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.

Elinor reviews Too Late…I Love You by Kiki Archer

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Remember how I was just wishing I could read some romance involving lesbian parents? My wish came true in Kiki Archer’s new book, Too Late…I Love You! It features one out lesbian single mom, a few characters who surprise you, and some truly fun romance. Too Late…I Love You begins with the story of Connie, a young woman living with her boyfriend, Karl, and their three-year-old son, Noah, in London. Connie and Karl had only known each other a few months when Connie got pregnant and they’ve spent the years since then trying to do what they think is best for their child, even though they’ve never really been in love with one another. Karl works long hours and Connie stays home parenting and has recently started writing a romance that weaves its way through the novel. Karl and Connie aren’t terrible to each other, but they’re not happy together either. Connie’s okay plodding along because she adores her son and spends a lot of time with her best friend, Ryan, who’s gay and understands Connie in a way her boyfriend doesn’t. This seems like enough for Connie until she meets Maria, an out lesbian who has always been a single parent. Maria’s daughter, Alice, is just weeks older than Noah, and when the kids meet at playgroup, the children become fast friends. Their mothers bond and discover that they have similar senses of humor, values, and that they love talking to each other and flirting. Their friendship deepens as Connie’s unhappy partnership dissolves, and the characters wind their way to a happy ending–with a couple of surprising twists.

This was one of the most fun romances I’ve read in a long time. The premise sounds like angst might be on the horizon but Archer deftly avoids unnecessary drama. Karl and Connie act like mostly decent if imperfect people, even as they realize they’d do better apart. I appreciated that Karl and Connie’s decisions about their relationship are kept mostly separate from Connie’s growing friendship with Maria, and that they’d already separated before Connie and Maria edge toward anything more than friendship. Maria and Connie’s connection is illustrated through Archer’s excellent dialogue and it’s easy to see why they like being together. Though they get close fast, it makes sense. Both have been hungry for the company of another parent who gets them, and when they find each other, they’re delighted. Ryan and Connie can be judgmental and snarky, especially at the beginning, but they calm down quite a bit, especially once kind, self-assured Maria enters the scene. A novel within a novel can be hard to pull off, but here it’s used to great effect to show Connie’s inner world, the thoughts and feelings she isn’t always ready to admit even to herself.

Another thing I loved about this novel? There’s a minor bisexual character and multiple characters actually use the word “bisexual” to describe her–she even uses the word herself! When Connie wonders if bisexuals are “real,” Maria insists that of course they are. Since Maria is ten years older than Connie and Connie respects her and views her as sophisticated, this pronouncement carries a lot of weight. This book manages to steer clear of most bisexual tropes and that alone is quite possibly a reason to read it.

I also liked how Connie’s feelings and identity progressed in a natural way. She doesn’t have an identity crisis when she realizes that her friendly crush might just be a regular crush, but she does think about whether or not the word “straight” fits her anymore. Her language for herself changes over time. She handles her feelings like a modern young woman who has an out gay best friend, so the novel avoids coming out cliches. Connie also considers the other differences between herself and Maria that might prevent a relationship. For one thing, Maria’s older, more mature and worldly. For another, Maria’s from a family of successful restaurateurs and owns a cafe. Though Maria has stayed home with Alice, she has some work responsibilities, and she has a very different class background than Connie. She also has more sexual experience than Connie. Connie worries more about their real differences and her ability to be a satisfying partner to Maria than she does about her own sexual orientation. I thought this read as very realistic and, more importantly, like the characters were adults.

I cannot emphasize enough how much the characters in this book seemed like grown-ups. The characters’ motivations are understandable. You’re happy when Connie and Karl break up but he isn’t a monster, even if he’s sometimes a jerk. Connie’s concerns make sense and fit her personality. Even things I personally disagreed with–like Maria’s description of what “real” lesbian sex is like–were consistent with and true to the characters. When the final twist is revealed, a character’s previously unexpected actions make sense.

