Jess reviews Different for Girls by Jacquie Lawrence

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Different for Girls by Jacquie Lawrence, is a fast-paced and vibrant read that will keep you turning the pages and gasping for more.

Featuring a smorgasbord of central characters, its hard to not feel completely engulfed by Lawrence’s world including bar owner Cam and drug user Fran, stay-at-home-mother Brooke and wandering-eyed Nicole, their GBFs and baby daddies Ivan and Claude, closeted Gemma, her gay beard Kirby and her suspicious girlfriend Jude. My own confinement of these characters to stereotypes is an unjust judgement of predominantly complex and relatable individuals realised in totality throughout the book. In fact, the connectivity of the character lineup adds to the realism, with the plot casually shifting in and out of situations chapter to chapter. The broad themes in Different for Girls include motherhood, friendship, adultery, coming out and more broadly, self understanding vs public persona. The sex scenes (yes there are some!) aren’t over the top or seeking attention in any way–they fit well within the created world and represent their characters respectively.

The lesbian characters (more then 6!) are multifaceted and beautifully different (instead of tired, repeated cookie-cutter replicates). These are the exact sort of characters I crave for across the broader lesbian literature; oft littered with predictably questioning married women wanting to be freed from their straight bedroom boredom. My own imagination ran rampant with suggested plot twists, and I was repeatedly surprised by the written outcome.

I found myself constantly and vividly envisioning Different for Girls as a full-length feature film and I was delighted to find that a web-series is underway for release soon.

I’d recommend Different for Girls as one of the best modern lesbian fiction reads, if only in that Lawrence treats each character with respect and honesty. As always, it is so satisfying to have a nourishing meal after many mediocre snacks.

Jess reviews Southern Girl by Renée J. Lukas

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Southern Girl by Renée J. Lukas is an engaging portrait of a girl (and her family) from before birth through to the start of adulthood.

The novel begins with a brief snapshot of the protagonist’s parents: Carolyn, a New England lobster fisherman’s daughter and Dan, a Southern preacher’s protégé arriving at their ‘together’ house in tiny Green Fork, Tennessee. This brief scene sets the pace for their relationship throughout the novel and the impact of parental decisions on their offspring. In the next many chapters, we see the birth and significant moments of Jesse through somewhat childlike eyes.

As the main character grows, so too does the language and understanding of concepts shared in the text. Raised as the youngest daughter of a preacher in a Southern town, lots of the tension in Jesse’s life comes from small town familiarity and religion.

As a teenager, Jess deals with school troubles and youngest sibling contemplations. Significantly, a childhood friend, Stephanie, returns from Nashville. This triggers a series of events that has Jess questioning her sexuality, religion and connection to family. To avoid revealing more of the plot, these later-teen experiences are explored in depth and cover alcoholism, death, universal judgement, pressure on female athletes, pregnancy, and parental relationships.

Southern Girl knocks it out of the park on many levels – the intensity of teenage romances (both same and opposite sex), the conviction of youths raised within a church, the complexity of adult relationships and the strength in honest friendships.

While I felt some plot lines were a little too fictitious (particularly one involving both Jess and Stephanie’s mothers), the angst of yearning otherwise weaves together a strong portrait of self actualisation.

I was enthralled with the characters including some sitting on the sidelines; the musician brother Danny, the boyfriend Alex and the school friend Denny. I felt the development of the relationship between Jess and Stephanie both, at times, frustrating and romanticist – which, in many ways, is very true of new love. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the apt description of the fullness of a crush – how it can completely overcome all the thoughts and drive you outside of your comfort zone.

This coming-of-age, southern gal story finishes at the beginning of college and left me wanting to explore more of Jess’ story. I think it will be well read by a younger audience (compared to my late 20s) but enjoyed by all.

Jess van Netten reviews Carry the Sky by Kate Gray

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If you enjoy being drawn into a story, so that every breathe you breath is in time with the characters, then Carry The Sky by Kate Gray is a must-read.

I was immediately entranced with the skilful beauty of Gray’s poetic sentence structure. Her freedom from traditional prose constraints allows the independent expressions to grab you by the heart and knock the emotional wind out of you time and time again.

