Megan Casey reviews Tell Me What You Like by Kate Allen

 

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From a few things I had read about her books, I expected Kate Allen to write about “big tough butches in leather jackets they never took off.” In fact, that’s exactly what Officer Allison Kaine thought when she found herself in a bar full of leather-clad lesbians. What she discovers (and what I discovered) is that leather dykes range anywhere between “packing” ultra-butches and submissive lipstick lesbians. Some are lawyers, some work in animal shelters, some may even be police officers. The trick is in how well they are captured in the writing, and Allen makes each of her characters not only come alive, but come alive with interest. One of the many things I really liked about this book is that Allison and I are learning the same things at the same time, having the same questions—first wary, then joyous—about what it would be like to be part of this odd enclave of leather dykes that even other lesbians shy away from. In fact, an important subplot of this book is the way in which lesbians who are not into the S/M theme disapprove of the practice as a form of violence against women.

The story begins when one of these leather dykes is murdered outside one of Denver’s lesbian bars. Because Officer Allison Kaine routinely patrols this bar, she gets involved in the case—much to the anger of the cops actually assigned to it. Allison is uncomfortable with the assignment until she gets to know several of the regular attendees of “leather night” at the bar. One of these, Stacy Ross, is a paid dominatrix whose business card reads: “Anastasia—Tell Me What You Like.” And wouldn’t you know it; against her better judgment, Allison ends up falling for her.

Meanwhile, other dykes (Allen rarely if ever uses the word “lesbian”) are being killed—dykes that had a tie to her new friend Stacy. If Allison doesn’t find the killer soon, Stacy may be arrested for the crimes.

Allison’s investigative technique is one of her strongest features. While interviewing suspects, she often delves internally into the philosophy of interrogation. For instance, here she is questioning one of the suspects’ partners: “The trick with this kind was to handle her gently, not excite her to the point where she wouldn’t speak. Playing it right was crucial; this woman would tell her everything she knew if she thought it would protect her girlfriend.” What Allison ultimately finds (and what I—what we as readers find) is a community of women whose lifestyles may seem strange, but who deal with the same emotions and foibles and self-doubts as the rest of us.

It is refreshing that Allison is simply a police officer, not a lieutenant or a detective as is true of so many other lesbian mystery protagonists (see Kate Delafield, Carol Ashton, Caitlin Reece, Rebecca Frye, Frank Franco, et al). Women can be strong role modes without having a high rank. Similarly, Tell Me What You Like is one of the strongest entries in the lesbian mystery field.

Allen’s use of first-person point of view is done so well that I no longer feel guilty for taking other authors to task when it is done poorly—which is often if you have read my other reviews. No awkward internal dialogue or descriptions of random minutiae. In fact the book as a whole is as close to A+ as you can get without being perfect. I only noticed one segue glitch, where a proofreader or typesetter screwed up, and a section near the end where an editor seems to have talked Allen into having the murderer go on and on in his confession, revealing details that are not brought out in the story—details that would have changed the tenor of the investigation. It was bad advice.

Still, almost everything about this book is first rate; the professional writing, the S/M vs non-S/M debate, and the intense characterizations make this an important book. Kate Allen and her character Allison Kaine are among those solidly within the pantheon of lesbian mystery icons.

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

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Link Round Up: June 8 – 15

batwoman   starringkitty   NobleFalling   underthelights   lumberjanes

AfterEllen posted The queer female characters of DC Comics and Lesbian/Bi Stories Can Absolutely Be Universal.

Autostraddle posted Drawn to Comics: A Lumberjanes Movie! and Lez Liberty Lit #74: Making Friends With Owls.

Gay YA posted Queer YA Scrabble is here! and New Releases: June 2015.

Women and Words posted Coming Attractions, July 2015 and Hot off the Press, June 2015.

Silhouette of a Sparrow   lieswetellourselves   YouSetMeOnFire   payingguests   BeingEmily

Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home musical getting a Tony award is being written about all over, including Playbill and Autostraddle.

