betteroffred

 

I don’t read a lot of romance or erotica, but I figured that this month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I would give the genre another shot. I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this one: vampire sorority sisters? I’m in. And for the most part, this is exactly the kind of smutty, light read I was looking for. I would say this leans more to the erotica side of things, because there is usually sex every couple of pages.

Part of the reason that I enjoyed this more than I was expecting was the voice. I liked the little bits of humor thrown in to Ginger’s inner monologue, like her musing that “Maybe it was the right moment to tell Amy I was seventy-seven percent sure I was a lesbian.” I also felt like the characters were strong and compelling, including many of the side characters. I’m really looking forward to the sequel that focuses on Cleo (and Benny), because she was my favourite supporting character. There is also quite a bit of racial diversity in the supporting characters, which I appreciated, and it was interesting to see how all these different personalities dealt with the same unusual situation.

I also was somewhat unfairly influenced because I have been watching Mark Reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and that book sets a spectacularly low bar. But especially in contrast to that experience, I really liked the dynamic between Ginger and Camila. (Yes, the lesbian vampire love interest is named Camila. I appreciated the nod to the classic lesbian vampire story.) Camila is a vampire and has significantly more power and influence than Ginger, but they still manage to have what I considered a healthy relationship. There is a push and pull between them, but Ginger feels capable of setting limits and they both communicate honestly. I can definitely see what Ginger gets out of the relationship. (And despite the plethora of sex scenes, they didn’t get too repetitive.)

My only real problem with the book was the plot. For one thing, if I discovered that hell, demons, and God were all real, I would have some follow-up questions no matter how distracting by hot new vampire girlfriend was, but Ginger doesn’t seem curious at all about the details of this. The plot moves fairly slowly through most of the book, but I was enjoying being immersed in the world and in Ginger and Camila’s relationship. The end of the book, however, packs a lot into a short space, and it felt rushed to me. I would have liked to see it more evenly plotted throughout the book, but overall I really enjoyed this and will definitely be picking up the sequel.

forgivemeifivetoldyouthisbefore

Forgive me if I am entirely naïve, but before reading this book, I did not give much thought to the fact that Oregon was once cruel and unwelcoming to its lesbian and gay residents. In 1989, however, Triinu is living in a town set on passing Ballot Measure 9, and it seems like more residents are for the anti-gay law than against it.

Even before Triinu officially comes out as “the only goth dyke in the Grass Seed Capital,” her principal and classmates target her as a lesbian, taunting her and making high school virtually unbearable. Luckily, Triinu decides to own her status as an outcast, rebranding herself as a goth and hoping to be just weird enough to scare the bullies away.

Parts of this novel were definitely reminiscent of The Miseducation of Cameron Post – Triinu feels similarly isolated in her hometown, and it is the friends she makes on her road to acceptance that help her to come to terms with her identity. There are so many complicated aspects of Triinu’s background – she is Estonian, religious, goth and queer, and therefore on the fringes of nearly all rural Oregon’s social groups. In true high school form, however, Triinu befriends people from a multitude of backgrounds throughout the novel. These diverse outcasts who float in and out of Triinu’s life deeply affect her views of herself and the world, and help her to know herself better by the end.

I thought that the portrayal of Triinu’s first love (and, ultimately, first heartbreak) was especially well written; while the relationship was deeply flawed and often one-sided, I thought it captured the complexities of falling in love while still trying to come to terms with your own identity. In many ways, the eventual break-up is a catalyst for Triinu to realize she deserves real love, and the impetus for her to seek it with renewed energy.

Another relationship that I thought was unique and special was that of Triinu and her parents. It was refreshing for me to read about a teenager who genuinely enjoyed spending time with her deeply intellectual and quirky parents, and the love and trust between the family was clear. When Triinu gets herself in a variety of tough situations, her parents are always willing to believe in their daughter and to stand up for her, even if they do not fully understand her choices.

