Elinor reviews The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is an amazing book. It is a memoir but not a neatly narrative one. It’s been called “genre-bending,” which it certainly is. I’d describe it as a meditation of family, queerness, gender, love, bodies, connection, and a whole lot more. Nelson quotes academic theorists as readily as she shares visceral, personal details from her life. The book primarily focuses on Nelson’s relationship with and marriage to genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, being a stepmother to Dodge’s son from a previous relationship, and being pregnant with, giving birth to and parenting the couple’s younger son. Each of these topics is examined thoughtfully through multiple lenses, giving the reader plenty of food for thought.

This book offers up many intriguing questions without giving easy answers. Everything from assumptions about pregnant women, reified identity, personal expression, death, and the act of giving birth get a turn. I find it hard to summarize such an eclectic and fascinating book while truly doing it justice. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.

I’m also grateful that I read it exactly when I did, just after I finished graduate school and nearly at the middle of my pregnancy. It was the only book I’ve found that spoke about the personal experience of pregnancy, let alone queer pregnancy, in a way that rang true for me. The questions about parenthood and marriage that it raises were extremely relevant to me and I found myself jotting down references for further reading.

It can be fairly academic in places. I appreciated this, but others might not. It’s short but dense with ideas, and I’m glad I took my time reading it. Going slowly with it allowed me to absorb the subject matter and I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much if I’d read it in a rush.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in queer family and partnership, or just a truly unique memoir.

Elinor reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Set in London after the end of World War I, The Paying Guests is a gorgeous and haunting novel. It begins with Frances Wray, a single woman in her mid-twenties, and her widowed mother waiting for their new lodgers. The loss of Frances’ father and the discovery of his poor financial decisions has reduced the once-wealthy family to a meager existence, with only their beautiful home to sustain them. The lodgers, or paying guests, are Lilian and Leonard, a young married couple coming up in the world at the same time the upper class Wrays are slipping down. Frances’ life is bleak. She’s lost both her brothers in the war along with her own dreams of independence now that she is all her mother has left. A former activist who once hoped to forge her own life with a woman she loved, she spends her days attending to the tedious tasks of managing the household, occasionally visiting her ex (and ex’s new girlfriend), and steeling herself against the disappointment of her life.

To Frances’ surprise, the paying guests bring much more than desperately needed money. Her growing friendship with Lilian and Leonard gives Frances unexpected joy. Then as she and Lilian grow even closer, the possible price of this happiness looms.

The later part of the book centers around a murder investigation that is not a whodunit. Though you the reader know what happened, the motivations of characters become less clear as the police look into the death of a resident of the household. Secrets about the characters come to light, changing what you thought you knew. The investigation raises difficult questions about what is the right thing to do.

I found this book a slow start but absolutely worth the effort. The writing is emotionally evocative, stirring in turns resigned disappointment, desire, joy, horror, and profound uneasiness. The vivid portrait of life in the Wray household is unforgettable without being flashy or fawning. This is an intimate book, revealing the quiet and everyday, which makes the dramatic events grounded and much more disturbing than they might have been in a more sensationalist novel. Though this book is quite long–well over five hundred pages–and not the sort you’d read over a weekend, it’s worth the time. For one thing, you’ll want to savor Waters’ writing and her ability to transport you completely into another time and another life. Reading this is not a frantic rush to figure out what will all happen in the end. It’s about enjoying the journey, one that will stay with you long after you put the book down. Folks looking for a light read won’t find it here but I highly recommend this novel.

Elinor reviews Best Lesbian Erotica 20th Anniversary Edition edited by Sacchi Green

Best Lesbian Erotica 20th Anniversary Edition, edited by Sacchi Green, delivers seventeen creative stories with all the heat you’ve come to expect from the series. It offers everything from a pro Domme feeling more than expected for a hot female client (“A Professional,”) to tryst with a hitchhiker (“Dust”) to werewolf sex (“Hot Blood”). A cop and a jewel thief get it on in a moving subway car in “The Further Adventures of Miss Scarlet.” Doppelgangers switch roles again and again in “Mirror, Mirror.” In “Luscious and Wild,” a kinky young couple enjoys a weekend in a hotel room. A troupe of drag kings pull an audience member on stage for flirtatious attention and she surprises them all with her response in “Easy.”

