful relationship. She can only wonder why the fulfillment of her most heartfelt desire has eluded her. Where is the beautiful, blue-eyed woman of her dreams?

In her dreams, of course.

Night after night, Madison closes her eyes, entering into a dream world that feels far more vivid, far more right than her waking life. In fact, the events that take place in her dreams point directly to those that have taken place during her waking hours, the only difference being that the love of her life is there with her through it all. Indeed, the woman she encounters as she sleeps treasures her in a manner that she has never before known; yet, in spite of reciprocating such deep caring, Madison awakens each morning with a knot of disappointment in her stomach as she finds herself alone in bed. Merely tolerating her days, she awaits the moment that she can slip back between the covers and into her lover’s arms.

Madison’s enthusiasm for her dream world is not shared by others, however. When she tells her best friend, Shelly, about the life she shares with the blue-eyed woman, she finds none of the validation or understanding she seeks; rather, she is mercilessly teased until, ultimately, her sanity is called into question. In an attempt to appease, Madison tells those who express concern that she is seeing a therapist, which is not true for she is certain that the life she knows with the woman is quite real and refuses to risk someone stripping her of her happiness.

It was the genuinely heartfelt style of Ms. Joseph’s writing that kept me reading from the first page straight through to the last; and, I remain utterly in awe of how fully the author captured as transcendent a connection as that between Madison and the woman who meets her on the other side of wakefulness. The interactions between the two women were so natural and believable that I didn’t for a moment question the existence of the blue-eyed woman or the love they share. Without a doubt, Her Name felt to be more of a dear friend’s diary than a work of fiction.

That being said, I found the climax to be handled in a manner that was a bit awkward. I was so completely surrendered to Madison’s experience that it was jarring to witness an unfamiliar dynamic between her and her lover. The tone also shifted in such a way that I felt myself thrust out of the story, which frustrated and pained me given how wide open my heart had grown; yet, I had invested so much of myself into the experience that I made a conscious decision to let this go. It wasn’t worth sacrificing what had resonated so clearly with me up to that point.

Her Name is far more than a love story, though I’ll admit that it is one of the most touching romances I’ve encountered as it offers a sense of hope and a framework for making sense of Madison’s experience as well as our own. Given how essential the concept of interdependent co-arising becomes to an exploration of this book, it’s quite clear that Ms. Joseph has challenged us to broaden our perception of destiny and to acknowledge our part in it.

If truth be told, there will likely never again be a night that I don’t turn down the covers, anticipating the presence of my true love — though I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath. One thing is for certain, however. I will make a concerted effort to approach each moment as fully present as I’m able so as to prevent my very destiny from slipping away.

tributaries

I am conflicted about Tributaries. It’s one of those books where some aspects I absolutely loved, and some I didn’t like at all. First of all, I have to point out that gorgeous cover. I just want to stare at it for a while. Okay, onto to the book itself. We’re first introduced to Nyx, a young woman who is also a cat shapeshifter. In the prologue, we get a glimpse of her attempted suicide as background to her life in the beginning of the novel. She is struggling, stealing small amounts of food in order to survive. When she’s discovered by villagers and chased, Nyx finds herself unexpectedly rescued by a passing warrior woman, Elmiryn. Now in her debt, Elmiryn asks Nyx to accompany her on her quest to slay a demon (that may or may not exist).

As you can probably tell by that description, Tributaries starts off pretty grim. Nyx is in a very dark place in her life, having lost almost everything and everyone from her past. She is introspective and is suspicious of other people. It’s with the introduction of Elmiryn that I started to get into the novel. Elmiryn brings some much needed humor and lightness to the narrative, though we quickly discover that she is dealing with her own issues. She also brings some purpose to Nyx’s life, with the proposition of this quest. With the travelling duo, a warrior woman and a smaller companion, I immediately latched onto the Xena vibe. The characters themselves don’t resemble Xena or Gabrielle very much, but just that comparison was an immediate plus for me.

I feel like the strength of the novel is in the interaction between Elmiryn and Nyx. They have completely different personalities, and it’s fascinating to watch their friendship (and eventual romance) slowly build. What I appreciated the most was that despite the apparent power difference, by the end of the book they both seem like equals. They have very different strengths, and they use those to take care of each other. Nyx may be smaller and less trained in combat, but she helps Elmiryn to stay rooted in reality, and is there to be a voice of reason.

The romance was also adorable. Elmiryn is an incorrigible flirt, and Nyx greets this with blushes and avoidance, but for the most part Elle’s flirting is light and harmless, not an attempt to persuade Nyx so much as a form of communication she would probably use with any friend. And one of my favourite parts of the book was watching Nyx find herself more attracted to Elle–and, as a reader, realizing that Nyx’s avoidance had more to do with deference and a misguided adherence to politeness than it did with her own feelings. This slow build creates a compelling, believable romantic subplot.

