In high school, Fat Angie has never been addressed by just her first name. The “Fat” title has become a part of her, and as she repeats freshman year, it seems like she will never escape the critiques on her appearance. It is not just her classmates who name Angie resident fat girl of their conservative Ohio town, however – her mother and adopted older brother contribute to the constant commentary. When KC Romance comes to town, Angie assumes she will quickly assimilate into the social scene of high school and join in the bullying – but KC decides to break the mold and become Angie’s friend.

There is more to Angie than meets the eye, and the reader soon learns that she is battling more than the assault on her image. Angie’s older sister, who seems to have been her only friend before KC, abruptly joined the military after high school and is now a prisoner of war in Iraq. Angie’s sister’s story is frequently featured on the news, casting an unwanted light on the family as they attempt to deal with their grief. Angie’s obsession with her sister’s fate shadows all of her actions – at times, overwhelming her with despair and, but other times, compelling her to live for her sister’s sake.

KC is also a seriously complex character. Although her genuine interest in befriending Angie made me like her, I found myself wanting her to be a better friend as their relationship developed. The truth is that KC is just as troubled as Angie, and has just as much difficulty navigating their relationship as it fluctuates between friendship, awkward non-friendship, and more-than-friendship. It is frustrating to watch the girls go back and forth, but it also reveals the key issue at play: that neither girl has really known how to have a true friend, never mind a girlfriend.

Author e. E. Charlton-Trujillo’s representation of KC and Angie’s relationship exemplifies how interactions between new friends are often fraught with tension; my favorite way that this was depicted was through frequent pauses in the girls’ dialogue, where the reader is forced to experience the awkwardness.

Charlton-Trujillo certainly packs a lot of complicated situations into this novel (which may have helped it to win the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award in 2014). While critics have called it a stereotypical “issue” book, I tend to disagree. I think the intersection of Angie’s sister’s situation with Angie’s self-image issues and questioning of her sexuality is handled well and believably intertwined.

[trigger warning] I will mention that there are times when self-harm and attempts at suicide are handled less well. [spoiler, highlight to read] For example, at the climax of the novel, Angie runs to KC’s house to find her in the midst of an act of self-harm. This was really jarring and seemed to be excessive at the time; as I continued reading, I felt like KC’s situation was not explained or resolved in a way that justified the image being included. [end spoiler]

Overall, I would characterize Fat Angie as hard-hitting, but with just enough highs and hope to balance out the story. It’s worth the read, even if it will make you cringe as you try to find the words to help Angie and KC finally get together.

*It is also worth noting that Charlton-Trujillo’s book tour for Fat Angie consisted of her facilitating workshops for at-risk youth, empowering them in order to further the mission of the novel. Check out more about that here.

howtogrowup
My wife and I are currently trying to buy a house, which is surreal, and it’s made me wonder about what it means to be–or feel like–an adult. Like magic, I found a copy of Michelle Tea’s latest memoir on that very topic. Since I’m a fan of Tea’s other writing, I picked it up. I figured that Michelle Tea is always fun and this book would likely present an interesting take on being a grown up.
How to Grow Up primarily covers Tea’s late thirties and early forties as she stumbles into adulthood. In her late thirties, Tea is sober after years of addiction, re-entering the dating world after spending 8 years in a dysfunctional relationship, sharing filthy housing with twenty-somethings in San Francisco, and dealing with the psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. Eventually she moves to her own grown-up apartment, starts trying to get pregnant as a single person, forms a healthy relationship with a great woman, and gets married. Though she doesn’t delve much into how she made it happen, Tea has an amazing career in the literary world, something she managed to start even before she got sober. I was surprised she didn’t spend more time on this topic, since I think that having a career is a huge measure of adulthood–and something Tea has a handle on.
How to Grow Up was fun to read, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This memoir is not linear, broken up into 15 themed essays that aren’t strictly chronological. Tea isn’t the most linear person, so this fits her personality. The downside is that she sometimes tosses out references to events or issues the reader doesn’t know about yet, or retreads the same experiences in multiple chapters.
The other odd thing about How to Grow Up is that periodically the book veers away from Tea’s interesting life and into advice dispensing. A lot of these life lessons struck me as obvious (such as “Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations”), particularly after you read Tea’s stories. While I liked reading about Tea’s adventure in Paris after her long-term relationship ended, I didn’t need the rules about “how to break up” that preceded it. Tea is a great storyteller, but she’d make a terrible advice columnist, and her attempts to be one drag down her book.
The book didn’t explore issues as deeply as I would have liked. Though Tea looks at class, privilege, and her own background as a working class person, she also name-drops designer brands and insists that her higher power wants her to have these expensive, unethically made items. Her analysis of the contradictions that she holds boils down to, essentially, that all people have contradictory values and impulses. I don’t entirely disagree, but I also wanted more of her thoughts about these issues and less ink about Fendi bags. At times her contradictions are baffling, something that could have been intriguing if looked at more closely.
This book is reassuring, though, and I did feel better after reading How to Grow Up. Everything worked out for Michelle Tea in the end, despite all the detours and the weird choices she made. I’d recommend this book to fans of the author and to people who feel like they’re failing at being grown-ups, with the acknowledgement that the book has limitations. I’d recommend skimming or skipping the advice and lingering instead in the stories.

