Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!

Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

Here’s another one of my recent booktube videos, this time discussing the sapphic novels and short story collections that I’ve rated 5 stars!

Books mentioned:

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Danika reviews Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic lesbian book. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and now that I have… I’m divided. On an immediate, personal level, I enjoyed reading it. It has a lot of interesting things going on. I am also surprised that I heard about this as having lesbian subtext, when it’s really quite blatant. On the other hand, I was troubled by its depiction of race. To try to untangle my thoughts, I’ll go through these one by one.

First, the queer “subtext.” When Ruth and Idgie first meet, Idgie is 15/16 and Ruth is 21(!) Idgie is immediately smitten with her, and everyone knows it. Idigie’s mother addresses her siblings with “Your sister has a crush, and I don’t want anyone to laugh at her.” Idgie is blatantly described as being “in love,” so I don’t know how that counts as subtext, except that they don’t have sex on page. There is even a fade-to-black sex scene with Idgie and another woman. Ruth notes the moment she began to love Idgie, and they share their famous “bee charmer” moment. They raise a child together, whom people often refer to as their child, with Ruth and Idgie as a unit.

With that out of the way, I can say that although I thought Ruth and Idgie were the heart of the book, they aren’t really the main characters. The book is interestingly structured. Evelyn is a middle-aged woman going through menopause, and she is unhappy with her life. She has done everything she has been told to do in order to be a “good girl,” and now that she’s had a moment to stop and look around–now that her kids are adults–she is realizing that none of that got her anywhere. Her husband drags her into a nursing home to visit her mother-in-law, but when she sneaks off to eat a candy bar, she bumps into another elderly woman, Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny regales her with stories from the good ol’ days at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The book alternates between Evelyn and Ninny’s regular visits and Whistle Stop during the 20s-60s. Interspersed are small-town newspaper clippings.

I found Evelyn interesting, as a character. She is just beginning to discover her anger, and it comes on strong. She is angry at everyone who she feels wrongs her. She creates an alter-ego which she imagines ruling the world, and doing things like dropping a bomb on the entire Middle East. She has a lot of racist thoughts. Ninny is similarly engaging, but flawed. She helps Evelyn a lot, by providing her emotional support. She obviously is very nostalgic for the times she’s describing, and I couldn’t help but get drawn in and begin to feel that nostalgia myself. She also goes on at great length about “colored folk” and ~well-meaning~ stereotypes that she has about them, as well as some ableist comments about little people. This may be accurate for a woman who grew up in the 20s, but it doesn’t mean I want to read about it at great length and for no reason. (She makes racist comments out of nowhere.)

Because I have heard about this book in the context of a feel-good read, I wasn’t expecting it go as dark as it does. There is racist and ableist slurs, abuse, rape, murder, and even (spoiler) cannibalism. What really made me reconsider how I felt about this, though, was the racism. Obviously, if you’re talking about a town in the southern US from the 20s-60s, you’re going to talk about racism, but it goes beyond that. For one thing, one of Idgie’s friends is a member of the KKK. This is shrugged off, even though Idgie and Ruth are theoretically anti-racism (they serve black people from their cafe even when the KKK protests–but they only serve black people through the back door). Then again, Idgie uses the n-word. Worse, though, are the racist caricatures that make up the black cast. Most of them speak AAVE (phonetically spelled out), and they are devoted to Idgie. Another character is described as being “so black he had blue gums,” and that kid grows up to stab his brother 5 times in the arm. (His brother, who had lighter skin, was a model citizen.) Why include that character? In fact, Artis gets a lot of page time, and I’m not sure why.

I did enjoy the tone of the book, and aspects of it. I liked Idgie and Ruth, obviously. I did feel transported to Whistle Stop, and I mourned its dismantling. But unfortunately, I just can’t freely recommend it because of the racism that’s so blatant in the text. It’s disappointing, because the parts this book does well, I loved. It’s a shame that this wasn’t interrogated more, because I do believe the intention was to call out racism, but it unknowingly perpetuated it. As much as I can see why people loved this, from a 2018 perspective, it just hasn’t aged well.

Rebecca reviews Gold by E.J. Noyes

Gold by E.J. Noyes cover

E.J. Noyes’ Gold is a sports-centred novel with a great and relatable protagonist and a very steamy and sweet romance.