Without giving anything away, there are a couple of big surprises near the end. Some seemed like huge coincidences, but the foreshadowing was decent and I personally thought they were fun twists. In the end, the theme that family is chosen rather than just about biology stays strong, and that’s exactly what I want in a book about queer families.

Plus this book is hilarious. The dialogue and the goofy physical comedy shine. I cared about the characters and had a great time reading about them. I highly recommend this to fans of lesbian romance and anyone looking for fun light reading.

Elinor reviews Best Lesbian Romance of the Year: Volume One edited by Radclyffe

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I am so happy I read this anthology. The introduction starts with an Audre Lorde quote, which is the right way to kick off a book. The stories ran the gamut from meeting cute to the culmination of decades of longing. Every story ended happily, those happy endings felt genuine and deserved, and drama and angst never overwhelmed any of the love stories. Romance can be hard to condense into a short story, but editor Radclyffe curated a solid collection of 18 tales. This book includes stories from established writers like Sacchi Green, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Giselle Renarde, among many others.

There’s plenty of sex in this anthology, a lot of which rivals some erotica anthologies in terms of heat. I was delighted by this. The sex scenes seemed largely organic to the relationships in these stories and were an extension of the romance. Not every story included sex, and some of my favorite stories involved little more than kissing, a testament to the great writing in this book.

I was glad that this collection had so many stories of long-term couples. This included a couple of more than a decade trying to beat the heat by getting out of their old and AC-less house (and having hot sex) in “Cooling Down, Heating Up.” In “Little Bit of Ivory,” a couple reconnects after one woman has been traveling for work. “A Royal Engagement” offered up a lesbian member of the British royalty and gave her a charming engagement story, while “Going to the Chapel” features a couple bringing out the best in each other, even in absurd circumstances, on the way to their own wedding. “Gargoyle Lovers” rounds out the wedding theme with a sexy Parisian honeymoon. “Wiggle-Wiggle-Womp” comes with a cute twist. “Beautiful” features a kinky narrator and her partner returning to their local BDSM scene after a battle with cancer has transformed the narrator’s body. I loved the way “Beautiful” showcased the tenderness and freedom submission can bring, all while rejecting normative ideals about bodies and beauty. My absolute favorite story in this collection was Rebekah Weatherspoon’s “Forever Yours, Eileen,” about Eileen and June, lifelong friends over the age of sixty who are finally exploring the relationship they’ve both wanted, and waited for, for years. June and Eileen were friends as children in the South, separated when June’s family moved north in fear of 1950s racial violence. Their love bloomed in letters and brief visits even as they married men, raised children, and built typical-looking lives. Now both single, Eileen is meeting June in New York. This one made me cry in a good way.

There were also plenty of couples starting new relationships, too. Radclyffe’s lovely story “Bad Girls and Sweet Kisses” reminded me of being eighteen and in love for the first time. A stuck light bulb sparks new feelings about a helpful friend in “Light.” Camping sounds a lot more fun in “Waterfall” (even though there’s a concussion in this story). You get to indulge your barista-crush in “Red Velvet Cake.” An out-of-character nude modeling gig leads to self-discovery and romance in “Some Nudity Required.” Grumpy teenagers find love with some help from a hippie in “Love Dance.” An ex shows growth in “Dance Fever,” and an assistant gets to see a softer side of her sexy, ice queen boss in “Unexpected Bliss.” “Long Drive” is unique and charming because it focuses on a couple who have been conducting their relationship via phones and Internet after meeting online, and are meeting in person for the first time. Though a few of these new couple love stories seemed to progress their relationships quite fast, it didn’t seem all that unrealistic.

The only story I didn’t really like was “Like a Breath of Ocean Blue,” about a woman crushing on her coworker by the sea. It was just too overwritten for me and the love interest didn’t read like an authentic person. One lackluster story in a collection of eighteen is not bad though.

