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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.

annieonmymind

Fans of lesbian young adult literature should really pick up Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden. First published in 1982, Annie was one of the first lesbian fiction novels to have a happy ending. Garden put so much care and love into her story, and it really shows.

The story is told in the voice of Liza Winthrop, a seventeen year old high school senior looking to get into MIT. At a museum in New York City, she meets Annie Kenyon, also a high school senior, who is kind and musical. The two become good friends, and together they explore their city and get to know each other well. Soon, their tender feelings turn into love, and Liza grapples with the idea of being gay. She and Annie harbor their secret romance, and when Liza is discovered by her friends and family, she must decide whether to continue her relationship with Annie.

This novel is written in a kind of dreamlike quality that makes it beautiful. The characters of Liza and Annie are wonderful with each other. They have their faults, dreams, fears and insecurities. Annie especially sees the world in an imaginative way, which shows in her talks with Liza about the future and things in the present. She and down-to-earth, level-headed Liza, balance each other out really well.

The supporting characters were great too. I especially loved Liza’s art teacher, Ms. Stevenson. She has a strong sense of justice and is not afraid to say so. The headmistress at Liza’s private school, Mrs. Poindexter, is prim and proper, while Annie’s grandmother, Nana, provides some laughs with her easy going manner. In all, each character in the book enhanced the storyline and added to the plot nicely.

Garden also sent powerful messages about homophobia, intolerance, and same-sex love. When Liza is outed, the reactions around her range from disbelief and disgust to sadness and questioning. Most infuriating was Ms. Baxter, the headmistress’s aide, who was very judgmental to Liza, Annie, and other gay characters. Anyone reading Annie can easily recognize the homophobia and hatred that homosexuals still face today. The best of all messages, though, was that same-sex love is not a bad thing. That love is love. “Don’t let ignorance win, let love”, one of the novel’s quotes, really sums up the idea of love.

On a personal note, Annie is a very special book for me. This was the first lesbian novel I ever read. Sadly, Nancy Garden passed away in June, but she left a legacy of love and acceptance. A wonderful writer and advocate for gay rights, she and Annie On My Mind will forever hold a special place in my heart.

domesticationhandbook
I’m not sure exactly how to review Domestication Handbook, because I’m not sure I fully understand what it is. It seems to blend together fiction, memoir, and book of poetry. The book is divided into three sections: “Part 1: A basic guide to farming”, “Part II: How to write a suburban memoir”, and “Part III: positive reinforcement for pets and other animals”. Like The Story of Ruth and Eliza, each section is comprised of small, titled segments which are often in verse.

Each segment provides just a glimpse at a certain time, usually from childhood. They seem like a collection of enigmatic snapshots, not quite forming a coherent narrative, but enough to establish an emotional progression. The book often avoids names, calling the siblings “little animals” and switching tense from third to second person throughout, making it difficult to tell if we’re even following the same person the entire story.

Domestication Handbook seems to be mostly a story about growing up, which includes furtively reading Best Lesbian Erotica as well as playing Little House In the Big Woods.

I enjoyed this one, but not as much as The Story of Ruth and Eliza. I felt like I couldn’t quite get a grasp on what was happening, and although Kristen Stone is obviously skilled with language and I was intrigued, it left me feeling disconnected. If you’re a poetry fan, I would still recommend this one, as long as you’re not expecting a linear storyline.

 

heroworship

 

I don’t think I’ve ever had a book that was simultaneously so good and so painful to read, which is appropriate for Hero Worship. The book follows Valerie, a twenty-something who’s had a string of bad relationships and is still trying to figure herself out. In the first part of the story, she is writing letters to her ex-girlfriend, trying to deal with how much she misses her, though she’s not sure how much the girlfriend ever even liked her. Valerie’s desperate desire for love and attention was uncomfortably relateable, making me flinch sympathetically almost every other page.

Throughout Hero Worship, we get to see some of Valerie’s childhood and her previous relationships, which all show pieces of the intangible quality she keeps seeking out, what she seems to be missing in her life. She latches onto various people, alternately admitting her obsession to its object or attempting to disguise it. This felt like one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read, which may reveal more about myself than I would like. It captures the aimless, insecure twenty-something experience.

I also just love Matthews’s writing style. It seems casual and effortlessly, but is able to evoke scenes and emotions with subtle details. I found myself torn between wanting to just keep reading and having to put down the book frequently because I empathized too much with Valerie. I would recommend this to anyone who’s felt like they’ve needed someone too much, or anyone looking for a short submersion in someone else’s sense of self. This is one of my favourite reads of this year.

WingedDiemer

WINGED THINGS is a bewitching collection of young adult short stories, ranging from paranormal to fantasy, all featuring a lesbian heroine. This collection is part of Project Unicorn, a fiction project that seeks to address the near nonexistence of lesbian main characters in young adult fiction by giving them their own stories.