Our protagonist is Aspen Archer, a former Olympic skier whose career ended after a disastrous injury. With her body and spirit broken, Aspen hides out at ski resorts, coaching tourists and avoiding her problems. While coaching at a ski resort in Australia, she meets the beautiful Cate Tierney. Cate is a physical therapist, has a teenage daughter and is recovering from a painful relationship. There’s an instant and intense attraction between Aspen and Cate. However, both women have lots of emotional baggage. Can they be more than just a vacation fling? Can Aspen take control of her life to have the future that she longs for?

The aptly-named Aspen is a wonderfully written character. I felt for her as she struggled through panic attacks and chronic pain. I rooted for her when she finally took charge of her life and rediscovered herself. While I do like Cate, I didn’t fully warm up to her because I couldn’t connect with her and I felt like I didn’t know her.

The secondary characters are interesting and well-written. I really like Cate’s daughter, Gemma and Aspen’s student, Stacey. However, I wish Aspen’s relationships with both teens were more developed because they could have been much more meaningful and memorable than they were. Additionally, other characters like Aspen’s hilarious sister Hayley sometimes disappeared from the narrative unnaturally.

I like that the book examines issues like Aspen’s former addiction to painkillers and how it hurt her life and family. However, the book does drag a little. I wish that the plot had been more exciting and slightly less predictable. But, Noyes creates such great characters that I remained invested in them.

The romance between Aspen and Cate is well-written. There’s believable conflict, some sweet moments and enough super steamy scenes to get your pulse racing. Seriously…you may not want to read this book in public!

Although I couldn’t fully connect with Cate and I wish some aspects of the plot were better developed, Gold is a good read with great characters and a sweet romance. If you’re looking for a sports-themed book with a lovely happy ever after, give this one a try!

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Rebecca reviews Seeing Red: A Sapphic Fairy Tale by Cara Malone

Seeing Red is a cute and quick read with a sweet romance and really well-written characters. It’s loosely based on the fairy tale and I absolutely enjoyed this modern take with relatable characters.

Hunter has too much on her plate. She’s living with her sister, Piper and helping with the bills and her two nephews. She’s balancing a job in a care facility while also trying to keep Piper away from her jailed criminal husband, Jed Wolfe. Although things are really desperate, Hunter tries to show Piper that there’s a good life away from pulling cons. Meanwhile, wealthy college student Kiera has just moved in with her grandmother who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Kiera isn’t only taking care of her grandmother but also hiding after an embarrassing encounter at her sorority house. A chance meeting brings Kiera and Hunter together. Kiera needs help with her grandmother and Hunter becomes the old woman’s caretaker. The pay is great, Kiera’s grandmother really likes Hunter and her family, and…there’s something magical happening between Hunter and Kiera. Maybe, Hunter can finally slow down. However, Jed still has his claws in Piper and her desperation to provide for her family will have consequences for all.

The split perspective between Kiera and Hunter with an occasional chapter from Piper really works because the characters have such distinct voices. Malone deftly avoids stereotypes and creates characters that are wonderfully written and relatable. Kiera and Hunter are great protagonists who are brave, interesting, and very real. They are so well-written that I was totally invested in them individually even before their romance blossoms. However, I would have liked more development on Hunter’s history, and Jed’s presence needed to be more ominous because he doesn’t seem like that much of a threat.

The romance between Kiera and Hunter is gentle, sweet, and natural. Despite the fairy tale romance, I like that Malone avoids leaning on classic tropes. She examines real issues like manipulative relationships, financial struggles, and Alzheimer’s. There are many instances that could have been melodramatic but Malone excellently handles her plot and characters to avoid unnecessary drama.

Cara Malone’s Seeing Red is a lovely read. The characters are really well-written, the romance is cute and the happy ever after perfectly fits. If you’re looking for an adorable lesbian romance that’s loosely inspired by a fairy tale, you won’t be disappointed!

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Rebecca reviews Sparks Fly by Llinos Cathryn Thomas

Sparks Fly by Llinos Cathryn Thomas is a cute space romance novella between two older women with a happy ending. While I did like the characters and the plot, I wish Jo’s character was more developed and the setting was better written and more established.

After twenty-five years of dedication and determination, Marianne Gordon has finally achieved her dream of becoming principal of the prestigious Vesper Station School for Zero-Gravity Artistic Display. However, her big moment is ruined when she is forced to co-principal with Josephine Knight, a famous zero-gravity performer who is recovering from a terrible accident and who doesn’t know anything about teaching. Both women must learn to work together and sparks soon begin to fly between them. They must also stand together when the future of Marianne’s beloved school is in jeopardy.