nototherwisespecified  fingersmith-bookcover   huntress_arc_cover_web

AfterEllen posted “Fingersmith” finds new life on the stage.

Autostraddle posted Lez Liberty Lit #67: Sick Day Reading.

Diversity In YA posted Not Otherwise Specified.

sisteroutsider   TheEveningChorus   adultonset

Lambda Literary posted

inseparable   batwoman   frogmusic

“Review: ‘Fingersmith’ [the play] a twisting thriller with love” was posted at Mail Tribune.

“In praise of Emma Donoghue, by Joseph O’Connor” was posted at The Irish Times.

“Before ‘Catwoman': The Problematic Record of Comic Books’ LGBTQ Representation” was posted at The Hollywood Reporter.

cominghome   lieswetellourselves   undone

Coming Home by Lois Cloarec Hart was reviewed at The Rainbow Hub.

Undone by E.M. Hodge was reviewed at Lesbian Reading Room.

Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz was reviewed at Afterwritten.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley 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.

nototherwisespecified

Hold on to your hats, ladies! Have I got news for you! Hannah Moskowitz’s new book Not Otherwise Specified is an actual novel about an actual bisexual woman of color. That’s right! You heard correctly! Protagonist! Bisexual! Woman of color!  And it’s a good book!  This is like seeing a unicorn riding a dragon riding a giant squid.

Etta Sinclair is a girl with problems, but knowing who she is isn’t one of them. Who she is:  smart and talented girl with an ex she still loves, a barely controlled eating disorder, a discarded dream symbolized by the toe shoes buried in her backyard, and a burning desire to get out of Nebraska. Her problems: a pack of former friends who call themselves the Disco Dykes. Ever since Etta ‘betrayed’ them by dating a guy they have made life at their exclusive prep school hell, vandalizing her locker, posting photoshopped porn onto her social media, even occasional physical attacks.  Etta tries not to let it get to her, but that isn’t always easy.

Choosing instead to focus on the future, Etta befriends Bianca, a girl from her eating disorder support group, a girl more talented and far more fragile than she.  With the encouragement of Bianca and her brother, the three new friends prepare to audition for Brentwood, a prestigious New York school for the performing arts. Will Etta have the talent and the confidence she needs to take this risk? Will Bianca have the strength of body and mind? And what if there’s only room at Brentwood for one of them?

Told in Etta’s sharp, unforgettable voice, Not Otherwise Specified is the book that has been missing from the LGBT-YA canon. Etta’s bisexuality isn’t a question, not up for debate.  Indeed she spends a good bit of the narrative making it perfectly clear that she is real and valid and owes no one an explanation nor any selfish form of loyalty.  The relationships she builds, restores and discards all come from and contribute to the whole person that she is.

The supporting characters—friends, enemies, family—are all well drawn and the Brentwood audition storyline is the perfect backdrop, offering everyone plenty of room to struggle and shine.  Find this book, read it, pass it on. You won’t be sorry.

fortheloveofcake

Erin Dutton’s latest book, For the Love of Cake, is set in a reality show competition that pits pastry chefs against one another for the ultimate prize: sweet victory. I confess, I would have read it for the title alone: my love for cake is just that powerful. I read an advance copy of the novel, which was published in February, through Netgalley.

For the Love of Cake features Shannon Hayes, a talented second-career pastry chef who is trying to earn a big break playing the reality show game. She’s also had a longstanding crush on one of the competition’s judges, Maya Vaughn. Maya was the winner of the show’s inaugural season, and has been brought back this year to revive interest in the show. She’s also a well-known bisexual playgirl who has recently gotten tabloid attention for her presumed abortion.