This edition had a surprising number of musician-themed stories, so if you’re longing for lesbian musician erotica, you should definitely pick this up. Girls form a band, and fall into bed with each other, in Liverpool in the 1960s in “Ascension.” An aging rockstar has a secret, kink-filled relationship with an emerging star and tour mate in “Reunion Tour.” In “Give and Take,” a former up-and-coming musician turned venue tech has a one-night stand with a younger up-and-comer.

In addition to “Ascension,” this anthology has a few other stories set in the past. “The Royalty Underground” shows two young British women meeting and having sex in a crowded tube station-turned-shelter during a World War II air raid. In “Grindhouse,” a burlesque dancer in 1950s New York dabbles in kinky female-only films and gets exactly what she wants from her co-star after the cameras stop rolling.

My favorite story was probably “Tomato Bondage.” In this, the only story about long-term partners, a pair of farmers–and switches–get creative with outdoor bondage. I appreciated the practicality of these inventive heroines, and that the sex in the story seemed to benefit as much from the couple’s bond as from their originality. I also really liked “Make Them Shine,” in which a fat femme dominant gets her boots shined, and more, by a genderqueer sub. The descriptions in this story were rich and evocative, and I loved the narrator.

There were a few stories that weren’t my cup of tea, though they might be yours. In fairness, I’m in the first trimester of pregnancy right now (yay!) and I know my distaste for “Smorgasbord,” in which a food artist and a food writer indulge in a sexual and artistic food-filled romp, was due in part to the all-day morning sickness I’ve been experiencing for weeks. Descriptions of all sorts of culinary delights smeared on somebody’s body are a lot less appealing after weeks of unrelenting queasiness and I couldn’t judge this story fairly. I’ve also been hormonally emotional, and the grief of “Tears from Heaven’s” narrator over her recently deceased dog, lost due to absentmindness on the part of her younger lover, made it more weepy than erotic for me. Similarly, the infidelity-themed “The Road to Hell,” which begins and ends with the narrator lying to her partner of two decades, bummed me out tremendously. All of these are perfectly fine stories if they sound appealing to you.

My only real complaint is that I would have liked more diversity in this anthology. Only two stories appeared to explicitly feature people of color, no one seemed to have a disability of any kind, and nearly all of the stories were about sex with new partners. I especially like erotica that features long-term couples who still have a sex life along with a domestic one and there wasn’t much of that here. That’s my bias and I know not everyone is looking for that.

There were a lot of interesting scenarios, though. There was plenty of hot sex ranging from vanilla to kinky, many different voices and styles, and many sexy characters. I highly recommend it.

Elinor reviews Lesbian Conception 101 by Kathy Borkoski

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My wife and I decided a few months back to try to have a baby. Naturally, I’ve been reading everything that exists on the subject. There aren’t a ton of books out there for queer women trying to get pregnant. One of the most accessible is Lesbian Conception 101: An easy-to-follow, how-to get started guide for lesbians thinking about getting pregnant tomorrow or in a couple of years by Kathy Borkoski. Borkoski doesn’t preach about the way you ought to things. She lays out your getting-pregnant options, and offers some cost-saving tips and exercises for figuring out what you want. The book focuses exclusively on conception, which can keep things from being overwhelming when you’re starting the process.

Lesbian Conception 101 isn’t the most comprehensive book about getting pregnant that exists. It’s very short–less than 100 pages–and some of that is devoted to the voices of women who’d gone through the process. While these personal stories are interesting and at times reassuring, they typically don’t delve into a lot of details that you can apply to your own life. It’s decidedly written for cisgender lesbian couples and if this isn’t you, your mileage may vary. Sections include deciding who will carry, ways to get sperm, and options for insemination. Borkoski includes options for using known and unknown donors, and insemination choices from low-tech at home up to IVF.

I wish Borkoski had included more suggestions for further reading. If you want more information about tracking your fertility, for example, a few more resources would have been nice. Also, some of your experiences might be different from the book. Borkoski’s description of intrauterine insemination involved much more medical monitoring than I experienced. Likewise, the section on questions you’ll be asked, while a good way to prepare yourself, might not be anything like the questions you’ll actually be asked. (The weirdest question my wife and I got was, “Are you two adopting or using a surrogate?” To which I got to reply, “We’re going to try to use one of the two uteruses we have between us.” Also, multiple people asked if we could chose the sex of our baby). Still, it’s a good starting off point. If you aren’t interested in ever getting pregnant or having a pregnant partner, you don’t need this book. But if you are, this is one of the easiest books out there about lesbian baby making.