The boarding school based narrative is told from varying perspectives, centring on new rowing coach Taylor Alta and physics teacher Jack Song. Taylor is grieving the loss of the woman she loved, while coming to terms with her school responsibilities. Jack is grappling with his Asian American heritage and its impact on his relationship with a student. Their independent journeys are connected through school expectations and student interactions.

While I’ve simplified the plot for this review, the intricacies of the character self discovery and development provide a feast for any hungry bibliophile.

A significant character, in its own rights, is rowing, described in luscious language usually reserved for the intimacy of a lover. I felt connected to the descriptions, as though they were my own thoughts and this embedded me deep in the narrative.

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Personally, I found Taylor’s voice to be more believable, whether because of my self-association with her character or the author’s semi-biographical input. I often found myself wanting to skip over Jack’s voice to get back to Taylor’s heartache. That in mind, the difference in character tone is a credit to Gray’s talent; they are entirely separate entities orbiting within the same universe.

Carry The Sky is hands down one of the best books I’ve read recently. It captured the intensity of school bullying without victimising the victim. It took hold of my spirit and wouldn’t release me until weeks after the last page.

For those who are similarly enthralled, you will find the interview at the end of the book an insightful read. You can also follow author Kate Gray’s blog.

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Jess reviews Facing the Music by Jennifer Knapp

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Despite the recent conservative controversy surrounding Vicky Beeching’s coming out, the Christian community is no stranger to revered spiritual musicians coming out. Jennifer Knapp’s memoir Facing The Music is a soul-searching, earnest examination of the Christian music scene and self discovery including her own coming out in 2010.

Knapp begins her life as a twin in a dysfunctional and divided household. As her parents were separated, she spent her youth navigating the complex conditions of custody, living predominantly with her father and step-mother and occasionally holidaying with her mother. Her first love is discovered and passionately explored as she teaches herself trumpet and becomes enamoured with music. Not being musical myself but living with a musician, I was enthralled in Knapp’s diligent and often demanding relationship with instruments. In fact, her first decision to learn an instrument comes at the direct expense of her limited time with her mum. Her passion continues as she breathes in instrument after instrument, ultimately leading her to study music teaching at college.

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After a period as a wild child, filled with sexual exploits and significant alcoholism (not explicitly explored), Knapp falls for the grace of God and begins to party Christian style; with worship music and religious conversation. Her account for her rise to Christian ‘rock-star’ status is told passively, as though everything just happened around her; her own involvement often reluctant and riddled with self-doubt. I feel this early Christian experience is written through the lens of a changed woman and wonder about the difference in explanation if one had been able to be transcribed at the time. Yet, this is how all memoirs are written; by the hands of current understanding, so I need not fault Knapp for that.

As a Christian myself, I recognised many of the evangelical experiences Knapp described and would advise non-Christian readers not to be put off by this inside look at the Contemporary Christian music scene. Her insights are often darkly described, almost in despising tones and I think Christians will have a harder time processing Knapp’s truths then non-religious individuals.

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Two thirds into Facing The Music, Knapp addresses her sexuality, her withdrawal from the Christian music scene and life as she knows it. She isn’t one to kiss and tell, so if you are hoping for long paragraphs of lesbian liaisons, this isn’t the love story for you. Instead, she recounts her internal coming out experience and the feelings associated with identifying as both gay and Christian, both personally and within the public  eye.

Knapp’s memoir is also littered with unexpected interesting insights, including her involvement with signing Katy Perry as well as adventures in outback Australia.

Personally, I strongly related to her difficulty fitting into certain circles in Christian churches, wearing cargo pants instead of skirts at church services. I also understood her difficulty with self-acceptance and the shame often associated with sharing an experience that strays from the acceptable testimony within church circles. I applaud her personal strength and faith to share her own story and to take her own time to do so.

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Facing The Music is written with honesty, integrity and emotion and will likely captivate fans, memoir readers, Christians and the questioning masses.