Malinda Lo posted My short story, “The Cure,” is now available at Interfictions.

Sarah Waters wrote about her process of creating The Paying Guests at The Guardian.

“True Colors: Mighty Girl Books for Pride Month” was posted at A Mighty Girl.

“Representation Trumps Spoilers: Comics and Queer Invisibility”was posted at Panels.

“LGBTQ in YoungCanLit” was posted at CanLit for LittleCanadians.

breadoutofstone   rightsideofhistory   barrierstolove   londoncalling   ghostnetwork

Bread Out of Stone by Dionne Brand was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

The Right Side of History: 100 Years if LGBTQI Activism edited by Adrian Brooks was reviewed at the feminist librarian.

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

London Calling by Clare Lydon was reviewed at AfterEllen.

Soul Selecta by Gill McKnight was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Part One: My Own Private Portland by Annie Murphy was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Barriers to Love: Embracing a Bisexual Identity by Marina Peralta was reviewed at Bi Magazine.

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.

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Amanda Clay reviews Femme by Mette Bach

 

femme

Knowledge is power. Sofie, however, has always felt pretty powerless, at least when it comes to academics. She enjoys school—playing soccer and hanging out with her cute, popular boyfriend Paul. And even though she and her single mom don’t have a lot of extra money, their home is loving and stable. But now, close to graduation, she realizes that her world is changing. The time she spends with Paul isn’t what it used to be, and her mother is beginning to pressure her about the future. When Sofie gets paired with her high school’s star student Clea, she is sure this is the final straw. Until she realizes something else. Clea’s the only out lesbian at school, and once she and Sofie start working together, Sofie begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself, what she’s capable of, and what she might become. A road trip with Clea to scout potential universities kicks off an avalanche of self-discovery, one which sweeps away her old life and just about everyone in it.

I wanted to like Femme, and while I didn’t actually hate it, I was unable to muster much feeling one way or the other.  It’s a hi/lo title (high interest, low reading level) but that classification doesn’t mean that the book must be shallow and simplistic. Unfortunately, Femme is just that. Everything happens too quickly, too easily. Time zooms along. On one page it’s Christmas, on the next page it’s months later with no inkling of anything that might have occurred in the interim. Character development seems limited to a few signifiers: Clea is a good student!  Sofie is a foodie (who never really talks about food or cooks anything after declaring herself a foodie)!  Paul is handsome and popular! Along we cruise towards the predictable end of the story. Coming out stories still have their place in LGBT lit, but it is not unfair to expect more from them these days than mere self-discovery. Sofie’s story offers nothing more than that, and even the self-discovery is as insubstantial as every other aspect of the book. It seems like Sofie comes out because the author decided to write a story about a girl coming out. No stress, no struggle, just another plot point and on we go.

The world needs stories. We especially need lesbian stories, lesbian stories of butch women, women of color and size and age, stories of self-discovery and first love. We need all of this, and while Femme tries hard to deliver, ultimately I believe we can do better.

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Audrey reviews Maplecroft: the Borden Dispatches by Cherie Priest

maplecroft

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and then she killed her father and stepmother, and then she used her inheritance to buy a big house called Maplecroft. Parts one and three of that sentence happened in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. Part two is debatable. She was acquitted.

In Cherie Priest’s world, there are strange goings on in Fall River. The Bordens knew it. Their family doctor knew it. Outside investigator Simon Wolf (who does he work for, again?) might know it. And Lizzie is determined to save the town that turned its back on her. The story is told through the main characters’ journal entries, and chapters alternate among voices.

Penguin labels this paperback original a fantasy. You might find it in horror. It’ll be in some genre section. This was my first Priest book, and it boasts the holy trinity: Lizzie, Lovecraft, and lesbians. Once Lizzie Borden meets Lovecraftian horror, there is really no going back. The actual Lizzie’s story is creepy enough, as is the actual Maplecroft. Add the words “Miskatonic University” and a full-blown relationship between Lizzie and Nance O’Neill (the actress with whom Lizzie was rumored to have had an affair), and this takes off into the stratosphere.

