Anna reviews Behrouz Gets Lucky by Avery Cassell

behrouz gets lucky by avery cassell

“I wrote this book because I wanted to see more people like myself represented in smut and romance,” writes Avery Cassell in the introduction to Behrouz Gets Lucky (Cleis, 2016), the author’s first full-length erotic romance.

I wanted to see older genderqueer and butch masculine-masculine couples having hot sex and BDSM shenanigans. I wanted to read about people with full lives, lives that included adult children, grandchildren, parents, books, marvelous food, over-the-top drag, and cuddly cats along with lots and lots of hot fucking. I wanted reality, with heartburn, forgetfulness, and aching joints. I also wanted protagonists that cared about San Francisco and were activists, in their own quirky way. And finally, I spent most of my childhood in Iran and love Iran as my other home. I wanted to include a little bit of that amazing and beauteous country in this tale so that my readers could get the chance to love the country too. (viii)

As this paragraph suggests, Behrouz contains an ambitious political agenda and a busy social schedule. I was excited to read this romance because it contains a lot of elements that I typically loved to see in my romance novels: queer characters, older characters, characters with mixed racial and ethnic cultural experiences, a lot of domesticity alongside political awareness and people having sex. Unfortunately, although I am still rooting for all of these things to happen, and happen more often, in romance literature, Behrouz felt more like a rough first draft than a finished novel.

Behrouz is strongest when it comes to the (many and varied) sexual encounters between the title character, Behrouz, and their lover and eventual spouse Lucky. Lucky and Behrouz meet online through OKCupid and after a three-hour first date at a local coffee shop return to Behrouz’s apartment to get it on. Both characters identify on the transmasculine end of the gender spectrum and this work succeeds in its mission to create delicious sexual intimacy between these two characters whom most cultural narratives suggest are too similar to enjoy — let alone sustain — sexual chemistry.

Where Behrouz falters is in the extra-sexual narrative, which often feels like dense authorial notes on plot development, setting, and character description than they do finished prose. I kept wanting to say “slow down and show me this happening rather than tell me it did!” Too often, the characters — secondary ones particularly — failed to emerge out from under their representative types. Self-aware typecasting can, at its best, allow an author to paint a loving portrait of a well-known place or community (think the early installments of Armistad Maupin’s Tales from the City) — and Behrouz at its best reaches toward a smuttier version of the sort of episodic ode to the Bay Area of the pre-Google age that is Maupin’s forte.

Yet overall, narrative shortcuts mean that the reader is given a list of physical descriptors, identity labels, and group affiliations that end up standing in for three-dimensional individuals. To give two such examples, both drawn from the same scene in which Behrouz and Lucky host a potluck for their friends shortly after becoming a couple:

Maxwell looked long at Lucky and me, Lucky in her 501s, aqua linen button-down shirt, mustard-and-aqua windowpane wool waist-coat, and Wescos, and I in my black pleated pants, pink-and-gray floral shirt, dark-gray knitted necktie, and black-and-red cowboy boots. (48)

I’d forgotten about how judgmental people could be, particularly when others start coloring outside of the lines. Masculine-masculine couples were not common in the dyke and queer community, and many folks saw masculine pairings as distasteful, taboo, and unnatural. Or only good for tricks, something to relieve the itch if there wasn’t a femme around. There were a smattering of dyke and genderqueer Daddy-boi couples in the kink community, but they were mostly people under the age of forty. Dykes, queers, and transmen over the age of forty were pretty strongly invested in butch-femme or FTM–gay men dynamics. There was even the Butch-Femme Social Group, and TM4M Cruising Night at Eros for transdudes and gay men. (48)

In both of these instances, important markers of identity (clothing choices) and the social-political dynamics a particular moment within San Francisco’s queer subculture are condensed into lists of attributes and identity affiliations that stand in for character and plot development. I wanted to say, “These are your research notes … now go write me a story.”

Another facet of the social-political at work in Behrouz is the titular character’s identity as an immigrant.Behrouz’s experience as a Persian-American genderqueer individual — “I’m Middle Eastern to my part-American core” they observe early in the narrative (3) — is given scant attention until the second half of the book, when the couple travels to Tehran. I was disappointed not to have a better sense of Behrouz’s experience as a queer  American of Middle Eastern descent in the post-9/11 era.

I also had concerns about the way the couples’ visit to Iran, which involves the decision to marry so that they can pass as a straight couple while abroad, serves as touristy background to the American queer experience. The cross-cultural encounter is, of course, complicated by the fact that Behrouz, like the author, spent part of their childhood in Iran. Yet as Americans with American passports and established lives in San Francisco, Behrouz and Lucky interact with Tehranian culture as outsiders, not insiders, and that privilege is not allowed to really settle into the bones of the narrative, with all of its complex implications for individual and collective meaning.

