To me, Roller Girl by Vanessa North is a roller derby book that includes a lesbian romance, rather than being a roller derby romance; there was a lot more going on in the book besides the relationship between Tina and her girlfriend–a lot that in my opinion enhanced the book and broadened its appeal. I’m no derby girl, but the game shines through the book–its appeal to Tina in the beginning, her anticipation as she auditions, the friendships she forms during practice–and I think that this element would please anyone who wants to read a women’s sports book, romance fan or no. In fact, I learned a lot about the game from the book, and I can understand a little more of the conversation–and starry-eyed face–of my college roommate who joined her local team just around the time the book came out.
I really enjoyed this novel. I like comfortable domestic novels, but far too often they’re overwhelmingly straight. This was not. It’s about two families who have been friends for a very long time, growing together, and taking each other for granted. There are two couples, with one teenage child apiece. That one of the couples are interracial lesbians is delightful. It’s about teenagers growing up, and parents going through midlife crises. Taken together Straub suggests that coming of age is really an ongoing process, not something we finish at the end of adolescence.
I like how flawed the couples are. Their relationships feel very lived in and authentic. The romance is found in the way they’re still trying, and working on ways to be together after being together for more than twenty years. This sort of worn-in taken for granted partnership is a sharp contrast from the rush of confused discovery the teenagers are tripping through.
The best part of the kid’s story is the element of knowing someone for a very long time and then getting to know each other in a very different way. They grew up together, have known each other for their entire lives, but as eighteen year olds they are starting to see each other as people. One of the more interesting parts of growing up isn’t just figuring out who you are, but watching the kids around you decide who they are as well.
Modern Lovers is a coming of age story that doesn’t focus on identity. It talks about class, sexuality, and race, and has interesting things to say, but never gets too far away from the relationships between people. For Straub these are all parts of identities that inform how characters relate to each other.
The way Straub writes characters who have money is fascinating. Both couples are more than well off, and there is some family wealth as well. Different characters relate to this so differently, showing discomfort, indifference, and different sorts of evolving class consciousness. Differing attitudes towards money also impact relationships. Money isn’t really a problem, but it’s an issue, and taking this on adds something. There are lots of comfortable domestic novels about families who have money that never acknowledges that these families having money is significant, and Straub manages to avoid that.
The issue of money plays into a more major theme, which is characters wondering how to be creatively fulfilled by their lives. Three fourths of the adults used to be in a rock band in college, with another girl who went on to become famous before dying young. The three of them have different relationships with music now, but having started with the dream of rock’n’roll informs who they are as adults. Trying to find the right outlet for artistic expression is an important plot point, and at times a major source of tension.
I love the hyper local specificity. I don’t know anything about the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, but it was presented with such clear authority. The characters have a strong relationship to the place, and that connection is clear to the reader, the affection and exasperation, the sense of home. It references street names and landmarks casually, in a way that adds depth and authenticity without becoming cluttered or confusing. I feel like I could take a copy of the book to navigate around the neighborhood.
As far as I’ve seen, Emma Straub is straight, and this sort of representation is what I want from straight authors. There are lesbians, and they are interesting, and flawed, and sympathetic. Their sexuality is important to the story, and to who they are as individuals, but not the only or even the most important thing about them. They’re given as much space and sympathy as the straight couple in the book. Not every book needs to be super queer, but it’s so good to read an enjoyable story where it feels like I could exist somewhere in the world.
This wasn’t the most exciting book I’ve read lately, but it was one of the nicest. It’s a very bright and clean book. It’s incredibly nice without being cloying. What I appreciated the most is that Straub treated her characters with incredible kindness while not shying away from their flaws.
I don’t usually buy new releases. I acquire so many books that I tend to stick to used books and the library for new acquisitions. But when the review for Juliet Takes a Breath began to pour in, I couldn’t resist! I bought it brand new and moved it to the corner of my dresser, ready to be the next book I picked up. And then it sat there for about six months.