Priest’s Lizzie is…more physically able, perhaps, and attractive, perhaps, than Lizzie Borden historically was. This Lizzie is straightforward and capable, if a little liable to fly off the handle (sorry), and she makes a good monster fighter. This Lizzie would make a fascinating addition to, say, a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (in print, not onscreen). She’s complemented by her older sister Emma, who’s chronically ill but mentally exceedingly sharp and fit. Emma makes a lousy monster hunter, but a great scientist. Unfortunately, it’s not quite 1900 in New England. Thus, while Lizzie fights monsters, Emma coolly assumes a male persona who carries on academic correspondence and publishes research papers in respected journals. It is this correspondence that serves as a catalyst for the adventure in this book, although the evil that comes to Fall River was already creeping in. Emma simply helped unleash it sooner.

The household is tense. Emma’s very happy with her counterfeit persona (almost excessively so–this is fascinating, but unexplored), and she disapproves of Lizzie’s romantic relationship with young actress Nance. Nance is indeed somewhat of a flibbertigibbet, which will complicate things for everyone, but her affection for Lizzie is real. And Lizzie’s love for Nance is real, too. But that’s not the primary concern here. There’s a Big Bad in town, and a Bigger Bad on the way, and we get to see what our new heroine is made of.

Chapelwood: the Borden dispatches (#2), is due in September. Lizzie’s next adventure takes her to Alabama. The setting doesn’t make my pulse race, but Priest has already done the New England thing, and she’s done it well, so why rehash? I get it. And I’ll still read the second one. Maplecroft offers a fresh take on the monster hunter concept, and more importantly, the take-away message here is this: it was terrific fun.

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Elinor reviews Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal

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I love reading about relationships, sex, and queer women. I especially like to read about lesbian marriage, since I’m one of the only women I know who’s married to a woman. I was incredibly excited about Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit. Written by a married lesbian couple who have been together for nearly thirty years, I thought this book would offer unique insight and be fun to read. Sadly, Lesbian Marriage was an exercise in disappointment, starting with the title. “Kit” implies something along the lines of a workbook, with activities or writing exercises to complete. I was eager to try these but other than a few lines in the three chapters of introduction, there weren’t any activities or exercises for readers. The rest of book breaks down into twelve chapters about different relationship challenges, each beginning with a story of a queer woman or couple, followed by the authors’ thoughts on the story, then a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts,” a weird illustration, and occasionally a blank page with “Notes, Scribbles, Doodles” written across the top. The authors called the advice section a “Toolkit” for reasons I didn’t understand. It turned out to be one of many things I didn’t understand about this book.

Clocking in at just 138 pages, and more than a dozen of these blank pages or tangentially related illustrations, there isn’t a lot of meat this book, and none of the topics go very deep. Chernin and Stendhal picked twelve topics to explore, with no explanation for why they selected these particular issues. Some of these, like extramarital desire or the impact of grudges on your sex life, seem pretty universal. Others, like a chapter called “The Genital Corset” (which is not as interesting as it sounds) about a woman who is mad at her partner because the partner doesn’t have orgasms with her, were overly specific. Meanwhile, topics I expected—like body image, identity, pregnancy and parenthood, disability and health issues, STIs, BDSM, non-monogamy, and past abuse and sexual assault—were either not addressed or presented in bizarre extremes. Lesbians raising children appear only in the story of a couple living in a two-bedroom house with their four adult daughters, two of the daughters’ partners, and a grandchild. None of the couples in the household had the privacy they needed, obviously, and this had a negative impact on all the couples’ sex lives, but the story was so over the top that I had trouble applying the lessons from the chapter to my own life.