I was very happy that there was some diversity in gender presentation in this book, and people of different sizes and ages. I wanted more racial diversity, though. With a few exceptions, like “Going to the Chapel” and “Forever Yours, Eileen,” there were a lot of white people in this book. This might just be me, but I also wished Best Lesbian Romance of the Year: Volume One had included a story about lesbians raising kids or on the road to parenthood.

Quibbles aside, this is an excellent anthology of lesbian romance. If you’re at all interested in the genre, you should read this. Highly recommended.

Elinor reviews Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal

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I love reading about relationships, sex, and queer women. I especially like to read about lesbian marriage, since I’m one of the only women I know who’s married to a woman. I was incredibly excited about Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit. Written by a married lesbian couple who have been together for nearly thirty years, I thought this book would offer unique insight and be fun to read. Sadly, Lesbian Marriage was an exercise in disappointment, starting with the title. “Kit” implies something along the lines of a workbook, with activities or writing exercises to complete. I was eager to try these but other than a few lines in the three chapters of introduction, there weren’t any activities or exercises for readers. The rest of book breaks down into twelve chapters about different relationship challenges, each beginning with a story of a queer woman or couple, followed by the authors’ thoughts on the story, then a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts,” a weird illustration, and occasionally a blank page with “Notes, Scribbles, Doodles” written across the top. The authors called the advice section a “Toolkit” for reasons I didn’t understand. It turned out to be one of many things I didn’t understand about this book.

Clocking in at just 138 pages, and more than a dozen of these blank pages or tangentially related illustrations, there isn’t a lot of meat this book, and none of the topics go very deep. Chernin and Stendhal picked twelve topics to explore, with no explanation for why they selected these particular issues. Some of these, like extramarital desire or the impact of grudges on your sex life, seem pretty universal. Others, like a chapter called “The Genital Corset” (which is not as interesting as it sounds) about a woman who is mad at her partner because the partner doesn’t have orgasms with her, were overly specific. Meanwhile, topics I expected—like body image, identity, pregnancy and parenthood, disability and health issues, STIs, BDSM, non-monogamy, and past abuse and sexual assault—were either not addressed or presented in bizarre extremes. Lesbians raising children appear only in the story of a couple living in a two-bedroom house with their four adult daughters, two of the daughters’ partners, and a grandchild. None of the couples in the household had the privacy they needed, obviously, and this had a negative impact on all the couples’ sex lives, but the story was so over the top that I had trouble applying the lessons from the chapter to my own life.

In a chapter called “Butch and Femme: The Habit of Roles,” the couple discusses their difficulties around their elaborate sexual role play, but the role of power dynamics in a marriage is barely examined. Despite the chapter title, butch and femme identities are simply treated as synonyms for “top” and “bottom” respectively. As a femme this reductionism bothered me. I think the authors were using this story to make a point about getting stuck in limited roles, but conflating this with the identities of butch and femme was not helpful, and I was unclear how the couple was actually resolving the tension in their relationship.

I also didn’t understand how the authors found the couples in this book. Often the authors described these stories as being reconstructed from “listening sessions,” but never explained what a listening session is. Are they therapists writing about their patients? Are these their friends? Couples they found while researching the book? They gave no context to the couples, and sometimes didn’t even give the women names, which was confusing.

The strongest stories were about Chernin and Stendhal’s relationship, including their powerful tale of weathering Chernin’s affair with a younger woman. However, nearly every Chernin/Stendhal story describes a way their relationship either improved or works well, and most of the other couples’ stories seem to show people who are doing things wrong and struggling. It read to me as smugness from the authors, rather than real illustrations of lesbian couples who worked out challenges in their marriages.

I had trouble determining who the intended audience was supposed to be. Some chapters seemed aimed at older, long-time partners, while others seemed focused on women in new relationships deciding whether or not to commit to marriage. One chapter was about young single queer woman who was ambivalent about the concept of marriage entirely. None of it seemed aimed at a queer newlywed like me. This might explain why I heartily disagreed with some of their “Toolkit” advice. I found it irritating that they offered up prescriptions about marriage that left no room for a differing philosophy of relationships, while presenting them in a “Do” and “Don’t” list that didn’t explain why they’d come to these conclusions.