Shannon, an adoptive mother and expectant grandmother, isn’t quite sure what to make of Maya in person, other than confirming that she is, in fact, incredibly attractive. As Maya and Shannon get to know each other, it’s clear the attraction is mutual, although there are very clear rules about judges fraternizing with contestants that prevent them from doing much more than moonstruck looking and exchanging flirtatious comments for the bulk of the novel. Will they ever have a chance at a real relationship? Will Shannon win the competition? What about the abortion hullabaloo and the prying paparazzi? And what about the cake?

The difficulties I had getting in to this book had more to do with the subplot, which follows up on characters from Dutton’s earlier food-based romance, A Place to Rest. Not having read the previous book, I found myself irritated each time I was pulled away from Shannon and Maya’s developing romance to check in with Sawyer and Jori and see how they were dealing with their relationship stresses. I would have preferred a separate book with their after happily ever after report, and more focus on the progression of Shannon and Maya’s relationship and perhaps some of their own aftermath. The structure of the reality show competition also made it so that the physical intimacy between the leads was long delayed (not necessarily a bad thing!)–however, having no emotional investment in Sawyer and Jori, I didn’t care whether or not they were having a good time.

I think I’ve read at least one other book by Dutton (it may have been Fully Involved?), but my reaction to it is lost to the mists of time. I enjoyed the reality show aspects and romantic tension of For the Love of Cake, but not the secondary characters, so would advise readers to pick up A Place to Rest before slicing in to For the Love of Cake, for the sake of continuity if nothing else.

Anna M can most often be found on Twitter: @helgagrace.

chambermusic

Whether it be within the epochs of our lives or the novels that engage us, we tend to so desperately seek resolution. Uncomfortable sitting with our emotions as they are, we placate ourselves with baseless assurances that at some point an outcome will be reached, allowing the experience to be neatly tucked away within the deepest recesses of our memory. At the same time, we profess that there is a reason for everything and that our circumstances are meant to convey a meaningful lesson or help us grow. Having told myself some version of the above countless times, I’ve come to respect the life — or the fictional account — that simply is what it is and doesn’t presume to be anything loftier than that.

Written under the guise of a historical document to be included within a grant application to the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach is a truly original work of fiction for the narrator, Caroline (Newby) Maclaren, also presents as the writer herself. Nearing the age of ninety, she has been given the task of documenting the life of her deceased husband and renowned composer, Robert Glencoe Maclaren, so as to obtain funding to restore the Maclaren Community, which at one time served as a retreat for musicians so that they might immerse themselves within their work; yet, the details of Mr. Maclaren’s life and career come to take a backseat to Caroline’s experience of their cold and lifeless marriage, the progression of his debilitating and gruesome illness and the way in which she finally came alive upon falling in love with Anna Baehr, the young woman who nursed Mr. Maclaren at the end of his life.

The tone in which Chamber Music is written is so very true-to-life that I continue to find myself relating to it as a memoir rather than a work of fiction. With most of the events taking place around the turn of the twentieth century, I can’t help but to wonder if Grumbach, who was born in 1918, acquired an inherent sense of the time period from friends, family members or other associates just slightly older than herself, making formal research largely unnecessary. The discretion, speech and sensibility of the time appear consistent, genuine and respectfully regarded as far as I can tell. Although I’ve never been one for historical fiction, I must admit that I found myself utterly enraptured with each and every turn of the page.

That being said, I would have appreciated a more visceral sense of the relationship between Caroline and Anna. Although we are told that they were deeply in love, I didn’t feel as though I had a palpable understanding of the dynamics between them. Their shared experiences and moments of intimacy, for me, lacked depth such that I came to wonder if something in their relationship was amiss. On several occasions, Caroline questions whether Anna experienced closeness and connection in the same way that she had, and Anna’s desire to comfort one of the melancholic musicians (who was also in love with her) illustrated, if nothing more, at least an inability to establish proper boundaries.

In spite of a niggling feeling that Caroline and Anna’s romance was not as idyllic as it was made to seem, I found the novel as a whole to be compelling from start to finish. Indeed, the strength and honesty of the climax solidified my immense appreciation for Chamber Music as well as a desire to explore the author’s other works. Whereas one seeking resolution or pithy life lessons is likely to be disappointed, I found Grumbach’s handling of the conclusion to be perfectly suited as a lasting testament to the life of a woman who knew what it was to live for only the brief span in which she knew what it was to love.

bigbigsky   lumberjanes   firsttwenty

Autostraddle posted Drawn to Comics: Lumberjanes Keeps Getting Cuter and Dang Cuter and Catwoman is Bisexual, Confirms All of Our Lifelong Crushes.