Perhaps my favorite parts of this novel are the times when Triinu reflects on her religious beliefs and the greater meaning of the world. As a queer Catholic who has been reluctant to give up her religious identity, it was very reassuring to me that Triinu is not doubtful of God’s love for her, and that her rationalization of her sexuality is always consistent with her idea of how the world works. Triinu’s philosophical musings were some of the most beautifully written and poetic parts of the book, and I really enjoyed following her on her journey.

nightwatch

Like basically every other queer lady bookworm my age, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith matter to me. Until recently, though, I hadn’t tried Sarah Waters’ other work.  I read The Night Watch on a whim, and I’m glad I did. This quiet slice-of-life novel is slow, but I fell in love with the characters. This novel is told backwards, starting with a couple weeks in 1947, then covering a few months in 1944, and finally showing the events of a handful of days in 1941. It tells the intersecting tales of three women and one young man in London. Each is, in their own way, privately reeling from past hurt, and the reasons for their pain are teased out over the course of the book.

The novel opens with Kay, a masculine lesbian who is renting a flat from a faith healer. Kay spends her days walking, going to the movies, and visiting a friend she met as an ambulance driver during the war. The story soon shifts to Viv and Helen, friendly colleagues who each have secrets. Helen lives with her girlfriend, a writer named Julia, but to the world they pretend they are only friends. Viv has illicitly been seeing her boyfriend, Reggie, for years, and their once passionate relationship has fizzled. The narration also focuses on Viv’s brother, Duncan, a young man living with an older man who he calls his uncle. Duncan works in a factory, and once a week takes his “uncle” to the faith healer below Kay’s flat. When Duncan unexpectedly encounters someone from his past, it threatens to upend his life as well as Viv’s.  Each character’s post-war life is presented matter-of-factly and with a tinge of mystery of what how exactly they ended up with their present struggles. Why is Kay lost and depressed? What keeps Viv with Reggie? Why is Helen so paranoid about her relationship with Julia? Why is Duncan underachieving and living with this “uncle”? What connects Viv, Helen, Duncan, and Kay?

The story then moves back years earlier, during the war, and provides a dramatically different view of the same characters and their relationships. The bulk of the story takes place in this period and reveals most of the reasons for their post-war malaise. Finally, the novel concludes with a single event in each character’s life that placed them on their course.

The book was heartbreaking and very beautiful. I loved the inventive structure and once I was invested, I cared about the characters. The horrors of the blitz are portrayed in visceral detail, as are other private horrors that the characters face. Discovering how each character ended up in their situation is fascinating, and incredibly sad. Waters knows how to evoke emotion without being cloying or sentimental, and she does not pull punches with this book.

I loved it, but other readers may find The Night Watch too depressing. I felt emotionally drained when I finished it. For me, it was worth it, but fans of happy endings might disagree. Whether or not you enjoy the book depends largely on the degree to which you engage with the characters, and not everyone will like these reserved Londoners and their private struggles. This is not a novel with an action-packed plot, which keeps the reader close to the main characters. If you don’t connect with the characters during the 1947 section, you probably won’t enjoy hundreds more pages with them. If you appreciate them, however, the book is haunting. I particularly felt for Kay, a gallant butch with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, whose bravery was essential in World War II but seems to have no place in 1947. I rarely see characters like Kay, even in lesbian books, though she incredibly true to people I’ve known in real life. I sometimes wished the book was just Kay’s story plus Helen’s, as I found Viv and Duncan sort of boring initially. By the end Viv and Duncan won me over, and Duncan’s 1941 scene was incredibly powerful and emotionally devastating, but Kay was still my favorite.

Did I like The Night Watch more than my long-standing Sarah Waters favorites? No, but it was gorgeous. I highly recommend it. Just keep some tissues handy.

justgirls   funhome   safegirltolove

AfterEllen posted Alison Bechdel illustrates her experience watching “Fun Home: The Musical”.

Autostraddle posted Lez Liberty Lit #65: Books In Boxes.

Babbling About Books posted 2015 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event Overview (#LFAE2015).