Their advice sometimes contradicted other advice they’d given. In early chapters, they tell readers to make sex a priority even if you’re busy or not feeling especially sexual. Later they present the story of a woman who wants a sexless marriage, though her wife does not, as a jumping off point for assuring the reader that it’s okay to stop having sex if that’s what you want. They offered no suggestions for the partner who didn’t want or expect a sexless marriage, or when to make sex a priority and when to embrace celibacy. Desire discrepancy is very common, and I expected them to address it with a little more consideration and creativity in a book with the words “sex survival” in the subtitle.

Their conclusions didn’t always seem to line up with the story they chose for the chapter either, with frustrating results. One of the most obvious examples of the authors missing the point of the story was a chapter about a cisgender woman who is uncomfortable that her boi partner is considering transitioning and/or having top surgery. The couple is also debating getting married, but the woman—the only half of the couple we hear from—does not want her partner to transition or identify as male. Chernin and Stendhal use this story to tell readers that marriage does not fix your relationship problems. It seemed to me that the issue wasn’t this at all, and the woman’s concern was about signing on for a marriage with someone whose self-identification and appearance might change. She was quite ignorant about trans and gender variant people too, which was putting strain on relationship with a gender variant (and possibly trans) partner. The authors could have used this story to make a broader, yet relevant, point if they’d acknowledged that one of the scary things about marriage is that you committing to someone who you know will grow and change–and that you’ll change too. You don’t get a guarantee who either of you will be in twenty years let alone what you’ll look like, which is something every married person wrestles with. Or the authors could have focused on the genuine, specific concerns around gender in a useful way. As far as I know, there isn’t a book about how to be a decent partner to someone who is gender variant and/or trans (if there is, please let me know in the comments!). A book like that is sorely needed, and this story could have been followed up with thoughtful, appropriate, and helpful advice on the subject. Instead, the authors seemed like they hadn’t read the story. Plus the woman used some transphobic language in the story that could have been edited out or responded to by the authors, but was simply glossed over. I was disturbed that the woman’s partner wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. It was a pretty raw story, and wasn’t handled with the care it warranted.

Similarly, the story in a chapter about not holding grudges featured an interracial couple from different class backgrounds. The conversation with peppered with microaggressions from the wealthier white partner, and the authors didn’t challenge these comments or discuss the impact these might be having on the relationship. Even when the woman of color called her partner out on a particularly racist comment, Chernin and Stendhal didn’t back her up, which make me lose respect for them. It was pretty clear to me from reading this story that the problem wasn’t just about holding grudges. The white woman was hurting her partner over and over and failing to acknowledge it, and it was destroying their relationship. How could the authors present themselves as experts without seeing this? Chernin and Stendhal chose these couples to write about, and chose to include problematic comments, so they should deal with what these couples said. The fact that they didn’t is troubling.

Occasionally this book has common sense advice, but you can find common sense relationship advice on Autostraddle or in the partnership chapter of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, with more suggestions for putting it into practice. Skip Lesbian Marriage.

1/5 stars
 

Elinor reviews How Sweet It Is by Melissa Brayden

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Molly O’Brien runs a bakeshop, Flour Child, in her impossibly charming hometown of Applewood. She’s never left Applewood, and why would she? Applewood is the sort of small town that exists in fiction, a real community where people all know and care about each other, where nothing terrible really ever happens. Plus, it’s only several hours’ drive from Chicago, conveniently close other adorable towns with delightful little restaurants, and you can get to a twenty-four Walmart in less than twenty minutes. Molly has spent her adult life with her high school sweetheart, Cassie Tuscana, whose parents are both local doctors. As young women, Molly took over her father’s bakeshop, Cassie went to work in administration in her parents’ medical practice, and the couple bought a darling old house and planned to live happily ever after. Then Cassie was killed in a plane crash.

