Amanda Clay reviews What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…”

If only.

Toni and Gretchen have been in love from the moment they met, dancing with each other’s dates at the Junior Homecoming Dance. They don’t differ, don’t disagree, don’t want to do anything but be together. Even after they graduate,   they’ve got it figured out: Toni to Harvard, Gretchen to BU and there will only be a few subway stops between them. Then Gretchen accepts a last-minute admission to NYU and suddenly everything changes. It’s not that she doesn’t love Toni, she just needs to find out who she is, who she can be on her own. And once Toni gets to Harvard and hooks up with the Trans* group, she starts to wonder who she is as well.   It’s a year of change, a year of discovery, love and loss. Who will they be when it’s all over? What will they be to each other?

What We Left Behind is a very good read. The story of Toni and Gretchen–  their actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings–  is not one we’ve read before. All the characters, main and supporting, are so well-imagined and well-presented the reader is at once drawn in to their world; the dialogue so realistically rendered it speaks in the ear.  You want to root for the girls, for their relationship, and for the people they are realizing themselves to be. The disconnect breaks your heart even as it breaks theirs. The only criticisms I have are small~ Toni’s quest for a gender identity label can sometimes seem a bit like a list of every gender expression tumblr has to offer, and in no part of Great Britain is Guinness ‘the ultimate British drink’, but these are minor quibbles and easily overlooked in a major work.  Beautifully done.

Audrey reviews Femme by Mette Bach

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Femme is a nice little YA coming-out novel. It’s told by Sofie, who eventually identifies as a femme (I’m not giving anything away by saying this, seriously), and involves Clea, who fits, as Sofie’s boyfriend Paul says, “the classic jock lesbo stereotype.”

Femme is safe to add to school collections (the publisher recommends it for ages 13-18) and is definitely a good public library addition. It is not a book you’ll remember on your deathbed, but it has some excellent qualities. Let’s point them up right now: This is a high-interest, low-level novel (it’s written on a third-grade level). It’s short. You can give it to a reluctant reader and know that reader has a good chance of finishing it. It has a passable cover immediately identifiable as part of Lorimer’s “edgy” issues-laden SideStreets series (U.S. readers, think Orca’s high interest-low level books).

Femme also features a strong, positive, mixed-race love interest (Clea’s mom is white, and her dad is black–they’re still together, by the way, and successful, and very supportive of their daughter), and, eventually, a happy, healthy, interracial same-sex relationship. This is worth emphasizing in a YA lit world where “interracial relationship” is often a signifier for “tragic/bittersweet ending.”

Sofie is a senior, dating the BMOC. She’s not in honors classes, and she’s not headed for a prestigious (Canadian–Femme takes place in Canada) university. No one has ever believed in her before. Sofie assists her (single) mom with the family business, Sunny Side Cleaning. Sofie loves to cook, and she’s been part of her school’s interfaith group and knitting club. Until Paul, anyway. Now Paul takes up most of her time.

And now her English teacher has paired her for the year with Clea. Clea’s brilliant, and athletically talented and also, she’s the school’s only out lesbian.

Paul is a stereotypically oafish senior pretty boy. It’s not that he’s mean; he just doesn’t think. The others in his crowd are broadly drawn too. His mean ex is complemented by other mean girls; he wants more than Sofie is comfortable giving; he derides her interests. And Sofie’s a little confused. Why does he think their making out sessions are so intense? She’s not all that engaged.

SPOILERS: (Really, are these spoilers? Do we seriously not know what’s going to happen?) The storyline is predictable, which is not at all a criticism. It includes a growing awareness, a breakup with the boyfriend, a shy beginning with the girlfriend, the inevitable backlash at school, dealing with Mom, and finally–a sweet resolution with the tang of new hope. END SPOILERS!

This is a fine title to hand to a young person who doesn’t think they like reading, but who might be looking for a book like this to identify with. Or who just wants a nice short romance. My one caveat is that Sofie is very naive and might not appeal as a narrator to more worldly kids. On the whole, this is a sweet little story (with some requisite homophobic ugliness that gets resolved).