Where the book lost me was when it came to the plot and setting. The worldbuilding felt pretty sketchily defined for the most part. While Ailurean (cat shapeshifter) society got quite a bit of detail, the world outside of that didn’t seem to be fully realized. It also seemed to be unevenly plotted. There were moments in the book where I was ignoring things I should be doing in order to read just one more chapter, and then other stretches where I was reluctant to pick the book up again. Similarly, the tone seems to jump around throughout the book. When it’s at its best, it balances dark topics with Elmiryn’s humour, but when we lose that lightness from Elle, Tributaries seems to lose its footing.

The problem for me is that for a Fantasy book–and I’ll admit that I’ve read very few Fantasy books, so I’m not very familiar with the genre–most of the conflict happens inside people’s heads. Nyx’s main conflict is that her bestial side is not just an aspect of her personality, but what seems to be a fully-formed individual, one who is violent and fighting for control of their shared body. There are even scenes that take place inside Nyx’s mental landscape, in a battle for who will be contained and who will dominate. Elmiryn’s main conflict is also a mental one. When she first tries to explain her curse to Nyx, my note in my copy was “Ah, so she has the curse of existentialism!” And it’s true that this curse is fairly philosophical. Elle has difficulties in determining what is reality, in keeping contact with her own memories, even in identifying her body as an extension of herself. It really seems like a constant state of existential crisis. Both characters, in addition to their complex psychological states, also have mysterious tragic back stories that are alluded to. One or the other would be fine, but both felt like there was too much to fit into one novel. Even the antagonist, the demon, is mostly mental. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] He communicates through music, and even the physical space the climax of the story takes place in seems more like a mental space. [end spoilers]

As a whole, the plot didn’t quite come together for me. I do understand that it’s the first book in the series, and likely the worldbuilding will be fleshed out more in the next books, and hopefully there will be more space to address topics introduced in depth. In this book, though, it felt like there were too many concepts being juggled without having a solid plot to root it. (The climax of the book felt muddled to me.) One aspect, Tobias’s book that Nyx excerpts throughout, I didn’t really understand the point of, and ending with the epilogue being a chapter from this book was unsatisfying.

At the same time, there are so many things I really enjoyed about the book. Both main characters are fascinating and three dimensional, and I loved seeing them interact. Though I felt like having both overburdened the book, I am intrigued by both Elmiryn and Nyx’s mental struggles and want to see how they play out. Plus, Tributaries does set up an interesting quest narrative for the next book, which I enjoy. So as much as I felt like some parts of this book were difficult to get through, the good parts were good enough that I would like to continue with the series, because I have high hopes that it will improve from here.

Also, as a side note, I first head about this book from the author’s blog post about a review, and I have to say, I don’t see how anyone could read this relationship as straight. Elmiryn is a huge flirt. In the first couple chapters, she says, “Hey, wait a minute. You think I’m unsettling? As in, ‘Gee, I hope she makes a go for my pants’ Or as in, ‘I think this crazy wench is going to shiv my hide’?” How do you read that as straight?? Amazing.

lieswetellourselves

 

This is a powerful book. Lies We Tell Ourselves is about Sarah, one of the first black kids to integrate into a formally all-white school in Virginia, 1959. The other main character is Linda, the daughter of a staunchly segregationist public figure. The two find themselves inexorably drawn to each other.

The premise alone was enough to make me immediately want to pick this one up: an interracial teen lesbian romance in the 1950s? That is not something I’ve read about before, and I’m glad that we’ve gotten to the point where it’s something that can be traditionally published. Immediately the book throws us into the reality of Sarah’s experience. It begins with the ten black students attempting to fight their way through a screaming mob of white protesters to enter the high school, an unending litany of racial slurs, insults, chants, and threats. Sarah attempts to keep her head up during this daily assault by white students and faculty, enduring countless humiliations while trying to get an education.

One of her tormentors is Linda, and I was unpleasantly surprised to have the narration switch to her perspective less than 100 pages into the book. Linda is an interesting character, because though she may not be immediately likeable, she does feel realistic. It’s a look into the mind of, well, a racist of the 1950s. She parrots what her father espouses, despite the fact that she fears and resents her father. And throughout the book, her views do change, but they are excruciatingly small steps in the right direction, still firmly in racist territory.