Elinor reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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Afterworlds may be one book, but it’s also two YA novels told in alternating chapters. Half of the chapters are about Darcy Patel. At the story’s start Darcy has just graduated from high school, sold her novel Afterworlds to a major publisher (along with its yet-unwritten sequel) for six figures, and is moving to New York City to revise her manuscript and write her next book. The other half of the book is Darcy’s novel itself, a fast-paced supernatural tale as told by Lizzie, a ordinary teenager girl until she survives a terrorist attack. In the midst of the terrible slaughter around her, Lizzie wills herself to the afterworld, the alternate plane of existence for ghosts and their psychopomps spirit guides. In doing so, Lizzie becomes a psychopomp herself and her life floods with ghosts and with dangers she never imagined.

Darcy navigates New York publishing while Lizzie begins a romance with Yamaraj, a handsome fellow psychopomp. Lizzie meets Mindy, the ghost of her mother’s murdered childhood friend, who has lived in her mother’s closet for decades. Darcy falls in love for the first time with Imogen, a YA writer who is full of secrets. Lizzie sets out to solve Mindy’s murder while learning about her new powers and wrestling with the moral questions of the new realm she’s uncovered. Darcy struggles to polish her novel, find her place among her literary heroes, and have her first relationship.

This is an engaging book for YA fans. Both teenage heroines are struggling with the transition to adulthood in extraordinary circumstances. Lizzie has a host of otherworldly issues to contend with, along with trauma and survivor’s guilt. Darcy has had all her dreams come true thanks to incredible success as a first-time novelist, but wrestles with imposter syndrome, questions of cultural appropriation in fiction, and the sudden freedom of adulthood.

The weakness point for both stories, at least for me, were the romances. Yamaraj is, like plenty of teenage heart throbs, too perfect to be really interesting, though the novel ultimately addresses this smartly. Imogen is more complex but Darcy’s apparent sudden sexual awakening wasn’t fleshed out. Prior to Imogen, it seemed Darcy had never any romantic or sexual interest in anyone, though she wrote a novel with a significant romance. On the one hand, it was refreshing that Darcy was relatively unconcerned with her sexual orientation or labeling herself. She struggles to tell her family about her girlfriend, even knowing that it won’t be a big deal, but there’s no tortured coming out story. Many of the challenges in the relationship are challenges in any first relationship. On the other, it seemed like Darcy was written to be vaguely on the asexual/demisexual spectrum without actually acknowledging this. Darcy, at eighteen, had never thought about her sexuality before, and I’m tired of female characters who had no sexual fantasies or desires until the right love interest comes along. It distracted me from the beginning of the Imogen/Darcy relationship, though that relationship did evolve in interesting ways.

All and all this was a fun read. I’d recommend to young adults looking for a different take on paranormal romance, for aspiring writers (the six-figure book deal is an excellent fantasy), for YA fans, and for readers looking for unique read.

Elinor reviews Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities by Jerome Pohlen

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There isn’t a lot of nonfiction for young readers out there about LGBTQ people or issues. For this reason alone, Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities stands out. With just over 150 pages, tons of beautiful photographs, and a century of gay history, there’s nothing else like it on the market for children. Public and school libraries should stock it and let interested readers learn about the context and story of gay activism in the United States. There is nothing overtly sexually in this book and nearly all the language is totally school-appropriate, so there is little for adults to object over, except for the folks who are upset about the spotlight on gay history itself. The book also lists resources so interested readers can find out more.

Is it something you should buy for the kids in your own life, though? That depends. I’m a middle school teacher and a former elementary teacher, and I received a copy of this book for my class library in exchange for an honest review. I currently work at a school in the Bay Area with an active gay-straight alliance and a handful of out teachers, including me. While I was very excited for this book and think it would be great for some kids, it has limitations.