Winged Things, as the blurb suggests, is part of an awesome project by Sarah and Jennifer Diemer to expand the cast of lesbian protagonists in YA fiction. Project Unicorn is currently on hiatus, but a current total of 51 free short stories are available online. Winged Things is the sixth in a series of e-zines collecting the stories of Project Unicorn, with two new stories not available online.

Generally speaking, I really enjoyed this collection. It’s the sort of thing I wish I’d been able to read growing up, where there are no tragic lesbians and everything ends on a hopeful note. There’s a lightness to the stories, no doubt helped by the motif of flying running through the collection. The protagonists are young girls growing and expanding into new and lovely creatures. (Or people, depending on the story).

On an individual basis, a few stories really stood out for me. (Some spoiler-y quotes to follow)

In “When We Flew,” our heroine Ola lives in a tiny village where everyone is born with wings, but they’re considered shameful appendages, fit only to be removed at 17. I was struck by some really gorgeous turns of phrase:

“And on the scheduled day of Removing, I removed myself. I flew on wings that had been destined for dust but grazed the stars instead.”

This particular quote is fairly typical of the narrative style, so if you prefer very precise, concrete prose, the writing might not be for you.

Both “Aphrodite Has A Daughter” and “Flower Constancy” are two stories that I would love to see expanded, whether just into a longer form or into a full novel. “Aphrodite” is a short retelling of the meeting of Eros and Psyche, where Eros is the jaded daughter of Aphrodite, the embodiment of “love-in-action.” I would absolutely love to see a lesbian retelling of the full story of Eros and Psyche, particularly in Diemer’s style. “Flower Constancy” is a historical that actually ends happily for two young women in England. I didn’t get a firm sense of what time period it was set in, but the descriptions of the house and the butterfly garden make me think Victorian.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Winged Things if you enjoy speculative and fantasy short stories, and it’s definitely suitable for young teens and up.

girlonthestairs

This book was my first thriller in a while if not ever and this affected how I saw this book. I had some reservations when I started reading this, due to the mixed reviews. I have to say that overall I enjoyed it.

This book is about Jane, who is pregnant and lived with her partner Petra in Germany. Jane starts having suspicions and investigates the neighbours daughter who she thinks is being abused. The fact that they are a same-sex couple is not the focus of the book though, and I quite liked that- the background was there but it was not that part of Jane’s identity that was explored.

The book is convincing and you almost start thinking that Jane is paranoid, until the last twists which I thought were executed quite well. Almost none of the characters are likeable, especially Petra and Tielo but also Jane, however, towards the end you start understanding them more and feeling sympathetic towards them.

The ending is a mix of tragedy and happiness. At points it is also heartbreaking and frustrating that a girl is being abused, and no one believes Jane. This thriller also makes you aware of the plight that dependent people face. In a way, it is quite real.

Another good touch were the words in German and the descriptions of places which gave more background and more layers to the story. The words were as if someone was trying to learn or re-learn German, by labelling some things in the language to practice. As someone that knows basic German, this reminded me of what I do.

I read this in a day for a reading challenge and was quite easy to go through. The short chapters did wonders for my short attention span, so if like me, you find long chapters to be difficult, this book should be for you (especially if you like thrillers and chills). Will definitely try the other books by Louise Welsh that have a queer touch.

PayingGuestsSarah Waters is my favourite author, with Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith tied as my all-time favourite books. When I discovered her books, she had already published four novels, which I rapidly devoured. In 2010 she released another book, The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed, but was less eager to get my hands on because it was her first novel with no lesbian content. So ever since I heard about The Paying Guests being released I’ve been chomping at the bit for a chance to read a brand new (lesbian) Sarah Waters novel. It’s one of the very few books that I immediately bought the day it was released. And then, oddly, it sat on my shelf for about a month. My excitement to read it has transformed into a kind of dread. I haven’t read a Sarah Waters book for 4 years: longer than that since I read a lesbian book of hers, which was back when I was a teenager. What if it wasn’t as good as the others? What if I don’t like her writing as much as I used to and it’s not like I remember?