For those who enjoy Jennifer Knapp’s memoir, I would strongly recommend Chely Wright’s memoir Like Me, which explores coming out within the conservative country music world. You can also view the documentary Wish Me Away which follows Chely before and after coming out.

If you are looking for music to listen to while reading, Jennifer Knapp’s new album Set Me Free (released by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records) is just out.

Jess reviews Babyji by Abha Dawesar

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Babyji (2005) by Abha Dawesar is an atypical ‘coming of age’ novel featuring an academically gifted, sexually empowered female protagonist Anamika Sharma. Dawesar returns to her Indian roots, placing Anamika in the heart of a class-divided Delhi, juggling the pressures of being both a student and a lover.

This is an unapologetic exploration of the wanton desires of a sexually active teenager littered with occasional self-reflection and naivety. You are immediately introduced to ‘India’, Anamika’s much older, newly divorced female lover. Before you have time to understand this relationship, Rani, the new family servant, shakes her tail feathers for Anamika which ignites the hormones of our lusty sixteen year old heroine and we aren’t even 25 pages into Babyji!

“Her breathing got heavier. I was scandalising myself. I was petrified. I had no idea what to do next.” (p25, eBook).

The pacing shifts from breakneck speed to slow motion as Dawesar chronicles intimate moments between the lovers with the precise accuracy of the curiously intelligent teen. The seduction is sliced up with school life. Anamika still has to handle the everyday hassles of education including exams, bullies and school girl crushes.

Dawesar writes for the every-audience, explaining Indian traditions and expectations as observational thoughts, leaving nothing to assumption of understanding. Having never been to India and living in Westernised Australia, I appreciated these culture teachings and enjoyed their constant inclusion, cleverly used to build Anamika’s character profile and educate the reader.

The intensity of the reoccurring romances, including the trip away with ‘India’, builds to a level of incredibility as Babyji maintains momentum while Anamika holds the interest of three female lovers and an older male suitor. I found myself exclaiming out loud in disbelief at some points, perhaps not being convinced that our young adult was capable of ‘having it all’. Admittedly, her school life and friendships occasionally take a hit as she is preoccupied with learning the philosophies of love. Then again, perhaps that’s what all the teenagers are doing these days and I’ve just lived a sheltered existence.

Babyji, while pushing the buttons on relationship realities, powerfully conveys the opinions of the protagonist on various topics – from science to society – and uniquely steps out of the ‘coming of age’ category into the sociopolitical sphere. Class structure, education and family units are thematically explored throughout, proving a break from the titillating tours of the female lover.

If you somehow missed catching this novel around it’s release in 2005, it’s worth the purchase (I read the Kindle edition) to experience Delhi from a wealthy, sexually confident teenage girl’s perspective. I enjoyed delving into Anamika’s world, living her life with her and was left wanting more at the somewhat abrupt ending.

“I want to be free. I don’t want society telling me what to do all the time.” – Anamika is the everylesbian (p300, eBook).

Jess reviews Coal To Diamonds by Beth Ditto (with Michelle Tea)

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Coal To Diamonds (2012) is Beth Ditto’s raw and demanding memoir. Written with Michelle Tea, Ditto holds nothing back, sharing family history, The Gossip’s gossip and her thoughts on the world at large.

I’ll be honest, I went into Coal To Diamonds with no expectations. I didn’t know about the band The Gossip (sorry fans), I vaguely recognised Ditto’s photo on the front cover and I had some recollection of her name being linked to the word ‘lesbian’. The book had been marked down 80% and I’m not one to walk past a bargain!

Coal To Diamonds is a short book, perhaps reflective of having only 32 years to recap, but certainly packs the punches that most would expect from Beth Ditto. She passionately describes her musical journey exploring the influences of Riot grrrl, feminism, zines and friendship families. When talking about abuse, she emphatically explains its normalcy within her home culture. Her initial encounters are conveyed as normal and as the reader, I was confronted by the starkness of her experiences.