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian posted Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian #2: Lesbian/Bi Dystopian YA Novels.

Emma Donoghue was intereviewed at Jenna Leigh Evans.

fortheloveofcake    whisperedwords   songsunfinished

For the Love of Cake by Erin Dutton was reviewed at Lesbian Reading Room.

Whispered Words (Volume 2) by Takashi Ikeda was reviewed at Okazu.

Songs Unfinished by Holly Stratimore was reviewed at Lambda Literary.

Woeful Pines by S.Y. Thompson was reviewed at Lesbian Reading Room.

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.

sandcastlescoverart-rgb

I was first drawn to Sandcastles by the element of psychics. As someone who grew up with a grandmother who called herself psychic and was told she also has a similar gift, I have researched and wondered about the world of psychics and energy and spirits for years. I often find myself stuck between the staunch skepticism of my mind and the gut feelings and intuition I feel so in tune with. I started reading this novel with the hope that it would explore a similar conflict, and it did not disappoint.

On the skeptical side we have Lia, a neurotic workaholic who uses her business as an escape from her struggles with love, family and friends. Then we have the psychic, Willow, a divorced mother of two who happened to go to camp with Lia and still harbors residual feelings for her from their childhood. The other main character is Dean, Lia’s assistant and best friend, who is somewhere in the middle—more open-minded than Lia but still caught up in work and the bustle of office life. When Lia and Dean run into Willow at a flea market, all three characters find themselves discovering new, unexpected paths in their lives.

One of my favorite things about Sandcastles is that it switches between Lia and Willow’s points of view, allowing readers to see how they see each other and their own insecurities going into the relationship. Willow expresses how deeply she was wounded by people who did not accept her psychic abilities and made a mockery of her, including Lia during their time at camp together. However, Lia gets to tell her side of the story, how she was scared of the things she did not understand (something she was taught by her upbringing) and was constantly vying for acceptance from her adopted sister—who also went to camp with them and was terrified of Willow—and her parents who put her sister on a pedestal that Lia could never reach.

Carr has one main message in this novel: life is meant to be lived. By trying to get this message through, Carr sacrifices some of the story’s depth. Halfway through the story, the novel becomes mostly about Lia and her need to slow down and become more open-minded. We get to see all of Lia’s dynamics, both good and bad. We learn about her family (and we get to meet every member of her family eventually) and how it operates, about her last serious relationship, how she met her best friend, how she started her own business. We see Lia being closed-minded at times, and we see her being selfish, but it’s all understandable and relatable because we’ve learned why her mind and her life operate the way they do.

Willow, on the other hand, gets a generic backstory of an ex-husband she never really loved who cheated on her, is not a good father, and is now remarried. Like Lia, she had parents who did not accept her and preferred her sister, and they were important to her discovery of her gift, but then they sort of fade away; her mother dies during her childhood from a vague, unexplained illness, and then Willow lives with her aunt who is also psychic and a lesbian. We don’t get to see much of her personality besides some playfulness that comes out in Lia’s presence, and we never get to see her being unfair or unreasonable, or if she is, she is not called on it like Lia is and she never gets to discover new parts of herself like Dean and Lia do.

The other characters mostly serve to pad the novel and reinforce the message of living life to the fullest, including a dying man who is somewhat of a cliché; he has more life in him than any of the other characters, he is always happy and joking, everyone loves him, and confronting death has made him the wise, all-knowing guru of the story. Some of his suffering comes through in the end, but it still does not feel realistic, which is a shame because he could have added some more emotional elements, especially at the end of the novel, but those moments mostly fell flat or took some of the power away from the spots where the writing itself made an emotional impact, such as Lia and Dean’s heart-to-heart near the end of the novel.

Despite some of the weaker aspects of the novel, it was fun to read. Best of all, there was always some kind of tension in the book to keep it interesting, and each of those plot points felt natural and realistic. Plus, this novel is dominated by women, and almost all of the most important characters are queer, and it is always refreshing to read a book like that in this male-dominated, heteronormative society.

strawberrypanic

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

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

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

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

apprenticequeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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