I like that the book shares perspective between Marianne and Jo. They both have very distinct voices and personalities. However, there’s always a drawback to featuring two viewpoints because one character always suffers. While I do like Jo, I really wish I knew more about her, especially her past.

The romance between Marianne and Jo is sweet and fairly well-developed given the book’s length. I really like that they learn to appreciate and understand each other before the romance takes off. I’m also very happy that both characters are older women who act their age and handle their conflicts maturely and organically.

I went into this book expecting to really love the space setting but I was disappointed by it. The setting is not as well established as it could be. I did not feel fully immersed in this futuristic space world at all. Furthermore, I also want a better explanation of the performing art that is such an integral part of the story. I struggled to figure out what exactly it was and what was happening and my confusion really took me out of the story.

Sparks Fly is a fluffy and good read. I like the characters and the romance is sweet. Although I wish Jo had been better developed and I wanted the setting to be much more fleshed out, I did like this novella. If you like happy endings and are looking for a super quick read, check out Sparks Fly!

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Tierney reviews The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr cover

Published in 1997, The Necessary Hunger is one of those novels that should be on the required reading list for queer women: it so perfectly depicts its protagonist’s emotional journey, impeccably capturing the essence of adolescent passion, basketball, unrequited love, and this particular moment in time in 1980s Los Angeles.

The novel is told from Nancy’s point of view, as she looks back on her adolescence many years later: she tells the story of her coming of age in the mid-1980s as a Japanese-American star basketball player, as she navigates her feelings for Raina, an African-American star player from another school, who actually ends up as her step-sister of sorts when Nancy’s dad and Raina’s mom get together, and they all move in together.

This plot point that could take a turn for the comedic is instead conveyed beautifully and movingly: it adds such an achingly sharp edge to Nancy’s unreciprocated feelings for Raina, her longing for a person so near and yet so far from her. Raina herself is queer, and has a good-for-nothing girlfriend who she nevertheless can’t seem to quit – adding another torturous dimension to Nancy’s feelings (and putting the novel a cut above the tired “pining for a straight girl” trope). Through this specific, awkward, beautiful lens, Revoyr deftly portrays such ubiquitous teenage feelings: yearning, discomfort, infatuation, listlessness – the roller coaster of unrequited love.

Nancy, and the novel, are both so much more than just her love for Raina (though that love is certainly the source of her most intense emotions, and is the novel’s  main thread): while negotiating these feelings, she is simultaneously navigating classes, playing high school basketball as a star player on a highly-ranked team, and trying to figure out college plans, while parrying the impassioned advances of the college coaches who are courting her. The Necessary Hunger is infused with so much love that it’s contagious – the characters’ very emotions and passions become infectious, thanks to Revoyr’s skill at hitting all the right emotional notes through Nancy’s enticing and conversational first-person narrative. I know almost nothing about basketball, and don’t particularly care much for sports, but was riveted throughout the entire novel, basketball and all, because of Nancy’s passion and tone.

And Nancy’s love for her friends is just as appealing as her love for the game: her friends round out the novel as an engrossing and effervescent cast of characters, many of whom are queer themselves. Though the story is told from Nancy’s point of view, she sometimes gives brief, poignant insights into what the future holds for certain characters, since the entire novel is a look back on her adolescence from adulthood. This story is Nancy’s, but it also feels much wider than that – The Necessary Hungerarrestingly captures a specific place in time.

Through it all, there is the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and its own particular social climate. Nancy’s experience as a Japanese-American girl (and then a member of a multiracial blended family) in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, her experience as a young queer woman of color, her experience navigating race and class with basketball teams from white, well-off school districts, her experience facing the privilege afforded by a basketball scholarship that is all but certain are all confronted head-on. The Necessary Hunger showcases Nancy’s life and identity, and those of her friends and family, in a way that feels straightforward and fully realized. 

The Necessary Hunger is a queer classic. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend going out and finding a copy as soon as you can: Nancy’s story and journey and heartache are simultaneously so specifically hers, and so beautifully universal. 

Rebecca reviews Dreams Unspoken by R.J. Layer

R.J. Layer’s Dreams Unspoken is an okay read with a dull and dragging plot and the slowest burning romance ever.