Much of the memoir recounts Ditto’s founding years, set in Judsonia, Arkansas, before shifting to Olympia, Washington. My geographical understanding of the United States is so limited (there are two coasts?) yet Ditto’s elaborative and vivid descriptions filled my head as though they were my own memories. Judsonia is presented as a tight community with many inbuilt, ongoing problems including abuse of every kind. Olympia provides Ditto with the ‘big city’ freedom she lacked back home and a challenging command of independence. Both play a key role in the development of Ditto as a woman and a musician, in areas she reflects on as the memoir continues.

Throughout Coal To Diamonds, sexuality shifts in thematic presence. As Ditto comes to terms with her own sexuality, deeper recollections of sexual abuse arise and are reflected upon. Her friendship family includes other queers and she occasionally passes comment on society’s lack of acceptance. One relationship, with the seven year senior transgendered Freddie, helps her come to terms with her own identity. “He made my gender identity make sense to me, and he made my sexual identity make sense to me.” (p113)

Structurally, the reader is presented with a non-linear narrative, roughly divided into the beginning, the middle and now. In ‘the beginning’, we see Ditto as a child between family houses, sexual abuse and a growing awareness of the world. During ‘the middle’, Ditto recalls her change in world view (from the insular family to the extroverted career) and her own self discovery. Then, as though picked up and thrown forward by a powerful tornado, we are dumped into the ‘now’, and with a sense of emergency to get the story up to date, Ditto’s current life is sketched out.

Despite having absolutely no personal understanding of Ditto, the band or the punk movement, I was moved by Coal To Diamonds. The emotional flavour of the memoir stayed with me for days after I finished. The determination of the protagonist in every single hardship is presented with a beautiful honesty that cuts past celebrity and connects intimately with the human heart. It was a quick read that is well worth the couple of hours that I devoured it within.

If you are already a fan of Beth Ditto (why have you not already read it!), I am sure you will completely love this memoir. If you are interested in people’s lives, Ditto’s certainly is an interesting life to read about. While her experiences involve things that will be removed from most of her readers (eating squirrels shot by her stoned cousin), the universal concepts of self acceptance, perseverance and family will outshine any unusual side-stories.

Beth Ditto is the femme, glam, queer, fat, fashion icon and musical powerhouse that we all see and underneath all that, she’s a truly remarkable woman. I guess I’ll have to check out her music next!

Jess reviews Fire and Ice by Gaelle Cathy

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Fire and Ice, by Gaelle Cathy, follows the love story of Emma, a student from Manhattan, and Charlie, a glass blower from New Hampshire. Emma had been stringing along three very different men prior to her family’s temporary move to the ‘countryside’ and the fresh air seems to drastically alter her sexual preference. Sexual tension knocks down Charlie’s door when Emma comes by. And she keeps on coming by, for conversations, moody dates and romantic dinners.

Written for the lesbian Mills and Boon audience, Fire and Ice flits between character development and plot devices. Emma is the young, naive, ‘straight’ woman from the big city. Charlie is ‘handsome’ ladies lady, pleasuring town wives while being artistic, independent and brooding. Both have backstories that fill out as at the plot progresses, making both characters more likeable, depending what your taste is.

Gaelle Cathy poses the question “Does love really conquer all?” in the blurb of Fire and Ice. When I first read this, I thought ‘Yay, lesbian love conquering all!’  Reading this question after I finished the book really challenged me. When the family secret is revealed (and I’m sure some readers, like myself, will awkwardly predict the secret), everything you might have been loving about the loving feels a little off. While the controversial twist is unprecedented in a ‘romance’ novel, what bothered me most was the lack of confirmation about said family secret. Things are left a little undetermined in my opinion and I’d prefer to have had closure, either way.

Without the controversy, I would have enjoyed Fire and Ice as a lightweight romance set within a comfortable plot. The inclusion of the dark family secret crossed lines I don’t like being crossed in my lightweight reading and I felt blindsided and betrayed by Cathy. I feel Fire and Ice is true to it’s name, two very different elements mixed together with predictable results. The fire melts the ice, the water puts out the fire and neither plot wins out in the end.

If you are keen to see what all the fuss is about, check out Fire and Ice and test your own moral compass.