Overall, Cassell’s first novel is an ambitious project that delivers on its promise to represent “older genderqueer and butch masculine-masculine couples having hot sex and BDSM shenanigans” in erotic romance. I expect that there will be an audience for this book if only for the sexually explicit scenes, which could be read in isolation from the connecting narrative as delicious shorts. The narrative structure around these scenes, however, tries to pack too much into less than two hundred pages of prose. I hope that in subsequent installments — the author indicates they are working on a sequel — the non-erotic elements of the story will be allowed to flower more fully.

Anna M reviews Kiss the Girl by Melissa Brayden

KisstheGirl

Kiss the Girl is Melissa Brayden’s fourth book, after How Sweet It Is, and contains similar strands of enduring friendship and sweetness mixed with serious themes.

Brooklyn Campbell co-founded a small but successful advertising agency with her three lesbian best friends from college. She’s a fast-driving, energetic whirlwind who follows one rule: never get too involved. Jessica Lennox is a quintessential high-powered advertising executive who spends all her time thinking about work. The two women meet by chance and feel an immediate spark of attraction, then discover that their companies are rivals for a coveted account and will be forced to work on the same campaign until one is chosen.

Initially, both women agree that any potential relationship between them is impossible considering the potential breach of professionalism it would entail. Brooklyn, who grew up in and aged out of the foster system, also battles confusion after she’s told that her birth mother wants to get in touch for the first time. Events conspire to throw Brooklyn and Jessica together several times, forcing them to realize that it might just be worthwhile to take a chance on a real relationship. Brayden supports their story with a full cast of supporting characters.

Overall, I recommend this book for fans of initially adversarial romantic relationships and corporate intrigue. Brooklyn’s reasons for not committing to Jessica felt valid, given her emotional background. A side plot with Jessica and a neighbor’s daughter ended up feeling a little unresolved, and I was left wanting to know more about the lives of Brooklyn’s friends. Maybe Brayden will write a book for each of them? I can only hope that’s true, given the “A Soho Loft Romance” tagline.

I received an advance copy of Kiss the Girl, which comes out this month, through Netgalley. For another tale featuring a corporate lesbian powerhouse, try The Blush Factor by Gun Brooke.

Anna M. reviews All In by Nell Stark

allin

Nell Stark’s All In, published this month by Bold Strokes Books, is a sweet romance that involves high-stakes poker and Las Vegas. Annie Novarro, the self-styled “Nova” of online poker-playing, has a dilemma. When she loses almost all of her substantial winnings due to a federal crackdown on online gambling, she must either face facts and give up her career, or learn to hack it with live poker players. Unfortunately, playing poker with opponents who are in the same room requires a poker face, something that math whiz Nova hasn’t had to worry about in the past.

When Nova travels to Vegas to prep for and play in the World Series of Poker, she ends up staying at the Valhalla resort. Valhalla is also the workplace of Vesper Blake, a casino host who doesn’t plan to let her attraction to a laid-back poker player get in the way of her career advancement. Vesper has worked hard to get as far as she has as a host, and she’s eyeing the next level when a sexually aggressive client interferes–and brings the two women closer together. Will Vesper be able to put aside her ambition and realize that it’s not worth sacrificing everything for her career? Will Nova figure out how to put her skills to work when she’s playing against live opponents?

I found All In, like Stark’s The Princess Affair, to be a nice change of pace from a lot of the romances I read, in terms of setting. They both feature a very slowly developing romance and, in the case of All In, an interesting look behind the scenes of a Vegas casino. I’m not sure how much of the information about poker playing and casino hosting was factually accurate, but I was enjoying myself too much to care. The only part that troubled me was Vesper’s lack of contact with her family after the traumatic events of her teenage years.

 

I’d recommend All In to anyone looking for a sporty little romance with a good grip on character motivations. Do not read if descriptions of sexual assault are upsetting to you.

 

I am headed to Vegas for my first visit at the end of the month–we’ll see if it matches the picture Stark painted.

 

Anna M. reviews Deep Deception by Cathy Pegau

Deep Deception is the third book in Cathy Pegau’s science fiction/romance series set on the chilly mining colony of Nevarro, after Rulebreaker and Caught in Amber. The latter features a m/f couple, and the former, which I reviewed here at the Lesbrary, was one of my favorite books of 2011. Deep Deception is scheduled for release at the end of this month, and it may be my favorite of the series so far. I stayed up very late to finish it, at any rate!