The book features two very different protagonists. We have rugged lesbian cowgirl Jo Marchal who has moved back home to be near to her dying father. Her parents do not accept her sexuality and after years of strife, Jo is hoping to fix their relationship before it’s too late. Our second protagonist is real estate agent Maria West who helps Jo find a new place. Maria is stuck in a loveless marriage and she adores her autistic son, Matt. The two women form a deep friendship, looking out for one another through traumatic events and new changes.

Both Maria and Jo are inconsistent characters. I wish they had been better developed. However, I do like them. Jo’s strength and kindness make her memorable and Maria is sweet and giving. The plot just bogs them down. Maria desires Jo from early on but she spends most of the book declaring how straight she is. She also pushes Jo towards romance while being jealous about Jo’s interactions with other lesbians. Jo also pines for Maria but gets involved in an ill-advised relationship with abusive deputy sheriff Kate. She also pursues other women. However, she still longs for Maria while pushing away these women. The flip-flopping in characterization is frustrating and repetitive.

While a slow burn romance does make sense, the book proceeds at a snooze worthy pace. When the actual romance finally happens at the bitter end of the book, it is very anticlimactic. I really would have preferred if Maria and Jo didn’t end up together because while they do have a connection, I could never fully buy them together and I think they may have been better off as friends.

I also like the book’s diversity: Maria is Hispanic, and her son is autistic. I do like the characters’ separate storylines. However, the book has many instances which could have been better developed to solidify the plot but Layer often ends up dropping matters quickly. I really wanted to see more of Jo’s reconciliation with her parents or her relationship with Matt. I also would have liked to see Maria dealing with her dissolving marriage as well how she copes with a new baby in the midst of these changes. Additionally, I wish Layer would have meaningfully addressed Jo’s alcoholism and Kate’s abuse of her.

R.J. Layer’s Dreams Unspoken isn’t the worst book I’ve read, but it has too much wasted potential. Although I like the main characters, the characterization is inconsistent and the plot never really takes off. I definitely would not read this one again.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Anna Marie reviews Women Lovers, Or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney 

Women Lovers or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney is an intense and poetic modernist novel about three women (N, L and M) deeply devoted and in love with each other, and chronicles the transformation of their relationship. The idea of the “Third Woman” is not only a reference to one of the women in the novel being left out by the others, but also to the idea that being a lesbian was being part of a “third sex” (something also explored at around the same time by Radclyffe/John Hall in The Well Of Loneliness and by various sexologists circling around at the time). The novel is also an exceedingly thinly veiled autobiography about Barney’s relationship with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy, both key figures in sapphic Parisian (generally immigrant) circles in the 1920s.

The language of the novel (in translation from French) is electric and so alive and sensual, just as the love story and relationships it depicts are. L is a decadent woman whilst M is frenzied and soft – “Her hands are more evolved than she herself is, and they get hurt on everything, just as souls do.” Barney’s description of herself, of the character N, is a potent snapshot of a person who constantly feels like the odd one out: “she communes with humans through joyful pleasure, even though she seems to miss out on it in every other way”. I think something in this novel that made it even more captivating than a queer love and loss story might have been is this positioning of some people as “thirds”, as constantly missing out because they don’t have a singular partner or relationship that consistently puts them first. It reminded me a little of this article that Caleb Luna wrote about being “denied intimacy and care… who reserve it for others” the ways that people undermine platonic relationships by focusing so intensely on romantic coupling. Obviously N in the novel has multiple other pairings, so its not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it adds interesting current contexts for the novel.

The earthy but whimsical tone of Women Lovers as well as the descriptions charmed and inspired me so much. As someone studying the period, it’s also interesting to see who else weaves their way into and through the narrative, from their “Dearest Friend” (the artist and long term partner to Barney, Romaine Brooks) to “The Newly Miserable Woman” (Djuna Barnes author of Nightwood and The Ladies Almanack), as well as references to Radclyffe/John Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge.

Although this word is never used in the novel, it is clear that N and the women she is involved with are in some way polyamorous: they generally participate in and create non-monogamous relationships with each other, overlapping intimacies, so it’s a record of the way that historical queers connected separately and related to their communities and their partners/lovers/friends. The other really enjoyable part of reading this novel is the many ways in which the current sapphic and queer community I witness and participate in mimics these wild lesbian and bi+ women from almost 100 years ago! Just like when I read The Ladies Almanack, this novel/autobiography made me really feel like nothing has changed – we make the same jokes, we care about the same things, we use similar imagery and vocabularies, we have the same issues to work through, we are all dating each others exes and so on!