My immediate thoughts during Sarah and Linda’s growing to each other was How could Sarah like this girl?? Though Linda may not have been the one throwing rocks, she still actively participated in Sarah and other black students’ torments. While they meet in secret after being assigned to a school project together, Sarah and Linda get into passionate debates about integration and other issues around race. Sarah doesn’t bat an eyelash at Linda’s regurgitation of racist beliefs. But at the same time, I realized that it actually does make some sense. For one thing, Sarah feels completely isolated. She is the only black female senior in the school, and that means that there’s no one going through her exact situation that she can talk to. Her parents don’t seem to grasp just how bad things are at school, and her white classmates won’t even sit within two desks of her, nevermind talk to her. Having someone she can be herself with, can say exactly what’s on her mind to, would be a relief, even if that person didn’t understand. I also, of course, have to take into account that Sarah is still a teenager, falling for someone for the first time. She’s not the first person to see her love interest with rose-coloured glasses and think that she’s capable of change. Add to that the confusions of falling for a girl in 1950s America and it actually seems pretty realistic.

Linda seems like an ambiguous character by the end of the book. Are we supposed to like her? Are we supposed to sympathize with her? She makes progress, but it’s only a small bit of progress. She makes sacrifices, but are they really enough to counteract the damage she’s done? Her attitudes and actions may be understandable (given her upbringing), but that doesn’t make them excusable. As much as I cringed reading Linda’s thoughts, I do think I appreciate her inclusion in the book as a representative of the opposition of integration, and of the people on the other side of the battle for civil rights. Because Talley represents her as not a one-dimensional caricature or a monster, but a flawed person. And I think that’s important because it shows how important it is to be aware of your own position in terms of power, privilege, and oppression. It’s easy to be complacent, to go along quietly with the status quo.

I did have one major issue with the book, however. [spoilers, highlight to read] The violence against a black boy, Chuck, seems to be used just as a plot point in Sarah and Linda’s relationship. Specifically, the moment when Linda announced angrily, complete with racial slur, in front of a large group of people, that Chuck had been with a white girl–something she did spitefully just because he insulted her singing, was the moment where I couldn’t imagine how Linda could ever come back from that. I don’t believe that she was so naive that she didn’t know how a crowd of white people would react to that. In fact, it seems like that’s exactly why she said it. And to say something in anger that could get him lynched? I don’t know how Sarah could ever forgive her for that. I couldn’t, as a reader. And the fact that her corresponding action to make up for it was to write a newspaper article saying “I still don’t support integration, but maybe a crowd of white boys shouldn’t beat a black boy nearly to death just for being black? I think that’s wrong.” does not come close to making that okay. The violence done against Chuck just seemed to be a point of drama between Linda and Sarah, instead of its own horror. And especially given the ongoing legacy of this violence that we can see today, I was disappointed with how it was handled in text. There was even an undertone of “Well, he should have known better to get involved with a white girl, and it was bound to happen even if Linda didn’t say anything.” This element dropped the book from getting a five star rating to four stars for me. [end spoilers]

This was a fantastic read. It manages to tackle a lot of big issues without seeming like there were too many balls in the air, and it adds a lot of nuance to the topics presented. For instance, I appreciated Sarah’s struggle with her religious beliefs, and how her Christianity acted as both a source of strength and also a source of anxiety for her. I also thought it was interesting how though Sarah believed completely in the cause, she began to feel as if her and her black classmates were being used as pawns in this civil rights battle fought by her parents, especially in relation to Linda being a pawn of her father. Sarah and her younger sister, Ruth, also have different experiences at the school and handle it differently.

The most powerful part for me was the “Lies We Tell Ourselves” motif throughout the book. Each chapter is titled “Lie #_: ____” For example, Sarah’s first lie is “There’s no need to be afraid” and Linda’s first lie is “None of this has anything to do with me.” Generally my eyes skip right over chapter titles, but these were so interesting that I made sure to make note of them. They serve multiple purposes: Why does each girl tell themselves this, and how does it help or hurt them? How is it a lie? How does it apply to the other girl? They were also so relateable, though obviously I’ve never gone through anything comparable to Sarah’s experience. But some of them apply to being queer and coming to terms with it, and some are lies that I think all of us have told ourselves at some point, for one purpose or another. This is definitely a book that I would recommend, though it’s not an easy read. I found myself having to put down the book for a while when my stomach was in knots reading some parts. It also has racial slurs on almost every page. If you can get through that, however, I think Lies We Tell Ourselves is well worth the read, and a fantastic addition to the YA genre.

dontbangthebarista

Kate is a twenty-something lesbian in Vancouver, still recovering from her last break up (which happened a year ago), and hopelessly crushing on her barista. The title is her friend Cass’s number one rule of coffee shop dating, but Kate thinks it might be worth breaking. Don’t Bang the Barista! follows Kate as she tries to figure out who she really has feelings for, and whether she’s truly over her ex.