The book opens four years after Cassie’s death, with Molly still running the bakeshop, still living in the darling house (that needs repair), and definitely not moving on romantically. Her in-laws, the Tuscanas, remain an important part of her life. When Cassie’s younger sister Jordan, a hotshot L.A. film producer, returns to Applewood for the first time since Cassie’s death, it makes sense that Jordan and Molly would reconnect. After all, they’ve known each other since Molly was a teenager and Jordan was a tween. But Molly’s surprised when spending time with Jordan awakens feelings she thought died with her late partner. Molly dips her toes into the world of dating again by being set up by friends, yet can’t stop feeling a spark with Jordan. Jordan feels it too, but neither woman is sure how to navigate this very unexpected mutual attraction.

How Sweet It Is is a pretty fluffy romance, despite the grief that everyone feels for Cassie. Each character has their own relationship with Cassie, and I liked that their feelings about her were not easily pushed aside. She was Molly’s only romantic relationship. It’s understandable why Molly is hesitant to start dating for the first time as an adult, particularly as she worries that doing so might upset her close relationship with her in-laws. Jordan loved and admired her sister, even though she spent most of her life in Cassie’s shadow–even Jordan coming out was brushed off by people as “Jordan trying to be like Cassie.”  While the grief about Cassie was still present for the characters, it in no way overwhelmed the sweetness of the romance or the cuteness of the town. At first I wasn’t sure about the whole falling-for-your-late-partner’s-sister thing, but it was done very respectfully and organically. Setting the story a few years after Cassie’s death helped with this, I think.

The other thing that helped was Brayden’s writing. The characters talked and bantered in a way that was genuinely fun to read. Even some of the things in this book that I initially side-eyed ended up working pretty nicely. For example, I found Molly’s business model unworkable. Her bakeshop has three employees besides Molly–one just doing deliveries–but no money to buy an espresso machine and therefore retain customers who wanted a latte with their cinnamon roll. Pretty early in the book, it’s revealed that Flour Child is actually in a terrible position financially and is on the verge of closing. Molly doesn’t tell her employees (or, it’s implied, consider laying any of them off) because Molly’s nice and wants to make people happy. She also runs away from conflict, which is shown as a part of Molly’s character consistently in many aspects of her life. It was well-done and the secondary plot of Molly trying to figure out how to save her bakeshop ended up being emotionally engaging and one of the best parts of the book.

Unfortunately, Jordan wasn’t a well-developed a character as Molly. She was still a complete character, but she wasn’t as rounded out. We’re told she’s stunning and her looks and clothes are described pretty frequently, but I wanted to know more about Jordan’s inner world than her outer appearance. Her career as a producer didn’t get as much attention as Molly’s profession, even though it could be incredibly interesting. I once dated somebody whose parents were television producers and it’s a weird job! I got an iPod from Drew Carey because of it, and heard occasional celebrity gossip, and that was just television production. Film production could add so much flavor. The demands of Molly’s career as a baker and owner of a small business are so different from the demands of Jordan’s career. What would Jordan’s late and irregular hours mean for Molly, who has to get up early? Jordan’s job either forces her to be away on location regularly or to be where there’s a market for film producers, which is probably not small town Illinois where Molly’s tied to a business. This could have been a rich source of tension, but Jordan’s non-Applewood past and her career seemed like an afterthought. Jordan returned to Applewood in part because she’d just lost her job because she was being sexually harassed, something that’s mentioned early and then never brought up again or resolved. Jordan also comes home to start a production company with a L.A. friend willing to relocate, with a business model I found even more unlikely than Molly’s, but doesn’t seem to encounter any difficulty at all. Early on, it’s implied that Jordan has never wanted to settle down and maybe had a lot of flings with women in the past, but this isn’t explored much either.