In a chapter called “Butch and Femme: The Habit of Roles,” the couple discusses their difficulties around their elaborate sexual role play, but the role of power dynamics in a marriage is barely examined. Despite the chapter title, butch and femme identities are simply treated as synonyms for “top” and “bottom” respectively. As a femme this reductionism bothered me. I think the authors were using this story to make a point about getting stuck in limited roles, but conflating this with the identities of butch and femme was not helpful, and I was unclear how the couple was actually resolving the tension in their relationship.

I also didn’t understand how the authors found the couples in this book. Often the authors described these stories as being reconstructed from “listening sessions,” but never explained what a listening session is. Are they therapists writing about their patients? Are these their friends? Couples they found while researching the book? They gave no context to the couples, and sometimes didn’t even give the women names, which was confusing.

The strongest stories were about Chernin and Stendhal’s relationship, including their powerful tale of weathering Chernin’s affair with a younger woman. However, nearly every Chernin/Stendhal story describes a way their relationship either improved or works well, and most of the other couples’ stories seem to show people who are doing things wrong and struggling. It read to me as smugness from the authors, rather than real illustrations of lesbian couples who worked out challenges in their marriages.

I had trouble determining who the intended audience was supposed to be. Some chapters seemed aimed at older, long-time partners, while others seemed focused on women in new relationships deciding whether or not to commit to marriage. One chapter was about young single queer woman who was ambivalent about the concept of marriage entirely. None of it seemed aimed at a queer newlywed like me. This might explain why I heartily disagreed with some of their “Toolkit” advice. I found it irritating that they offered up prescriptions about marriage that left no room for a differing philosophy of relationships, while presenting them in a “Do” and “Don’t” list that didn’t explain why they’d come to these conclusions.

Their advice sometimes contradicted other advice they’d given. In early chapters, they tell readers to make sex a priority even if you’re busy or not feeling especially sexual. Later they present the story of a woman who wants a sexless marriage, though her wife does not, as a jumping off point for assuring the reader that it’s okay to stop having sex if that’s what you want. They offered no suggestions for the partner who didn’t want or expect a sexless marriage, or when to make sex a priority and when to embrace celibacy. Desire discrepancy is very common, and I expected them to address it with a little more consideration and creativity in a book with the words “sex survival” in the subtitle.

Their conclusions didn’t always seem to line up with the story they chose for the chapter either, with frustrating results. One of the most obvious examples of the authors missing the point of the story was a chapter about a cisgender woman who is uncomfortable that her boi partner is considering transitioning and/or having top surgery. The couple is also debating getting married, but the woman—the only half of the couple we hear from—does not want her partner to transition or identify as male. Chernin and Stendhal use this story to tell readers that marriage does not fix your relationship problems. It seemed to me that the issue wasn’t this at all, and the woman’s concern was about signing on for a marriage with someone whose self-identification and appearance might change. She was quite ignorant about trans and gender variant people too, which was putting strain on relationship with a gender variant (and possibly trans) partner. The authors could have used this story to make a broader, yet relevant, point if they’d acknowledged that one of the scary things about marriage is that you committing to someone who you know will grow and change–and that you’ll change too. You don’t get a guarantee who either of you will be in twenty years let alone what you’ll look like, which is something every married person wrestles with. Or the authors could have focused on the genuine, specific concerns around gender in a useful way. As far as I know, there isn’t a book about how to be a decent partner to someone who is gender variant and/or trans (if there is, please let me know in the comments!). A book like that is sorely needed, and this story could have been followed up with thoughtful, appropriate, and helpful advice on the subject. Instead, the authors seemed like they hadn’t read the story. Plus the woman used some transphobic language in the story that could have been edited out or responded to by the authors, but was simply glossed over. I was disturbed that the woman’s partner wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. It was a pretty raw story, and wasn’t handled with the care it warranted.