Amanda Clay reviews Femme by Mette Bach

 

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Knowledge is power. Sofie, however, has always felt pretty powerless, at least when it comes to academics. She enjoys school—playing soccer and hanging out with her cute, popular boyfriend Paul. And even though she and her single mom don’t have a lot of extra money, their home is loving and stable. But now, close to graduation, she realizes that her world is changing. The time she spends with Paul isn’t what it used to be, and her mother is beginning to pressure her about the future. When Sofie gets paired with her high school’s star student Clea, she is sure this is the final straw. Until she realizes something else. Clea’s the only out lesbian at school, and once she and Sofie start working together, Sofie begins to question everything she thought she knew about herself, what she’s capable of, and what she might become. A road trip with Clea to scout potential universities kicks off an avalanche of self-discovery, one which sweeps away her old life and just about everyone in it.

I wanted to like Femme, and while I didn’t actually hate it, I was unable to muster much feeling one way or the other.  It’s a hi/lo title (high interest, low reading level) but that classification doesn’t mean that the book must be shallow and simplistic. Unfortunately, Femme is just that. Everything happens too quickly, too easily. Time zooms along. On one page it’s Christmas, on the next page it’s months later with no inkling of anything that might have occurred in the interim. Character development seems limited to a few signifiers: Clea is a good student!  Sofie is a foodie (who never really talks about food or cooks anything after declaring herself a foodie)!  Paul is handsome and popular! Along we cruise towards the predictable end of the story. Coming out stories still have their place in LGBT lit, but it is not unfair to expect more from them these days than mere self-discovery. Sofie’s story offers nothing more than that, and even the self-discovery is as insubstantial as every other aspect of the book. It seems like Sofie comes out because the author decided to write a story about a girl coming out. No stress, no struggle, just another plot point and on we go.

The world needs stories. We especially need lesbian stories, lesbian stories of butch women, women of color and size and age, stories of self-discovery and first love. We need all of this, and while Femme tries hard to deliver, ultimately I believe we can do better.

Anna M reviews “Air Planes” by Anna Macdougal

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“Air Planes” is a work of short fiction, the first in a series by Anna Macdougal called The Lock and The Key: Butch/Femme Erotic Romance. It’s the story of marketing consultant Stephanie, fresh from the triumph of closing a deal, and her erotic encounter with the chivalrous butch woman she meets at the airport. Their chance meeting leads to high-flying intimacy, and–perhaps–love.

As you might expect from the collection’s title, this story relies heavily on the mystique and appeal of the butch/femme dynamic:

A butch lesbian stood near the exit, browsing the New Titles display. Something happens to me every time there’s a butch woman in my vicinity. Each cell in my body instantaneously comes alive and urgent messages from my femme brain race through my entire nervous system.

If butch/femme dynamics are your cup of tea, you will be quite happy with this promising debut. I found that mentions of “the butch” and “the femme” as objects–stepping back from the interplay between interesting, relatable characters to delve more deeply into that archetypal aspect of lesbian desire–distracted me from the otherwise excellent writing. However, I enjoyed the story immensely and will definitely read anything else that Macdougal produces.

 

Danika reviews Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman

I’ve been a fan of Ivan Coyote for years, so I had high expectations for this collection. It absolutely delivered.

It’s hard to sum up Persistence other than using its own subtitle. It contains a huge array of different kind of butches and femmes (and a futch, and some switches, and…), embodied by many different genders and sexualities.

The writing it top-notch, and there are a lot of big names:  Ivan Coyote, Jewelle Gomez, S. Bear Bergman, Joan Nestle, Sinclair Sexsmith… The content ranges from academic essays to poem and short stories. Some are incredibly personal, and some are political declarations. I really appreciated the amount of essays that approached how race intersects with butch/femme, and a few that also address class.

If I could guarantee one thing, it’s that at least one entry in this collection will piss you off. There are opinions all over the spectrum in this collection, and there is a lot to be debated. For example: do butch and femme constitute each other, or can you be a butch without a femme and vice versa? Are femmes more privileged by having “passing privilege”, or are they invisibilized, or are people just not looking hard enough for femmes? Is the concept of “butch” too tied to whiteness to be used in an antiracist way? Can other sexualities and genders by butch or femme, or only lesbians? Where do butch and femme fit into the trans* spectrum, or vice versa, or are they unconnected? It is the trans* questions that are particularly divisive. But I think this range is the strength of the collection: it is a good attempt to encapsulate a broad-ranging community that is entirely in flux. And the voices are strong, so even the essays that were actively angering me were still compelling.

I definitely recommend Persistence, even (especially?) if you’re not butch or femme or know very little about butch and femme. It is an important part of the queer community as a whole today, and lesbian history as well. There are quite a few contributors that I will now be seeking out in a longer format.