However, Jordan is much more a real person than many lesbian romance leads. She has quirks and charm, and so does Molly. Applewood is pleasantly free of homophobia, both the main characters are out, and the impediments to the romance make sense without being out of insurmountable. Those things alone make it worth the read for lesbian romance fans. I’m going to check out some of Brayden’s other books. Her writing is fun, which is something I always want more of when I’m reading romance.

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

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

Elinor reviews The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

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Like basically every other queer lady bookworm my age, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith matter to me. Until recently, though, I hadn’t tried Sarah Waters’ other work.  I read The Night Watch on a whim, and I’m glad I did. This quiet slice-of-life novel is slow, but I fell in love with the characters. This novel is told backwards, starting with a couple weeks in 1947, then covering a few months in 1944, and finally showing the events of a handful of days in 1941. It tells the intersecting tales of three women and one young man in London. Each is, in their own way, privately reeling from past hurt, and the reasons for their pain are teased out over the course of the book.

The novel opens with Kay, a masculine lesbian who is renting a flat from a faith healer. Kay spends her days walking, going to the movies, and visiting a friend she met as an ambulance driver during the war. The story soon shifts to Viv and Helen, friendly colleagues who each have secrets. Helen lives with her girlfriend, a writer named Julia, but to the world they pretend they are only friends. Viv has illicitly been seeing her boyfriend, Reggie, for years, and their once passionate relationship has fizzled. The narration also focuses on Viv’s brother, Duncan, a young man living with an older man who he calls his uncle. Duncan works in a factory, and once a week takes his “uncle” to the faith healer below Kay’s flat. When Duncan unexpectedly encounters someone from his past, it threatens to upend his life as well as Viv’s.  Each character’s post-war life is presented matter-of-factly and with a tinge of mystery of what how exactly they ended up with their present struggles. Why is Kay lost and depressed? What keeps Viv with Reggie? Why is Helen so paranoid about her relationship with Julia? Why is Duncan underachieving and living with this “uncle”? What connects Viv, Helen, Duncan, and Kay?

The story then moves back years earlier, during the war, and provides a dramatically different view of the same characters and their relationships. The bulk of the story takes place in this period and reveals most of the reasons for their post-war malaise. Finally, the novel concludes with a single event in each character’s life that placed them on their course.

The book was heartbreaking and very beautiful. I loved the inventive structure and once I was invested, I cared about the characters. The horrors of the blitz are portrayed in visceral detail, as are other private horrors that the characters face. Discovering how each character ended up in their situation is fascinating, and incredibly sad. Waters knows how to evoke emotion without being cloying or sentimental, and she does not pull punches with this book.

I loved it, but other readers may find The Night Watch too depressing. I felt emotionally drained when I finished it. For me, it was worth it, but fans of happy endings might disagree. Whether or not you enjoy the book depends largely on the degree to which you engage with the characters, and not everyone will like these reserved Londoners and their private struggles. This is not a novel with an action-packed plot, which keeps the reader close to the main characters. If you don’t connect with the characters during the 1947 section, you probably won’t enjoy hundreds more pages with them. If you appreciate them, however, the book is haunting. I particularly felt for Kay, a gallant butch with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, whose bravery was essential in World War II but seems to have no place in 1947. I rarely see characters like Kay, even in lesbian books, though she incredibly true to people I’ve known in real life. I sometimes wished the book was just Kay’s story plus Helen’s, as I found Viv and Duncan sort of boring initially. By the end Viv and Duncan won me over, and Duncan’s 1941 scene was incredibly powerful and emotionally devastating, but Kay was still my favorite.

Did I like The Night Watch more than my long-standing Sarah Waters favorites? No, but it was gorgeous. I highly recommend it. Just keep some tissues handy.