Lambda Literary posted A Look at the Bureau of General Services–Queer Division: New York City’s Queer Bookstore.

patienceandsarah   hild   loversatthechameleonclub

Over the Rainbow Books posted 2015 Over the Rainbow List: 78 LGBT Books for Adult Readers.

Women and Words posted Publisher’s Corner with Bold Strokes Books.

Karelia Stetz-Waters posted Staying True: Exploring Lesbian Romance Novels.

Sarah Waters was interviewed at The Indian Express.

indigosprings   ivegotatimebomb   howtogrowup

Indigo Springs by A.M. Dellamonica was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Rest Home Runaways by Clifford Henderson was reviewed at Lesbian Reading Room.

I’ve Got a Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb was reviewed by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

An American Queer: The Amazon Trail by Lee Lynch was reviewed at Windy City Times.

Barring Complications by Blythe Rippon was reviewed at C-Spot Reviews.

How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

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

Timmins

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy, might be described as a mystery, a classic whodunit murder story.  But it can also equally be called a romance, a coming of age story, and an historical novel set in 1970s India.  It’s perhaps because this book is all those things and more that makes it such a successful, entertaining read.

Don’t start Miss Timmins’ School for Girls right before you go to bed, because this is a book that sucks you in immediately with a flash forward to the death that is central to the plot.  Of course, you remember that this death is going to happen as you keep reading, but because you hadn’t met any of the characters at that point, it starts to feel fuzzier and fuzzier until mid-book, when it actually happens and it’s shocking, and you can’t believe you’re only half way through the story.  What could possibly happen next?

The first part is a lot of fun to read: you follow Charu, a 21-year-old middle class “good Brahmin girl” whose parents are tentatively letting her out into the world, to work as a teaching at a British boarding school tucked away in a monsoon-ridden mountainous corner of India.  It’s the 70s, right, so there’s all that talk of free love, mind-expanding drugs, and new freedoms, and Charu has never heard of any of it until she’s introduced through her new friends, including a white girl raised in India who also happens to be a lesbian.  You can probably guess the romance that buds between the two women, and it’s pretty cute, and exciting, and realistic.  Currimbhoy does a great job with characterisation, making both women likable, flawed, and just complex enough to frustrate the reader sometimes.

But it’s only the first half of the book that focuses on the romance: just when I wondered how Currimbhoy was going to continue telling the story, she switches narrative perspective, and we suddenly start hearing it from the point of view of one of the girls at the school.  This was disorienting at first, but plot-wise very effective, allowing Currimbhoy to describe the action from a less emotionally involved and knowing angle.  In some ways I don’t want to say much about the second half, because it somehow feels like a spoiler, even though you actually find out who dies in the first few pages of the book.  But I think you’re meant to kind of forget, or at least this was my experience, so I don’t want to ruin it for you.

One thing I will tell you, is that we discover Charu isn’t exclusively attracted to women, which was a nice surprise for me, always on the lookout for dynamic bisexual characters.  Also, the teenage girls were really great to read about too: there’s something about the trope of all these girls pent up in a boarding school—especially this one, where the monsoons keep them stuck inside—that creates an atmosphere ripe for all sorts of mischief.  Also, I think I’m just attracted in some perverse way to the routine and orderliness of a boarding school—I’ve always kind of wished I could have gone to one (and got to wear the uniform).

Aside from the boarding school teen girl antics, there is of course a murder to be solved. I am notoriously terrible at this kind of investigation, so those readers who are schooled in figuring out whodunit would likely fare better than I did.  I was totally stunned by every twist, but, again, mystery is not my literary forte.  The thing is, the mystery is really only part of the novel, even in the second half, so if you’re either a mystery buff or someone who normally doesn’t read mystery, I think there’s a little something for everyone from this really standout first novel from Nayana Currimbhoy.

payingguests

Sarah Waters, having brought us classics of lesbian historical fiction like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, has done it again with her new release The Paying Guests, which has the blend of romance, suspense, mystery, and historical detail that you’ve been missing in your life.