The biggest of these is that the intended audience is more unclear than it seems on the surface. The reading level is advanced, at least upper elementary if not middle school, but the tone is clearly for children, not young teens. Teens and tweens who see themselves as mature or who already have some awareness of LGBTQ history and politics may find it patronizing. Many sections struck me (and some of my volunteer eighth grade readers) as talking down to the reader. This wouldn’t be as noticeable to, say, a third grader but the vocabulary and writing style is beyond that of most third graders. A child would likely find it frustrating to read unless they are a very fluent reader with a great vocabulary or they are reading it with an adult. The activities are all for students in elementary school, some of them best for students in early elementary grades. These activities don’t add much to the book either. Gay and Lesbian History for Kids would have had a wider audience with an easier reading level, without activities, with “young people” instead of “kids” in the title, and/or with a little more faith in its readers.

It’s noteworthy to me that the title and subtitle don’t really line up in this book, which is reflected in the book itself. Bisexuals don’t get mentioned very much. Trans people and trans rights get more attention, but huge chunks of trans history in the 20th century are absent. Even the lesbian history sections are condensed to the point that I felt important parts of the story were missing. Part of this is just that summing up a century in the space allotted means things will be left out. Yet as a history buff, and history teacher, I know that what we cut for space is often as telling as the history itself.

Similarly, the book briefly explores homosexuality and gender variance in ancient history in ways that didn’t read as balanced to me. Africa’s left out of the early history section entirely and Asia’s section mentions only a gay emperor in China and a gender flexible Hindu god/dess. In reality, pre-colonial queer and trans history around the globe is really interesting! Many homophobic laws and cultural influences in Asia, Africa and the Americas are leftovers from European imperialism and colonialism. It’s fascinating to look at how that lingers. In some places globally there’s never been a large scale gay rights movement because queerness is more culturally normalized, even if that normalization occurs in flawed ways. I wish, if pre-modern LGBTQ history were going to be mentioned in a global context, it had been explored more deeply. The rest of the book is about LGBT history mainly in North America and somewhat in Western Europe. The bits about Two-Spirit Native peoples are all in the past but not the present, and queer and trans people are discussed in ancient cultures when the modern descendants of those places are never mentioned in modern history sections of the book. The attempt a global multiculturalism feels more like spice than substance.

Along those same lines I wish this book took a more intersectional approach. A featured picture in the book shows the first Annual Reminder in 1965, with Frank Kameny holding a sign reading “Homosexual American Citizens–Our Last Oppressed National Minority.” A similar idea later popped up unchallenged in a Larry Kramer quote from the 1980s. But obviously when we look back at the 60’s or the 80’s or even when we look at the U.S. today, we can see racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of oppression had and have devastating effects on people, that homophobia isn’t necessarily “the worst,” and that trying to pick a “worst” oppression isn’t really the point. The fact that gay white men thought that gay people were the last or most oppressed minority strikes me as pretty clueless. The idea that it’s possible to experience oppression and privilege in a variety of intersecting ways isn’t presented at all. It is a complex idea, but a valuable framework for people who may be reading about activist history for the first time.

Despite all the criticism, I am really glad to have this for my classroom. I absolutely think it should be in libraries for young people. I don’t think it should be the only book on LGBTQ history available, and I hope future authors fill the gaps. If you’re thinking of buying this book for an individual child or teen you know, consider their reading level, age, and how much support they’ll get reading it. If you’re there to bridge the gap between the tone and the reading demands, and ready to provide information about what’s left out, go for it. If not, you might want to read it yourself before you decide if it’s really right for the young person you have in mind.

Elinor reviews Same Time, Next Week by Emily Smith

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Same Time, Next Week is an incredibly fun novel to read, though not at all what I had in mind. I picked it up because it’s billed as a butch-femme romance. I love romance and I love butch-femme. But I didn’t like this love story or either of the heroines, and I couldn’t get invested in their relationship. Because this is a love story about cheating on your wife.

I knew this going into it. Same Time, Next Week takes a big gamble in the premise, offering a (mostly unconsummated) romance between single Michelle and married Alex. I was a little leary about the affair angle, but I thought it could be interesting. It was definitely engaging. Reading it was like watching bad reality television without the uncomfortable feeling that you’re watching real human beings embarrass themselves. I don’t think that was the intended purpose of this novel, but after I embraced it as a guilty pleasure I couldn’t put it down.