Readers of Caught in Amber will recognize the mysterious Genevieve Caine as the right-hand woman of the menacing drug dealer who was the target of Nathan Sterling and Sasha James’s operation. Since that time, Genevieve has moved on and is working hard to avoid notice by the sinister Reyes corporation until she can leave Nevarro far behind. Unable to reach Sterling, she targets his colleague Natalia Hallowell as a likely candidate to help her uncover whatever wrongdoing the Reyes family is hiding in a distant mining town. Unfortunately, their introduction sows both the seeds of deep attraction and mistrust, as Genevieve seduces and then sedates Natalia in order to state her case.

Despite being tricked by Genevieve during their initial encounter, Natalia is no fool. She’s an experienced agent with the Colonial Mining Authority, and accustomed to operating in deep cover. She’s also on probation and not unwilling to investigate Genevieve’s claims, especially if it will occupy her mind. As the women travel together to probe the mystery in the mines, they struggle to trust each other without giving too many of their closely guarded secrets away–or their hearts. For Natalia, returning to the mines means bringing up memories from her painful past. For Genevieve, the stakes are higher than she will ever willingly confess, even to someone she is falling for.

I really enjoy the way Pegau has created the atmosphere of Nevarro throughout the series, especially the mining details that she provides in this third installment. The chemistry between Genevieve and Natalia is palpable, and I appreciated that their relationship had some time and reason to mature. The return of characters from Caught in Amber was also a nice touch, giving even more continuity to this romance series that so far has included both straight and lesbian couples. Why on earth can’t more series do that?

Anna M. reviews Snow Falls by Gerri Hill

SnowFalls

Gerri Hill’s latest romance, Snow Falls, was published in December 2012 and revisits a setting and characters from an earlier novel (No Strings), although it features a new pair of women: the reclusive heiress Catherine Ryan-Barrett, known as Ryan, and the aspiring novel writer Jennifer Kincaid. Jen becomes stranded in the Colorado mountains on her way to a writer’s workshop, and Ryan comes to her rescue as the yearly avalanche thunders down the mountain–at the cost of her prized solitude, as it means that they will be stranded together in Ryan’s secluded cabin until the roads become passable again in the spring.

Ryan has spent the last 10 years hiding from her family and her family’s fortune after publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. She’s been looking forward to spending the next several months alone, working on her next book. Although she becomes resigned to sharing her space and food with a stranger for six to eight weeks, she isn’t willing to share information about her past with Jen, or reveal that she’s a writer herself. When the relationship between the women settles in to friendship and eventually mutual attraction, Ryan feels that it’s too late to come clean about who she really is, even though she feels closer to Jen than she ever has to anyone.

Homeschooled through high school, Jen was raised by very conservative grandparents, and the idea that Ryan is a lesbian is startling to her at first. But Jen has spent the last several years putting some distance between herself and how she was raised, and her natural curiosity–and the close quarters–lead her into an easy friendship with Ryan. And since Ryan claims to be an editor, she spends some time learning about the craft of writing as well. Soon their closeness erodes the personal space she’s always carefully maintained, even with her boyfriend . . .

When the snow thaws and Jen returns to her job and boyfriend/potential fiancé, Ryan is left to the solitude she once prized, wondering if she and Jen will ever share anything more than a passionate kiss. After weeks of enforced companionship, “getting back to normal” turns out to be very lonely. [spoiler, highlight to read] With the help of Ryan’s friends Reese and Morgan (of No Strings fame), the couple overcomes the barriers between them, including Ryan’s past and Jen’s uncertainty, but not without a nice helping of drama. [end spoiler]

Although I have been getting a little tired of the “discovering I’m a lesbian when I’ve only dated men” trope, it was a solid romance and a nice take on the concept of being snowed in. I did have to overcome my irritation with Ryan for evading the truth about her identity and then missing many subsequent opportunities to rectify that once she got to know Jen. A quick, enjoyable read.

Anna M reviews Without Warning by KG Macgregor

WithoutWarning

Taking my cue from a comment on my last review, I read another KG MacGregor book, this time Without Warning. The book is the first in her Shaken series, which originated as Xena-based fanfiction (available here). In Without Warning, lawyer Lily Stewart and car dealer Anna Kaklis are both inside a mall in Los Angeles when an earthquake causes portions of the building to collapse. In a clothing store when the quake hit, Lily encounters and frees Anna, who is trapped under a fallen bookshelf in a different store. The women join forces to escape the crumbling structure, which is being wracked by aftershocks. After making some progress toward an exit, and learning more about one another, Anna manages to get help for Lily when her asthma threatens to suffocate her.