The year is 1922. Frances Wray is a genteel woman in London who, during the course of the first world war, found an activist calling (and a lady friend). After the war, however, she’s down two brothers and one father, her relationship is over, and she’s chosen to keep house for her aging mother rather than pursue her own dreams. At 26, she’s resigned to spinsterhood. As the house is expensive and her father managed to lose most of the family’s money, Frances and her mother decide to acquire some lodgers (the “paying guests” of the title) to help with debts.

Lilian Barber, a young woman with bohemian tastes, moves into the house with her husband Leonard. Their marriage is not an entirely happy one, and Leonard spends long hours away at work as an insurance clerk. If you’ve read a Sarah Waters book before, you have a good idea of where this might be going. I hesitate to say too much about the developing intimacy between Frances and Lilian and the twist that leaves them in crisis, but I will say that this is a solid choice for anyone who likes historical fiction.

Waters hones in on minute and intriguing details of period life in the postwar London of the early 20s in a way that leaves the reader feeling fully immersed. The book is told entirely from Frances’s point of view, leaving Lilian’s motivations clouded until the bittersweet end. If you’ve read Sarah Waters before, you’ll know it’s not going to be an easy road for Frances and Lilian–but that’s what makes her books great. A must-read for all Waters fans, and a great entry point for those who have never read her work before.

 

 

afterworlds

This book is all about the flipside.

Two interlocking stories, Darcy Patel, YA wunderkind, whose NaNoWriMo romance has catapulted her into a whole new world, and her creation, Elizabeth Scofield, whose brush with death gave her access to the afterlife and a whole new purpose for her existence.  Told in alternating chapters, the young women’s stories unfold.  The navigation of the new, the weight of responsibility both to people and circumstances, the shock of self-discovery, and the risks of new romance. Darcy’s tale is as real as Elizabeth’s is supernatural, but both girls share more than they might realize.

Lizzie’s story is Darcy’s, the book she wrote and sold for a staggering sum.  Launched by this success, Darcy defers her college acceptance and moves to New York, throwing herself into the literary life.  It’s a dizzy ascent at first, meeting idols as equals, learning how to live and work entirely on her own.  But Darcy has luck as well as skill, and the people she meets are good and helpful, some even better than others. Fellow debut author Imogen Gray is friendly at first, but the two are drawn together and Darcy finds herself caught up in a first love she never even knew she wanted. But romance with a fellow writer has hidden challenges, especially when you both have secrets.

Lizzie’s life is much less serene.  When terrorists attack the airport lounge where she waits for a flight, Lizzie survives only by magic, phasing into the Underworld, the middle land where ghosts roam, kept alive by the memories of the living. From a beautiful young man named Yamaraj, Lizzie learns she is a psychopomp, a living guide of the dead who can pass between worlds.  With this newfound knowledge, Lizzie determines to do good, avenging the deaths of murdered children, even as she navigates the powers and politics of this new realm and the lives within it.  Lizzie learns from Yamaraj, connecting with him on many levels, but their dedication and attraction may not be enough when their world is threatened with a killer of the dead.

As I said before, this book is all about the flipside. That’s what Lizzie calls the Underworld, and it’s the perfect metaphor for the story itself.  Darcy’s tale is delightful.  The brilliant, colorful world of the living, with love, friendship, money and a dreamy career won with hard work and genuine talent. There’s  vicarious living and wish fulfillment, tempered with enough struggle, enough sacrifice, to keep it from being saccharine and unrealistic.  Her romance with Imogen blooms and flourishes, and even their setbacks aren’t too upsetting. The book is also wonderfully meta, with lots of discussion about the ups and downs of writing YA novels, of the writing life, and of the difficulty making edits and revisions on the story we are currently reading.