When the novel begins our butch narrator, Alex, is in her late twenties and has been married to Beth, who’s a little younger, for three years. Beth and Alex were long-time friends who married after a brief romance. Hindsight and regret have Alex wondering if she rushed into her marriage and what she should do about it. She’s also feeling stuck in her career, working as essentially a paralegal despite graduating from a prestigious law school at the top of her class and passing the bar. Alex is unhappy with her life, and magically the answer to all her problems arrives when she goes to a crowded lesbian coffee shop one day. Hot, sophisticated, happy Michelle shares Alex’s table, and before they know it, the pair are meeting twice a week at the coffee shop. Alex tells the reader over and over about her guilt, but that doesn’t stop her from complaining to the audience about how Beth fails to measure up to awesome Michelle. Michelle knows from the get-go that Alex is married, but that doesn’t stop her from flirting, asking Alex to be her plus-one at her ex’s wedding, inviting Alex on a Beth-less vacation to Provincetown, having Alex pretend to be her girlfriend in front of a worried relative, and generally playing the perfect alternative to Alex’s boring wife.

Alex has cheated on every pre-Beth girlfriend she ever had and worries that she’ll end up like her own many-times-divorced mother. Though she’s very concerned about leaving her cheating days in the past, she doesn’t seem as concerned with Beth as an actual person with feelings. Alex lists Beth’s faults, but most of them are petty (Beth wears yoga pants all the time!) and/or things that Alex could address just as easily as Beth (we don’t talk, we don’t do anything fun together, we don’t have sex, the house is a mess). Alex doesn’t make any effort to improve her relationship with Beth or even rekindle the friendship they had for years. When Beth and Michelle eventually meet, Alex relishes the passive-aggressive way the women battle over her, which pretty much killed the remaining sympathy I’d had for her. Plus, a big “flaw” of Beth’s is that she’s an Applebee’s waitress, while Alex and Michelle have white-collar careers. Beth is from a more working class background than the other characters, and Alex and Michelle’s classism started making me like Beth better than either of the “love interests.” Also, they make a big deal out of Beth mispronouncing “merlot,” which 1) isn’t even something worth being snobby over, and 2) doesn’t make any sense because Beth is a bartender at Applebee’s and you know people are ordering hella merlot there.

All this would infuriating if these were real people you had to hang out with but Smith’s brisk writing keeps it all pretty fun. Alex’s lack of self-awareness is dazzling, and Michelle seems to be written as though she’s performing an alluring, and effective, act rather than really showing her authentic self. Michelle wants the attention of unavailable women (her ex who broke her heart was apparently a main character in Smith’s previous novel, also a romance about cheating). I kept thinking of the “cool girl” description in Gone Girl whenever Alex mentioned another way Michelle is perfect. Alex repeatedly exclaims that everything that’s hard about marriage would be fine, if only she were married with Michelle, because everything is fun and easy with Michelle. She doesn’t ever consider the possibility that things might be fun and easy with Michelle because it’s new with Michelle, Michelle’s trying to impress her, she doesn’t have any baggage with Michelle, and she hasn’t lived with Michelle for years, etc. The things she doesn’t like about Beth are some of the same reasons she fell for Beth in the first place: Beth is laidback, younger and less intellectual. But it doesn’t occur to Alex that the things she likes about Michelle (ambitious, “cultured,” slightly sarcastic) could grate on her nerves over time too. The self-delusion was fantastic. At points I honestly started to wonder if it was all intentional and Alex was some Nabokov-style unreliable narrator or if Michelle would snap under the weight of her own charade. It was sort of delightful and definitely kept my attention.

There’s also some stuff about Alex’s career, which is ridiculous. Alex goes from not ever really working as a lawyer to being lead on cases and being on a partner track in less than a year. I have a couple of friends who are lawyers (hired at the exact same time Alex couldn’t find a job, after graduating from less prestigious law schools), and just from that, I can say this is not how it works. Alex stops short of blaming Beth for her previously stunted career, but just barely.

This probably makes me sound terrible, but what I liked best about this book was the way it allowed me to indulge in moral superiority and self-righteous judgment. Sometimes that’s a satisfying feeling. The writing is smooth, it’s a fast read, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. When you feel like being mildly indignant and judging other’s mistakes, skip the clickbait and the reality TV and read Same Time, Next Week instead.

Elinor reviews Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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As a long-time Sleater-Kinney fan and a Pacific Northwest transplant, I was thrilled that Carrie Brownstein had written a memoir. I picked up a copy of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl right away and I’ve been telling everybody about it ever since. I’ve been recommending it right and left and I’m excited to tell you why.