So I went into The Paying Guests with a lot of expectation, though very little knowledge of the plot. I knew it was set in 1920s London, and that involved a woman who takes in a young couple as lodgers, and that there was lesbian content. As I started to read, I relaxed a little. Sarah Waters has a skill of establishing place and mood, and I was soon submerged in the setting, which is different than the more freewheeling flapper stories that I’ve previously read about set in this time period. For Frances, the main character, the Victorian era isn’t that far in the past. I also instantly loved Frances, who struggles to take care of a huge house as well as her aging mother, but still remembers her life when she wasn’t so tied down. The paragraph were Frances first charmed me was

There were spells of restless now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires… But they were physical matters mostly, and she had no last-century inhibitions about dealing with that sort of thing. It was amazing, in fact, she reflected, as she repositioned her mat and bucket and started on a new stretch of tile, it was astonishing how satisfactory the business could be taken care of, even in the middle of the day, even with her mother in the house, simply by slipping up to her bedroom for an odd few minutes, perhaps as a break between peeling parsnips or while waiting for dough to rise–

A movement in the turn of the staircase made her start. She had forgotten all about her lodgers. Now she looked up through the banisters to Mrs Barber just coming uncertainly down.

She felt herself blush, as if caught out.

It’s interesting how the feel of the time period seems to straddle the line between historical and modern, which was interesting to compare to Waters’s previous books. I found myself thinking that I would love to read them in order of the time period in which each book is set, because she seems to convey the subtle attitude changes through the decades so well.

I enjoyed the romance as well, which seemed natural and compelling, though occasionally verging on the soap operatic. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the overall tone to the book, which is fairly bleak. It feels similar to Affinity in that way. Most of the book revolves around an event that happens about a third of the way through the book, and because I wasn’t expecting that to be the focus, I was thrown. Even after finishing the book a couple of days ago, I still feel like I’m processing it. It is an excellent book, which definitely lives up to her previous books, but it felt emotionally jarring to me, which is probably because I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark. I would still recommend this one, but I wouldn’t start here as your first Sarah Waters novel.

The rest of my thoughts are spoilers. Highlight to read. I definitely wasn’t expecting The Paying Guests to get so bleak. The description of falling in love is sweet, if realistically syrupy. But the descriptions of falling out of love, of finding yourself hating the person you love, of finding yourself becoming someone you never thought you would be–they were absolutely cutting. Sarah Waters doesn’t just understand setting, she really knows how to portray tangled, messy human emotions. And that–more than the murder, more than the trials–was what horrified me in The Paying Guests. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I definitely found myself on Lillian’s side more than Frances’s. Frances lashing out at Lillian, beginning to treat her in ways reminiscent of Leonard, it inspired a visceral disgust in me. At the same time, though, I could all too easily understand why Frances was acting the way she was, and could relate in ways that I didn’t want to.

I thought that the ending would really determine what I thought of the book overall. I couldn’t see how Waters could possibly write an ending that was emotionally satisfying, but she managed to find pretty much the only ending that could have worked. It’s more bitter than sweet, but there’s still an element of hope, and maybe some redemption. It didn’t erase the gut reaction I had to the story, though, which I feel like I’m still carrying around. I wasn’t sure how to rate this book after I read it, because it seems unfair to mark it down for being too emotionally affecting, but I also don’t know how to look at it objectively. In the end, I have to think that anything that evokes this kind of response has to be recognized, at the very least, as incredibly skilled. If you feel like having you heart very slowly torn out, pick up The Paying Guests.

BeingEmily

 

I feel very conflicted about this book. When I first heard about it, I was really excited to read it, because it is the first young adult book with a trans girl narrator, plus the main character is a lesbian. There are very few trans lesbian books, so they also get bumped up my reading list. When I heard that the author is cis, I was a little apprehensive, which I always am when reading a book about a minority identity that the author doesn’t share. Then when I initially read it, I was disappointed. Although it was compelling, I had a lot of issues with it, particularly the vocabulary used (which may be regional, but I haven’t heard anyone ever refer to themselves as a “survivor of transsexualism”, and the word “transsexual” itself I very rarely hear), and the ample amount of space given to Emily’s girlfriend’s initial transphobic response to Emily coming out. After that, I Rachel Gold’s second novel, Just Girls, fully expecting to dislike it. Instead, I loved it. I then discovered tons of rave reviews of Being Emily from all over, including many reviews by trans women themselves, and found out that there were many trans women beta readers who worked with Rachel Gold in shaping Being Emily. As a cisgender person, I obviously make no claim to the authenticity of a depiction of the experience of being trans.

So, I feel muddled about Being Emily. (Much more so now, because I put off reviewing Being Emily due to my ambivalence about it, and then discovered that my glitchy Kobo had helpfully erased all of my extensive highlighting and notes that I took while reading it.) Although I absolutely give precedence to trans women’s reviews of this book, I’ll share my experience with it anyways, in case it’s helpful to anyone.

One of the first things that struck me about the novel was that I wasn’t sure who it was aimed at. Almost half of the book is from the perspective of Claire, Emily’s girlfriend, who at first reacts pretty badly to Emily’s coming out. We read pages of her transphobic tirades complete with religious justification and sketchy ideas of biological truths before she comes around. This may be accurate to many people’s experience, but I cringed reading it, and I can’t imagine slogging through that as someone coming to terms with their own gender identity.