Lizzie’s story, on the other hand, is the world of the dead: grey and flattened, chill and draining.  Perhaps it is simply down to my taste, but the “Afterworlds” within Afterworlds didn’t work as well. The story of Lizzie’s newfound supernatural life and romance is adequate but unremarkable. I never skimmed, but I was often impatient to get past it and back to Darcy’s story.  The romance with Yamaraj seemed like it was included because there’s supposed to be romances in stories like this. Unlike Darcy and Imogen, there wasn’t much chemistry.  Lizzie doesn’t think or feel about him in romantic ways, just gets with him occasionally to make out. The world building is fairly unique, based on Hindu mythology, and Lizzie’s quest to find the killer of her mother’s childhood friend is enough plot to move the story forward. Even the climactic showdown seemed like it was there because it was time to wrap things up.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not as good as Darcy’s story.

Ultimately, this is a book I recommend. It’s not a challenging read, but it is enjoyable, and as Imogen herself says, who doesn’t need the occasional happy ending?

Trigger warnings: terrorism, gun violence, child murder

firstpersonandotherstories

My journey through The First Person and Other Stories, a collection by British writer Ali Smith, manifested as a perpetual pendulum swing between rapt attention to the tales’ unfolding and an uncomfortable sense of groundlessness mingled with a fair degree of alienation. I’ll admit, at several points along the way, I entertained the idea of abandoning the work, just before I was drawn back in. Midway through, it dawned on me. I wasn’t responding to the merit of the writing itself; I was reacting to the way in which the writing was affecting me.

Several of the most poignant stories are written in the first person, addressing “you,” which can’t help but to hit pretty close to the bone, especially given that all contextual clues lead to the understanding that “I” and “you” are former lovers. Boasting a couple of bruised egos, a few resentments and a whole lot of ambivalence, the relationship is revisited and perhaps even reconvened via the rewriting of history. If we can assume that it is the same couple featured throughout the collection, we begin to glean a deeper understanding of both women and their history as we witness their interactions at various junctures.

Among these particular stories, I found “The Second Person” to be most engaging given how very ludicrous we civilized adults can be when protecting our heart in the presence of the woman to whom we once offered it so freely. Claiming to know who the other person truly is and how she would behave in an utterly rhetorical circumstance, the first person narrator describes with utter certainty the way in which her former lover would purchase an accordion with very specific qualities “precisely because” she can’t play it. The former lover then retaliates with her own version of how the scenario would play out had the narrator been the one to make the visit to the music shop. The entire progression and escalation of the conversation is priceless.

I’d have to note “Writ” as perhaps the most touching piece within the collection as the narrator sits across the table from her fourteen-year-old self. Witnessing the expression of insolence that her younger visage “makes a thing of beauty,” she finds herself quite proud; and, while she yearns to give her a heads-up as to who she ought to trust as well as who to and not to bed, she also aches to provide assurances that things are going to turn out alright. She cannot utter any of it, however, for the journey lies in the unknown, which should be denied no one.

From my perspective, the most disturbing tale by far was “The Child,” which initially struck me as simply absurd until I picked up on the greater meaning. The story opens with the narrator’s discovery of a chubby, blond-haired, “embarrassingly beautiful” baby boy in her grocery cart when she returns from tracking down bouquet garni for her soup. As adorable as the child may be, surrounded by strangers gushing over his loveliness, his behavior in private becomes quite another matter. When alone with the narrator, who finds herself developing an increasing tenderness for him, the baby unleashes a flurry of horrifyingly misogynistic and otherwise offensive jokes and pronouncements most frequently attributed to those on the far religious right. One might deduce that the child’s attitudes serve to align motherhood with an overarching culture of women’s oppression.

I wasn’t quite as keen on “True Short Story” and “Fidelio and Bess” as well as a couple others merely because they didn’t resonate with me. They also tended toward the more experimental, and I fear I didn’t appreciate Smith’s approach as well as someone else might. There were also a few instances in which her stream of consciousness tested my patience, compromising my willingness and ability to follow along.