Brownstein’s book is at times devastating, insightful, and hilarious. It traces Brownstein’s childhood in a Seattle suburb through her early days as a fan making music with friends and onto her life as a touring musician and briefly features her life during Sleater-Kinney’s long (and at the time, seemingly indefinite) hiatus. Though Brownstein explores coming of age under the shadow of mother’s eating disorder and her father’s later-in-life coming out, the bulk of the book is devoted to her time in Sleater-Kinney.

This means that you’ll find out a lot about the miseries of touring in general and Brownstein’s variety of on-tour ailments in particular, including a torn ligament, a surprise food allergy that made her face swell up, and shingles. Brownstein deftly deflates any rock star mystique we may have projected on the incredible musician. Readers are treated to other tidbits about the band as well, including backstories to some songs, bands they toured with, and where and how they recorded.

Brownstein also shares some of the incredibly sexist media coverage Sleater-Kinney has gotten over the years. She exposes her still-raw pain of being outed, along with fellow band co-founder Corin Tucker, by a reporter from Spin. The report had never spoken with either woman about their sexuality or personal relationships and Brownstein was stunned when she learned of the article’s content. In her early twenties at the time and not out to her family, and not completely clear how she wanted to identify, the experience clearly hurt Brownstein deeply, made worse by the reporter’s portrait of her as Tucker’s gushing fan rather than a competent and creative musician in her own right.

Perhaps these negative media experiences help explain the one aspect of the book I found wanting: Brownstein’s guardedness around her personal relationships, especially about her relationship with Tucker. Tucker and Brownstein were dating when they formed the band and recorded its first albums. Though Brownstein writes about the break-up and the impact it had on the music–more than one song on the album Dig Me Out deals the fall out from their relationship–she doesn’t let readers know much about the relationship itself. Their connection is described somewhat ambiguously until their breakup, which is confusing and mutes its emotional impact on readers. Brownstein tells of the sometimes-difficult relationship she and bandmembers Tucker and Janet Weiss have had with one another over the years (the band briefly went to couple’s therapy lead by a pair of married lesbians), but you can’t help but feel a piece of the puzzle is missing. Obviously, staying a creative partnership with her ex brought challenges, especially as Tucker got into a new relationship, married, and became a parent while Brownstein got sick on tour, had a series of girlfriends, and considered going to grad school. As Sleater-Kinney is an active band with a new album to promote, it’s equally obvious why Brownstein seems a bit protective. Spilling every emotionally gory detail wouldn’t be good for the band that’s finally making music together again. Besides, Brownstein is open about her tendency to live in her head and intellectualize her experiences. It doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing as a reader though. When later in the book Brownstein paints a heartbreaking and horrific scene around losing her cat, I wished she’d tackled her personal relationships with people as intensely and vividly.

That being said, the book is great. This memoir turns the idea of a rock star on its head. Brownstein is an unabashed geek and a serious nonfiction writer, as well as an excellent guitar player and singer. She takes her music seriously, cares about giving a good show, and spent most of her career acting as her own roadie. Being on tour isn’t billed as glamorous or sexy or filled with groupies. When Brownstein breaks down before a show and sets in motion a hiatus that will last over a decade, I empathized. The band was hard work.

Those who know Brownstein only from Portlandia might be disappointed, as the show only gets a shout-out in a single sentence. On the other hand, the ideas the show explores pop up periodically in the book. More importantly, it’s a waste to only know Brownstein from her acting. She an amazing musician and a great writer. I highly recommend this book.

Elinor reviews Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 edited by Laura Antoniou

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Some of the stories in Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 are among the best erotic writing I’ve read. Whether or not you’re a big erotica fan, there are stories in this anthology that so well written that they warrant a read because of how well they show nuanced lesbian relationships. Some of these authors took big swings and came up with exciting, original tales. Stories like, “The Last Last Time,” “Second Date,” and “Behrouz Gets Lucky” show us a diverse cast of queer people dating and falling in and out of love in ways that feel true and meaningful, as well as offering some hot sex. “Andro Angel” gives us a sexy, anonymous threesome, while in “A Knock at the Door” the two women write erotica together via email, imagining the encounter that they’ve yet to have. Because of the skill of these writers, even stories I would not have chosen based on their description turned out to be gems, particularly Tina Horn’s “Wet Dirt.” In another example, I found the love interest in “Learning to Cook” incredibly unappealing but the story so good that by the end I’d lost all my resistance.