Similarly, the story in a chapter about not holding grudges featured an interracial couple from different class backgrounds. The conversation with peppered with microaggressions from the wealthier white partner, and the authors didn’t challenge these comments or discuss the impact these might be having on the relationship. Even when the woman of color called her partner out on a particularly racist comment, Chernin and Stendhal didn’t back her up, which make me lose respect for them. It was pretty clear to me from reading this story that the problem wasn’t just about holding grudges. The white woman was hurting her partner over and over and failing to acknowledge it, and it was destroying their relationship. How could the authors present themselves as experts without seeing this? Chernin and Stendhal chose these couples to write about, and chose to include problematic comments, so they should deal with what these couples said. The fact that they didn’t is troubling.

Occasionally this book has common sense advice, but you can find common sense relationship advice on Autostraddle or in the partnership chapter of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, with more suggestions for putting it into practice. Skip Lesbian Marriage.

1/5 stars
 
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Link Round Up: June 1 – 7

lambda_literary_award-33013Ah, the Lambda Literary awards. Every year I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation looking for the winners and the recap of the ceremony, which was Monday June 1st. Excitement because these awards are the be all end all of queer literary awards, and I love to see LGBTQ writers being recognized. Trepidation because they always seem to fuck up somehow, especially when it comes to trans and bisexual folks, as well as people of colour. The winners were officially announced today on their website. Why don’t we start with the good and I’ll save the bad for last?

– Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian posted Some Thoughts on the 27th Lambda Literary Awards.

In a highlight that may only appeal to me, I am unreasonable excited to find out that Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue, one of my all-time favourite books, has been adapted into a book of plays!

WhereWordsEnd   Yabo   aintgonnaletnobody   mysteriousacts   safegirltolove

AfterEllen posted Lesbian superheroes slay in comic book series “The Pride”.

Afterwritten posted Queer YA Scrabble: Intro.

Autostraddle posted Read a F*cking Book: Amber Dawn’s “Where The Words End And My Body Begins”.

Gay YA posted New Releases: May 2015.

Lambda Literary posted 27th Annual Lambda Literary Award Winners Announced!

funhomemusical   guidetopride   nogoodreason   damagecontrol   setpiece

“Why ‘Fun Home’ Speaks to Me” was posted at Huffington Post.

“Lonely Planet’s Guide to Pride: 20 Cities & Their Celebrations” is available for free on iBooks.

No Good Reason by Cari Hunter was reviewed by Clare Ashton.

Damage Control by Jae was reviewed at The Rainbow Hub.

The Set Piece by Catherine Lane was reviewed at The Rainbow Hub.

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.

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Danika reviews Kynship (The Way of Thorn and Thunder #1) by Daniel Heath Justice

kynshipThis was a book that I wanted to like much more than I did. I picked it up solely because of Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s rave review. Casey did warn that readers unfamiliar with fantasy will probably face a barrier to getting into Kynship, so I was expecting that, but unfortunately for me it never quite clicked.

By the far the best part about this book was the world. It’s a vast, richly-imagined world, informed by First Nations (specifically Cherokee) history and culture, but also complex in its own right. I loved the thought was put into that, but it did feel overwhelming at times, like this book was trying to do too many things at once. Specifically, the point that really prevented me from being absorbed in the story was the constant perspective shifts. By the halfway point, the novel is told from about 15 different perspectives. Some overlap by the end, but others don’t connect in this volume. I was expecting one main character, as the blurb on the back describes, but I felt like I spent so little time with her (Tarsa) that I didn’t get a chance to know her–which goes double for the characters that only get a few pages of their story told in the whole book.

I know this was completely a matter of personal taste: I can definitely see what other people see in this series, but it just wasn’t for me. I loved the Native take on fantasy, and I was especially interested in the zhe-kin, who go by zhe/hirs pronouns. I appreciate that there is a Native fantasy series out there with a bisexual female protagonist, but overall this felt scattered to me. If this book were expanded so that each character got a little more page time, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

That’s just my opinion, though, and if you’re at all intrigued, I recommend checking out Casey’s review as well.

 

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