I expected this book to be a bit of a guilty pleasure fun read. The back cover blurb begins with “Drawing on the classics of lesbian pulp fiction,” and I can definitely see the influence here. (Quick aside: don’t read any further in the blurb, because it gives away everything that happens in the first half of the book.) But for the most part, the tone is different than I’d expect. Kate is introspective and often seems to verge on being depressed. She is still dealing with a lot of issues from her last relationship and finds reaching out difficult. I also appreciated the detail given to secondary characters in the story. Kate’s group of friends all have their own distinct personalities and priorities, and they are all dealing with issues that are only tangentially related to her. They feel like real people in their own right, not just props in her narrative. There are a lot of details included that elevate Don’t Bang the Barista! from a modern lesbian pulp, making it seem realistic–like the ongoing inclusion of Kate’s dog Jupiter, and references to Kate’s work life, and even discussion of biphobia in the lesbian community. On a personal level, I also really enjoyed reading a book set so close to where I live. The west coast queer politics alluded to felt very familiar to me, and it was fun to recognize some landmarks while I was reading.

But this level of detail and nuance also raised my expectations for the novel. Sometimes the tone seemed to change, and what felt realistic would suddenly verge into the soap operatic. I could forgive that because it meant to be inspired by pulp, but it did feel inconsistent. Most of all, though, I was disappointed with the main romance of the novel. I could understand the attraction, but the love interest behaved pretty terribly throughout the book and by the end that seems to be forgotten in a way that genuinely confused me. Kate was initially angry, and then seemed to change her mind and blame herself. Because this is a romance at heart, this aspect really affected my enjoyment of the novel. The characters and detail were really enjoyable, but the romance I just couldn’t get on board with.

[spoilers below]

To be specific, I don’t understand why Kate (and everyone else, the end) blamed herself for Cass’s behaviour. Yes, I get that Cass is not used to serious relationships, and it’s not that her behaviour isn’t understandable, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. First she forcibly kisses Kate while she’s on a date with another woman (and might I add that Cass has never told Kate that she was interested before this point), then she has the gall to laugh it off when Kate confronts her on it? She acted like a complete asshole. And then Kate is the one who reaches out to her when she goes AWOL, and only then gives a half-assed apology. Then they go camping and Cass storms off in a huff because she heard that Kate talked to a hot girl. Then she holds hands with Kate, says it’s the happiest moment of her life, notices that she’s still wearing her ex’s ring, and then storms off again and goes and tracks down previously mentioned hot woman and sleeps with her, ignoring Kate the whole time, still not actually voicing that she likes her. Oh, and abandoning Kate with people she doesn’t even know. So after Kate finds her own way back, she runs into Cass while going out with her ex, and Cass’s first words to her are “Dude. What the fuck,” still with no apology for ditching her, and then gets pissed at Kate for getting back with ex and storms off again. (Side note, I also couldn’t believe that Kate didn’t get that Cass liked her at this point. She said holding hands with you was the happiest moment of her life and you don’t get the hint? She’s been acting like a jealous asshole 24/7?) At this point, Kate is like “Even if she likes me, this relationship could never work, since she can’t communicate at all” (paraphrase), which is completely accurate. Then Cass sees Kate and her ex at a coffee shop together and again storms off in a huff without saying anything. Kate still tries to seek Cass out, unsuccessfully, and then Kate emails her another half-assed apology and says “BTW I’m moving to Amsterdam BYE” (paraphrase). This is the point where Kate starts blaming herself, saying she pushed Cass away, and how could she do that when she now realizes that this is who she loves?? She waited too long! Kate again tries to seek out Cass, but she’s already moved out of her apartment. So she stakes out the airport to try to convince Cass to stay, but Cass brushes her off and won’t let her finish a sentence. Kate thinks “I could see how much I’d hurt her and I hated myself for it.” Because you got together with your ex when Cass had a) never voiced her feelings for you and b) just slept with another woman and ditched you to do so? You’re supposed to feel guilty about that? It might not have been a good decision, but it’s not because it hurt Cass’s feelings. If she wanted to get together with you, she should have stopped being an asshole and also asked you out. And then Kate’s friends tell her she should have told Cass how she felt earlier and Kate just wallows in guilt, apparently having completely forgotten that Cass has consistently been pretty much nothing but jerkish this entire book.

Sorry for the description of basically the entire plot between Cass and Kate, but I had to go back and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. Where was I supposed to root for Cass? Why is Kate supposed to feel guilty? Why is it that them getting together is supposed to be the happy ending? And, might I add, they only get together because YET AGAIN Kate seeks Cass out on another continent this time. Like I said, I liked most of this book, but the romance is so baffling to me that I ended up rating it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Not a Cass fan, and I don’t understand how I’m expected to be, given how she acts the entire novel.

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