This collection takes us to other times and places too. “Lovely Lady Liberty” is a delightful romp in the middle of World War II. “Arachne” reimagines a Greek myth as erotica with surprisingly great results. “The Bullwhip and the Bull Rider” seems like it’s from another time, though it’s not explicitly, and it actually made the rodeo sound sexy–a compliment that should be taken seriously since I grew up in small-town Idaho and the memory of rodeos, with their hay-and-manure smells, still makes my nose twitch.

There’s a wide range of characters and sexual expression in this book. There’s plenty of kinky and vanilla adventures alike, and characters of many races, gender presentations, and different ages. With authors like Sacchi Green, Xan West, Miel Rose, BD Swain and many, many others, there is a ton to savor in this collection.

That being said, this anthology felt uneven. Rarely will anyone like every story in an anthology, but the high quality writing in the best pieces made the less polished stories a let down. Some, like “Late Show,” tried to pack in way too much relationship angst and sudden commitment in a short erotica piece. “Girlz in the Mist,” on the other hand, presented an intriguing premise but the sex scene read like a blase recitation of acts without desire or pleasure, with a narrator who is “tolerating her own violation.” Despite an interesting set up at an all-female bath house, ultimately it reminded me of the bland girl-on-girl erotica you find written for a male audience. Worse was “Kristie’s Game,” in which a rough consensual hook up between strangers turns disturbing when one woman physically overpowers the other and threatens to penetrate her while the physically weaker woman says “no” repeatedly. The reader is told she’s afraid, but the sex scene doesn’t stop and in the end we’re told this behavior is a habit for the stronger woman. I felt incredibly frustrated because this story could have been consensual with a brief conversation early in the hookup to determine safe words, providing a clear line between playing with power and actual fear of rape. There was no need to include the threat of rape, which it should go without saying I do not expect from the erotica I read. This story also had a notable spelling mistake and a few very clunky phrases, giving the impression that it had not been edited.

I do recommend this book, but please skip “Kristie’s Game.” It’s unfortunate that this is included in an otherwise great, if not flawless, erotica anthology.

Elinor reviews Olive Oil and White Bread by Georgia Beers

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Olive Oil and White Bread is an unusual romance in that it doesn’t focus on the process of falling in love. Instead, it charts more than two decades between a couple, both their highs and lows. Jillian and Angie check each other out at a New York state softball game in the late 1980s and feel a spark. But they don’t meet for another year, until the catch sight of each other in a lesbian bar. They go out, fall in love, and have hot sex. They’re both in their early twenties and launching their careers. Angie’s newly out, and Jillian’s been out a little longer. They don’t have tons of romantic baggage, and it’s all excitement and aspirations.

Then the book flashes forward, showing meaningful points over their years together. They buy a house, get a dog, and settle into a life together. Though she had other dreams, Jillian makes peace with her career as an elementary school art teacher, while Angie grows increasingly frustrated working in sales at Logo Promo. Logo Promo is a company that makes promotional materials with client company’s logos on them. Angie works long, often unpleasant hours, which puts a gradual strain on their relationship.

Without giving too much away, after more than a decade and a half, the couple faces a crisis in their relationship. Years of minor problems collide in a way that threatens Jillian and Angie’s future together. I loved that the roots of the eventual conflict are introduced slowly over the course of the book. It isn’t some cliche “big misunderstanding” or a dramatic tragedy that provides the tension the couple faces. Instead, it’s a much more realistic constellation of unresolved issues, failure to communicate, and individual struggles that shake Jillian and Angie’s relationship. This book was honest and well written.

The only downside is that it was also sometimes depressing. Not angsty or overwrought, but genuinely sad. It’s hard to read about two decent people who love each other causing one another unintentional pain. Jillian and Angie act like normal, imperfect humans, and their actions are usually understandable. Their relationship feels real, and it was pretty emotionally demanding when things get tough between the couple.

This isn’t a reason to avoid the book, though. If you’re even remotely interested in fiction about lesbian couples, Olive Oil and White Bread is a good read. There aren’t a lot of romances about two women in long relationships. Plus, Angie is described as “not small” and sexy, beautiful, and mostly happy about her body. She never goes on a diet and no one does anything fat phobic. It is incredibly refreshing. It’s not always light or happy, but it’s a really good book. 4 out of 5 stars.