Danika reviews Bearly a Lady by Cassandra Khaw

I will admit, I was sold immediately when I heard “Bisexual werebear novella.” The book opens with Zelda (yes, Zelda) irritated that her transformation into a bear is continually destroying her wardrobe. She works for a fashion magazine, so she doesn’t take this lightly.

This is such a fun, light read. It’s quippy and snarky and smart, including a character calling Zelda out for deriding something as lame, and her replying by saying “You know I don’t–I’m sorry. Cultural indoctrination is a monster.” Later, when a guy on the bus makes a lewd comment, she thinks,  “Could be an uncouth backpacker, fresh from a holiday in the Pacific, and still drunk on the idea of white supremacy.” And yes, not only is this a bisexual werebear story, our werebear protagonist is also a plus-sized woman of color.

Because this barely (ha) breaks 100 pages, it keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, even if it is mostly romantic entanglements. Speaking of romance, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning in this review that the romance is mostly M/F. Zelda has several male love interests and one female love interest, but like Kushiel’s Dart, I would say that although the F/F pairing gets less “page time,” it has the most significance. If you don’t want to read about M/F romance or sex, though, you probably should skip this one. I will also note that there’s some use of fae glamor which is nonconsensual, so I would give a trigger warning for the implications of that. (It is called out in text, though.)

This was quick, fun read that definitely lived up to its premise. Between this and my previous read, River of Teeth (which is excellent and queer, but the lesbian character is a side character, and there is no F/F content), I’m really starting to fall in love with novellas!


Danika reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

When Lucky and Kris first got married, they delighted at having pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. Lucky was welcomed back into her Sri Lanken-American family. Kris didn’t have to worry about getting deported after his family turned their backs on him. And if they both pocketed their wedding rings and went to gay clubs on the weekends, what was the harm? Unfortunately, if you live a lie long enough, it can start to take over.

Lucky is restless and unhappy in the in-between life she’s made for herself. She bounces between her mother’s home, where her grandmother is ill, and her apartment where she lives with her gay husband. Apart from not actually being a romantic couple, they also don’t get along that well as friends–at least, not anymore. And now the love of her life is entering into an arranged marriage, at least partially because she believes that it worked for Lucky. She’s trapped between impossible trade-offs: live a lie forever, or lose her family and culture?

Lucky has two sisters, each of whom picked a different side: one took off in the night to escape her mother’s restrictive rules about her life (marry a good Sri Lanken man, behave in the prescribed ways). The family has barely heard from her since, and never sees her. Her grandmother asks for her daily, constantly wanting to meet her great-grandaughter. As Lucky sits with her elderly grandmother as she cries for the baby she longs to hold, she can’t imagine breaking her mother and grandmother’s hearts again in this way. But Lucky’s other sister walked away from the boyfriend who adored her to enter into an arranged marriage, and despite her insistence that she’s happy, there’s a hollowness to her eyes now. Every choice is a trade off. Every life means another one left behind.

I’ll admit that although I believe this is a well-written book, and I can imagine it would be a favourite for the right reader, I didn’t find it enjoyable to read. It feels claustrophobic and stifling. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as circle tighter and tighter. Lucky can’t see a way forward. Her relationship with Nisha is painful, as Nisha pulls her close and then pushes her away as she goes through her own panic about her life. Lucky feels alone as the brown girl at the queer party and the queer (or, at least, not quite acceptably feminine) girl in her Sri Lanken community. Her mother is controlling, but she’s also vulnerable and desperately trying to hold her family together.

It feels messy and bleak as Lucky bounces between her options: abandon her family and join with the queer, rugby-playing, semi-communal household? Have a baby with Kris and double down on the fake marriage? Convince her mother to accept her as she is, while Amma weeps endlessly at the idea? There aren’t easy answers. At the same time, I did get a little frustrated at Lucky’s feeble attempts at autonomy. She makes a little money online with her art, but she makes no effort to do anything that would make her financially independent, meaning that she is reliant on her mother or Kris to survive. I felt like just getting any kind of additional income would help immensely in her having more autonomy in her life, but she didn’t pursue that at all.

This is a book that I appreciated, but didn’t exactly enjoy. I’m glad that it is out there for the right readers, but it’s not one that personally clicked with me.

Danika reviews Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

This is a story that I still miss days after reading it. I was completely absorbed in the story, and I read most of it in one day. Jordan’s double life (disguised as a boy to join an all male capella group), the arts academy environment, and the world of a capella was all fascinating. Add to that Jordan’s struggle to fit into an elite private school on a scholarship while her family struggles to make rent, as well as an ever-more-vicious rivalry with another a capella group, and I was hooked.

I also found it interesting to read a crossdressing narrative that addresses the queer subtext. There is a long history of crossdressing in queer narratives, but usually the queer possibilities are swept under the rug as much as possible. This is a modern crossdressing story that faces them head on. Jordan isn’t trans or genderqueer, but the story acknowledges the existence of trans people, which is the first I’ve seen in this genre. Jordan borrows tips from trans websites and feels guilty about using them. When people begin to find out about her other life, they initially think that she is trans and are accepting about it, but she explains that she is cisgender.

The way crossdressing narratives usually flirt with queerness but ultimately sidestep it is by having a woman fall in love with the woman-in-disguise. The woman thinks she’s a man, so it’s not queer! Once her disguise is discarded, that romance evaporates. Meanwhile, the woman in disguise falls for a guy, but he only falls back once the disguise comes off. [mild spoilers] In some ways, Noteworthy plays into this: a girl kisses Jordan while she is Julian, and she falls for a straight guy while in disguise. The difference is that Jordan realizes through this experience that she’s bisexual. She names herself as bisexual. Unfortunately, the girl she kisses is straight, so there’s no significant F/F romance, but there’s no mistaking that Jordan is bi. [end spoilers]

The only thing that fell flat for me was that some of the members of the Sharpshooters blended together—only a few felt like fleshed out characters. (I did really love Nihal and Jordan’s relationship with him, though.) The author is obviously very familiar with a capella, so some of the details of the arrangements went over my head, but that wasn’t distracting. This was an absorbing, nuanced, and utterly enjoyable read.

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.

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: More books I got in the mail!

I got a box of books in the mail this week that I’m very excited about. (Thanks Bookmooch!)

This is one of those really specific titles that I always find fascinating. In its defense, this isn’t actually all about lesbian hair (though you probably could write a book about it). It’s a humour book that sounds similar to So You Want to Be a Lesbian?, which I liked despite it being fairly outdated now. The History of Lesbian Hair a slim little book, only a little over 100 pages, so I’ll probably tackle it pretty soon.

As for fiction, I got a well-loved copy of Babyji by Abha Dawesar. It won the 2005 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and the 2006 Stonewall Book Award for Fiction, so that’s definitely promising. It’s set in India in the 1980s and has a 16-year-old protagonist with a love for quantum physics who has affairs with three different women while critiquing caste politics. I love reading lesbian books that stray from the usual all-white cast, set in the U.S. norm. Plus, a smart, adventurous heroine? I am completely on board!

And finally, I got Sisters, Sexperts, Queers: Beyond the Lesbian Nation edited by Arlene Stein. I’m really interested in knowing more about not just present lesbian culture and politics, but also what has come before. This book explores the fall from the dream of a “Lesbian Nation–a sisterhood with a shared identity, a common agenda” to a more splintered, multi-faceted culture, split along ideas about marriage, butch/femme dynamics, and class differences. It looks fascinating.

Have you read A History of Lesbian Hair, Babyji, or Sisters, Sexperts, Queers? What did you think of it?