Elinor reviews It’s Complicated by A.J. Adaire

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When It’s Complicated opens, Tori is a lonely lesbian in her mid-thirties, living on the Jersey Shore and spending all her time at the medical facility where she works as a night pharmacist and where her partner, Liz, receives care. Liz has been in a coma for three years following an accident. Doctors know that Liz will almost certainly never regain consciousness, and that even if she does she may need extensive care for the rest of her days. The life Tori and Liz shared for almost a decade is a thing of the past, and it’s made worse because Liz and Tori never legally formalized their relationship, so Liz’s homophobic parents make all her medical decisions. It was Liz’s parents who decided to keep Liz on life support even after it became obvious that she’d never wake up, something Liz would not have wanted. Liz’s parents also moved her from Philadelphia—where Liz and Tori lived, worked, and had friends—to a medical care facility in New Jersey. Tori left her job, her support network, and even her dog to be closer to Liz. Since the move, Tori spends six to eight hours every day talking and reading to Liz and visits during her work breaks too. Tori’s only friend is M.J., Liz’s nurse.

The bright spot in Tori’s dreary is situation is an attractive female runner who jogs near the boardwalk. Tori makes a point of visiting the boardwalk during the woman’s daily run, but feels terribly guilty for her attraction, which she thinks is disloyal to Liz. When Tori and the runner, Bev, meet-cute in the grocery store and discover that they’re neighbors, the friendship takes root instantly. Even more conveniently, Bev is single, gay, just about Tori’s age, also works nights, and is new in town and eager to make a friend. Bev has a tragic back-story of her own, and has been too insecure to go on a date in years. Her interest in Tori makes her want to change that, except, as Tori explains early on, it’s complicated. Tori considers herself to be in a monogamous relationship with Liz until one of them dies, and Liz is still technically alive.

All of that happens within the first few chapters. What follows is an intense friendship between Tori and Bev, and a lot of lesbian processing with friends, family, a therapist, and each other. Bev and Tori have fun and there’s a subplot about match making for their straight friends, but the meat of the book is two people trying to figure out the boundaries of their relationship. If more than a hundred pages of dissecting feelings about feelings makes your skin crawl, avoid this one.

But if you are in the mood for a novella rich in lesbian processing, It’s Complicated is a decent read. It’s inelegantly written at times and Adaire has a tendency to tell rather than show, but it’s a sweet enough story. I had fun reading this book, though I couldn’t quite believe the premise. I found Tori’s guilt about having a crush and the number of hours she devotes to Liz over the top given the number of years since the accident, Liz’s prognosis, and the excellent professional care Liz receives. Tori even worries she is being emotionally unfaithful to Liz by becoming good friends with attractive Bev, a fear that people in the book treat very seriously but I found hard to swallow.

There were a few other things in this book I found baffling. Liz’s parents’ unrelenting anti-gay sentiments came with no explanation. They were cartoonish homophobes with nothing much else to them. I don’t like flat villains, and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t fleshed out as characters. Another head scratcher is that Tori never talks or even thinks about the life she and Liz had dreamed of having together. Tori and Liz were only in their thirties at the time of the accident and considered themselves committed for life, so you’d think they shared some vision of what that might look like. Tori misses Liz, but she never mourns any plans or hopes they had for the future. Liz was quite closeted for reasons I didn’t find believable in a modern, East Coast city. Taken together, these things reminded me of “tragic lesbian” stories from earlier decades, not from the book’s 2012 setting.

That being said and despite the sad subject matter, I found it a relaxing read when I suspended my disbelief. The biggest problem I had was that the ending felt rushed. Without giving anything away, a huge surprise appears after what seems like the climax of the book, and isn’t given the time to be realistic resolved. Most of the book unfolds at a slow and steady pace, but the last thirty pages are stuffed with information. It’s a jarring shift, and made the extremely tidy ending feel unearned. It’s unfortunate, because I would have liked the ending fine if it hadn’t happened so quickly. If you like angst and heaps of processing, I recommend it for lesbian romance fans, with a warning that the ending falls short.