The earthquake and mutual life-saving creates a deep bond between the women, but a mix-up means that they don’t see each other for seven months–on the day of Anna’s divorce from the unsuitable Scott. Once reunited, the women find themselves drawn to one another, although the out Lily worries whether she can keep her feelings for the Amazonian Anna strictly platonic. Their path to couple-dom is a little bumpy–family pressure in the form of Anna’s conservative father and a misunderstanding that makes Lily doubt Anna’s feelings–but happily resolved.

I liked several things about this romance. First, the pace was slow. Lily and Anna don’t fall in love at first sight (it is, after all, extremely dark in the wrecked mall). They have a chance to get acquainted when they’re stuck together waiting for rescue; otherwise they would have been very unlikely to cross paths socially or professionally. Lily comes out to Anna almost immediately–there’s none of that “I didn’t tell her and if I tell her now she’ll wonder why I lied about it” stuff–and it takes Anna a while to figure out the direction of her feelings, including a visit to her college crush. I liked the consistent thread of humor throughout the book, especially the teasing interactions between the main characters. Without Warning reminds me, in the best way, of some of my favorite Xena uber fiction, including work by Ann McMan and Melissa Good.

But I really need to stop reading books with characters named Anna.

 

Anna K. reviews Elissa Janine Hoole’s Kiss the Morning Star

In Elissa Janine Hoole’s Kiss the Morning Star, Anna takes a roadtrip with her best-friend-for-years, Kat, to find proof of God’s love. It’s a few weeks before Anna’s 18th birthday, and a few months after her mom died in a house fire and her pastor father stopped preaching, and speaking altogether. A lesbian, Young Adult, coming-of-age novel centering on faith? you ask. Yep. And it’s good.

I was skeptical at first, waiting to get hit over the head with moralizing. But that doesn’t happen (excepting a couple less-than-ecstasy-inducing drug experiences and a nearly PG sex scene). Katy Kat and Anna babe, as they call each other, use Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums as a guide by choosing their next move with closed eyes and a finger on a random page. They get tattoos, get caught in a Mexico-bound bus full of missionaries stalled on train tracks, meet the shaman (a musician/spiritual leader), and have an encounter with a bear while backpacking. Along the way, Anna mourns the loss of her mother, tries to mend her relationship with her father via text message, begins to let go of some her burdensome fears and limiting routines, and recognizes that she is in love with Katy.

They find God subtly–the reader is left only to suppose they succeed–and falling in love with each other is a huge step of their journey. This sweet, teenage road novel is so satisfying I only wish I could have read it when I was a teen, but it’s just as fulfilling as an adult.

Anna reviewed Getting There by Lyn Denison

Getting There (2011) is the latest romance by Australian author Lyn Denison. Kat Oldfield moves back to her childhood stomping grounds when she inherits a run-down house from the ex-girlfriend who caused a permanent rift with her rigid family many years before. She’s coming off a much more recent loss, mourning the end of a ten-year relationship. As a non-bio mom, she’s struggling with custody issues and the feeling that she’s always going to be a failure. Although at first she feels that she’d probably be better off selling the house, after she returns home she takes the plunge and commits to fixing it up–trying to “get it right” in at least one aspect of her life. Enter Jess Andrews, a gorgeous renovation expert who runs a remodeling business with her ex-husband. Jess has children of her own, and their daughters hit it off (if not quite in the same way that their mothers do). As Kat and Jess come in to contact more often, their attraction deepens and becomes irresistible…

Jess and Kat have the usual obstacles of lesbian romance: no one knows who is gay or straight, or who is on the market; to add to the confusion, Jess still lives with her ex-husband and their children. No one is going to come right out and ask any pointed questions until the sexual tension has been ratcheted up a few notches. That’s all as expected, but Denison also weaves another plot through her love story. Kat’s father contacts her after many years of silence to inform her that her mother is in the hospital, which leads to some revelations about her family that Kat neither expects nor welcomes. As her entire life is being turned upside down, by uncovered secrets and by her unexpected attraction to Jess, Kat must find some solid ground before she can commit to love.

The secondary plot was an interesting approach that never quite meshed with the romance. Part of it might be that the book was so slight (clocking in at less than 200 pages) that it felt like Denison didn’t take the time to fully explore the implications of both aspects of her narrative. As a result, the relationship felt a little rushed and the “family secrets” portion felt strangely divorced from it. I do, however, appreciate that Denison’s characters are both divorced and have children and baggage and know they are attracted to women and are dealing with issues that real women might be dealing with (aside from the part where Kat inherits a house). Those who read and liked Denison’s The Wild One will be pleased to see Quinn and Rachel appear in this book as well.