It’s also quite bleak, and again, though it may be realistic for many people for their parents to react badly and for the coming out process to be negative, as a personal preference that’s not the world I want to escape to in a book. Again, this is completely personal, but I have long ago gotten tired of reading lesbian YA that is focused on how awful it is to come out. And maybe it’s unfair to bring that into reading a trans narrative, where there are so few stories at the moment, and where the reality is bleaker than the average cis lesbian experience.

Another element that I personally didn’t enjoy was Claire’s Christianity being focused on quite a bit in her sections. One detail I did enjoy was the freedom that Emily experiences in gaming/the internet, especially World of Warcraft. This is explored more in Just Girls, and I liked it even more there.

I learned from the author that Being Emily was first drafted ten years ago, which explains some of the outdated terms. I’m still not sure how to think about this one. Although I’ve lost all my notes, I remember highlighting many of Claire’s passages, being horrified at her callousness, and questioning some other lines for not seeming realistic to how I’ve heard trans people present themselves, but at the same time, I’ve read multiple trans women’s positive reviews of this title, and no negative reviews by trans people, so I have to chalk it up to my own preferences at least in part. I did absolutely love Just Girls, though, and recommend that one wholeheartedly.

TwixtbySarahDiemer

Sarah Diemer is an author that I am pretty familiar with from her online presence, but I’ve only read one book by her, The Dark Wife. One of my favourite Booktubers, Jessie Quinn from Cup of Books, reviewed Twixt pretty positively and recommended it as an October read, so I figured it would be a good one to pick up during Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. (Now that all the links are out of the way…)

Twixt is a sort of dystopic fantasy young adult book. It drops you immediately into this world of Sleepers and Snatchers, a walled in town where monsters swoop in and snatch people who try to leave, a place where hair is bartered like money and memories are drugs. It’s overwhelming at first, and I spent most of the novella trying to get my bearings. This is a story that I feel like is based around the world and setting. Although the characters are interesting, I didn’t feel like they were fully realized. I also appreciated a lesbian romance in this setting, but because I didn’t feel connected to the characters, I wasn’t invested in the romance, either.

Because the setting is so unique, the whole time I was reading it I thought that the ending/explanation would really determine how I felt about the novella as a whole. The explanation is satisfying in that it is fittingly odd, and does make sense for the story, but afterward I felt like some elements were unnecessary (spoiler, highlight to read: specifically the doubling of the sixers–the two-as-one thing seemed unexplained and unneeded. Also some details like the rivalry between the houses felt superfluous).

Overall, I found the story interesting and intriguing, but I wanted more from it: more development of the characters and more detail of the setting. I would have liked to see this fleshed out into a novel-length work. It feels like the bare bones of a richer, more thorough narrative. But this may just be my own experience. In addition to Jessie’s review, also check out Katie’s very positive review at the Lesbrary.

downontheotherstreet

 

This short story collection focuses primarily on bisexual characters, and all but one of the stories star a bisexual woman. Bi and pansexual women often get short shrift as characters, and it was great to read about bi women as main characters. The women in Cie’s stories were portrayed as everything from unapologetic to in love to angry to vulnerable, and above all, completely human. Just five stories long, and some of them quite short, this book is a quick read. It’s also affecting. Cie is an excellent writer with a lovely command of language. This self-published book does have a handful of typos, and my copy had a formatting error that put one page in the wrong story, which distracts slightly from the excellent quality of the work.

Four of the stories are written to a “you,” casting the reader in a role important to the narrator. I found this technique confusing in the brief, furious story, “F&F.” The vignette “The Five: Time With Red Freckles” pulled it off better, though I wished the story were a little longer and included more background information. “Intellectuals Are Fools,” a story documenting every person the narrator had ever kissed and retelling the tales to a former caretaker, reminded me a little of a Thought Catalogue article circa 2012. (That can be good or bad depending on your preferences). The technique worked best in the opening story “The Photo.” This moving relationship story makes the reader the beloved, and is the only story with a male narrator. By the end of “The Photo,” I had tears in my eyes. It managed to be touching without being cloying, and to be sweet while still remaining honest.

The final story, “The Blue Bullet,” about an extra marital, interracial relationship in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was the longest and most fully realized. I dare you to read it without having your heartbroken at least a little. Though many of the characters in this collection are searching for acceptance of their whole selves, the protagonist in this tale stands firm in her own identity, refusing to be defined by anyone else. The story was complete, but I found myself wishing it were a novel so I could dive deeper in the story.

I highly recommend this short story collection. It’s beautifully written, emotionally engaging, and puts bisexual women center stage. I’m also going to be on the look out for more from Jennifer Cie. She’s a writer worth reading.

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