Smith does indeed push the envelope in exploring the boundaries, whether real or imaged, of the short story form. Time and time again, she appears to break all of the cardinal rules of writing, only to create a more profound impact than one would expect, regardless of how true-to-the-rules it is crafted. Each story is written in incredibly simple language yet contains more nuance than can be grasped in a single read-through. Just when I felt that Smith was betraying the basic tenet of “show, don’t tell,” I discovered that very little of what was happening actually appeared on the page. It was all written between the lines.

Playfully scoffing at our tendency to seek absolutes and a tidy resolution, Smith illuminates the contradictions inherent within our nature as well as the messiness of our attempts to reconcile the incongruent parts of ourselves with the most vulnerable parts of those we love. Just as there’s likely a bit of the autobiographical within the writing of The First Person and Other Stories, there’s little doubt that, as readers, we can expect to find our most imperfect selves mirrored within the “I” and “you” as they appear upon and beyond the page.

tellmeagain

I have to start out by saying that I love this title (and the cover is nice as well). Every time I would glance over at the title I’d think Right? What a great encapsulation of the lesbian high school experience. (I also had a Facebook friend comment on my Goodreads post that I had finished this book by saying that she thought this was a link to an advice column and was disappointed that she was not actually going to read advice for how a crush should feel. Someone get on that.)

This is a lesbian young adult book about Leila, and Iranian-American girl who goes to a prestigious academy, and she is already fully aware of her own gayness, no one else knows it yet. She isn’t ready to come out to her traditional Iranian parents, but at least her closeted life is made easier by the fact that she’s grown up around most of her classmates and has no romantic interest in any of them. That is, until the new girl show up.

Most of this book I really enjoyed. Leila is a great main character, and because she’s already self-aware of being a lesbian, we great these great mental jokes about being the unknown queer in the group. Typical for YA, this is a really quick read, and even most of the side characters seem developed and interesting. Overall, it didn’t totally blow me away, but it got me to thinking that maybe I’m starting to have more difficulty getting into YA books as I’ve gotten older. I think most teenagers would enjoy this, and I am glad to see YA with a lesbian of colour main character.

Unfortunately, I did have one issue with this book, and it’s a spoiler. Highlight below to read.

It’s funny that one of the minor characters in this book aspires to be a vampire, because Saskia, the initial love interest, seems act like one. I saw the twist coming, but even still, she becomes an almost cartoonish villain. And that’s not entirely unrealistic–I don’t want to say that people like her don’t exist–but it seemed out of place when the rest of the story is more about subtle changes, from Lisa dealing with her grief to Leila finding the strength to slowly come out to a selection of trustworthy people. 

I also wondered if Saskia fit into the villainous bisexual trope. Part of Leila’s anger is because, at least in her view, Saskia cheated on her with a guy. (Her best friend, to be precise.) Saskia may identify as straight, but she certaintly plays the role of this villainous bisexual seductress (see the vampire analogy?) This might have been compensated for by Lisa identifying as bi, at least evening out the representation, but although the word “bi” is mentioned in the book, Lisa rejects it, saying she doesn’t want a label. (Which is fine for an individual to say, but bi representation in media has notoriously shied away from actually using the word “bisexual”.)

So I found that part disappointing, and it overshadowed the book for me.

howtogrowup   TheSummerWeGotFree   nototherwisespecified

AfterEllen posted Michelle Tea on “How to Grow Up” and life advice with Nicole Georges.

Afterwritten posted Top Ten Books I’d Love to Read with My Book Club (If I Had One).

All Our Worlds: Diverse Fantastic Fiction has created a database of diverse SFF.

Babbling About Books posted

myrealchildren   tippingthevelvet   unspeakable

Sarah Waters was interviewed at BLink.

“For gay prisoners nationwide, Madison effort provides a literary lifeline with free books” was posted at The Chippewa Herald.

Criminal Gold by Ann Aptaker was reviewed at The Bi and Lesbian Romance Book Reader.

Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton was reviewed at Afterwritten.

My Real Children by Jo Walton was reviewed at Reading Out Loud!

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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