Anna reviews Strange Bedfellows by Q. Kelly

Much like Pretty Woman, the lesbian novel Strange Bedfellowsby Q. Kelly concerns itself with the relationship between a high-powered executive and a prostitute. Frances Dourne is the poster child for the ex-gay movement in Washington, DC as the leader of the organization Gay Is A Choice. But despite her public success, her personal life has been deeply troubled. Her daughter Marissa was abducted by her father on the eve of her third birthday, and Frances hasn’t seen or heard from them since. Eleven long years after her family’s disappearance, Frances is finally motivated to come out of the closet by her nephew’s senseless death. She enlists the help of a call girl, Elena, who has a tragic story of her own: her son drowned in front of her three years ago, and she blames herself.Frances asks Elena to help her prepare for both her public coming-out and her confrontation with the parents who sent her to an abusive ex-gay camp when she was first questioning her sexuality. She is looking for support, not sex. Meanwhile, Elena has been using her new job as a way to escape her feelings about her son’s death. Although there is initially a lot of caution between the women–they are, after all, engaged in a prostitute-client relationship–each has a need for support and understanding that leads them to break the rules together. Early in the book, Kelly leaves the developing relationship between Frances and Elena to focus on Victoria, a fourteen-year old girl with a reclusive father who is increasingly convinced that she is the missing Marissa Dourne.Over the course of the narrative, Frances and Elena grow closer to each other as the date for her public self-outing draws closer; meanwhile, Victoria toys with the idea of calling the Marissa hotline to confess what she feels must be the truth, especially as her father grows more unstable. Will Frances be reunited with her daughter? Will the fragile relationship that Frances and Elena have managed to forge, despite the odds, manage to survive the publicity firestorm that her coming out speech will inevitably bring?

I enjoyed the unexpected weightiness of this book. It was interesting to leave the romantic relationship to see things from the perspective of a fourteen-year old who was having her own issues with life. While the women both had issues in the past that had an impact on their behavior, they weren’t portrayed as something that would create a permanent obstacle between them if they were willing to be together. The action seemed to be set in a little bit of an alternate reality (in which King Albert X of England hired Elena and a few other call girls while he was in DC), but that wasn’t fleshed out enough to either be intriguing or especially intrusive.

Anna reviewed I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

I Can’t Think Straight, a novel by Shamim Sarif, is a rarity among lesbian romances. It was adapted from the screenplay of Sharif’s recent film of the same name, which is unusual–generally the movies are created from the books. It also features a cast of almost exclusively non-white characters, which I found refreshing. In the interest of getting a fuller picture, I also watched the film, and I’m here to report that the book was the better of the two, thanks largely to the absence of actors

The story focuses on Tala, a young woman of Palestinian descent whose family is among Jordan’s elite. Tala makes her home primarily in London but, as the action opens, is preparing to celebrate at her fourth engagement party in Jordan. Her counterpart is Leyla, a British Indian woman and fledgling novelist who is dating Tala’s best friend in London. Both women are independent thinkers who struggle to find their place among more traditional family members. Although Leyla is antagonized by Tala’s blunt questioning of her Muslim faith at their first meeting, they soon find out that they have more in common than they might have suspected, including a predisposition toward the company of women. After a steamy overnight, Tala finds herself caught between Leyla, about whom she feels she could develop sincere feelings, and her fiancee Hani, who is perfect in almost every way–except that he’s a man. Tala must come to grips with her own feelings under pressure from an overbearing mother and the weight of cultural expectations . . . ideally before she gets married.

The coming-out tale is an old (and sometimes tired) trope in mainstream lesbian romance, but it takes on a different dimension here. I can hardly think of any coming out stories that feature not one but two non-Caucasian women, and Sarif does a good job of tying Tala and Leyla’s struggles in with the larger cultural setting. The consequences aren’t painted as dire if neither of them choose honesty, but the choice to come out and live as openly gay will definitely have an impact on the way they are perceived.

The title is an obvious pun, just as the outcome of the story is obvious once the characters are put through the necessary misery of coming out to themselves and their families. There are some nice turns of phrase in Sarif’s writing, but there are also some lines that were lifted directly from the screenplay and land somewhat awkwardly. One of the most notable things (and perhaps this derives from the screenplay adaptation as well) was the way that secondary characters were fleshed out for the reader as the narrative jumped to their points-of-view. That’s not a technique generally found in standard lesbian romance, and it helped to reveal the motivations of other players involved and affected by Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Overall an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, read.