In that time, I heard more and more of the book blogs and vlogs I follow mention Juliet, almost always positively. But somewhere along the line the hype began to have the opposite effect. What if I was one of the few that didn’t like it? And then how would I even talk about it? I wanted to like it so much that I was afraid to actually read it in case it disappointed me. It wasn’t until booktube started the #diverseathon that I decided to finally take the leap and pick it. (“Finally!” My partner said. “I feel like I’ve been hearing about that book every day for our entire relationship!”)
As usual, my nervousness was completely unfounded. I can see why so many people fell in love with this book, and I can only agree. It may not be for everyone–its focus on feminist politics and how they intersect with race and other factors will feel unfamiliar to some readers–but I thought it did a fantastic job with that focus.
This is a coming of age story about Juliet, who’s just had her eyes opened to feminist ideals by a book titled Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind. She’s so blown away by this book that she writes a letter to the author and lands an internship with her. She hops on a plane and arrives in the alien world of Portland, Oregon: a very different place from the Bronx.
There are lots of things going on in this book, but what stuck with me is its recognition that people are complicated and flawed. You can have some things figured out and get other completely, devastatingly wrong. And it’s up to us to decide which people are worth sticking with despite their fuck-ups and which people are toxic for us despite the things they get right. I think that’s such an important and affirming thing to see in a book about social justice.
This also really captures the feeling of diving into feminism and social justice and just getting hit with waves of information that are counter to what you’ve been taught to believe, and the overwhelming process of trying to sift through all of these ideas and find what makes sense to you, what you’re not able to wrap your head around yet, and what’s actually hate wrapped up in the right vocabulary. There’s a lot of theory and discussion in this book, and that makes sense for what it’s addressing.
I loved this book, and I can’t wait for Gabby Rivera’s next one.
Sarah Schulman is a writer and ACTUP activist. Her novel After Delores was published in 1988. It’s a mystery set in the aftermath of a breakup, with the narrator trying to understand how to exist in the world now that her lover Delores has left. She creates a vivid portrait of New York City at the time, while also offering timeless observations about mourning a relationship.
The New York City Schulman writes about is downtown and dirty. No one is very clean or good-looking, and those who come close aren’t to be trusted. Schulman is interested in what it means to be a lesbian in a city like that. In the introduction she writes about the danger that came with living openly as a lesbian in the 70s and 80s, which “produced a kind of desperation, a desire to exist when one was not supposed to, especially on her own terms.” One character says that, “It’s too easy to be gay today in New York City. I come from times when sexual excitement could only be in hidden places. Sweet women had to put themselves in constant danger to make love to me.” In the past the danger was romantic, while in the present it’s just rough.
The mystery plot about a missing girl shows just how dangerous the city can be, and gives the whole novel a noir tinge. The mystery gives the novel forward momentum, driving the protagonist to go out and do things instead of wallowing in her heartbreak. It plays with the language of hardboiled investigators and femme fatales, but twists it, having women play all the roles.
Early on in the novel the protagonist acquires a gun, which she is fascinated with. Guns are an obvious phallic symbol, and one question hiding in the novel is what does it mean for a lesbian to bring a gun around? Shulman is teasing out how to romanticize a gun in a non masculine way, what it means for a woman to hold that weapon and bring it into situations with other women. Whether guns should be romanticized is another question, but what she does in this novel uses a symbol in a profoundly different way. The gun is a weapon, and a prop, and a symbol of power. Schulman writes,
I slipped the gun into my right hand and posed, Wyatt Earp style, in the ladies’ room. I wanted to see exactly what Delores would see if I stepped in front of her one afternoon clutching that little piece of metal. Except for the mouth I looked exactly like myself, but happier somehow. And it was all because of the machine in my hand could make her shut up and listen for once.
The very act of having a gun leads to the possibility of using a gun. It doesn’t really provide security, but creates an opportunity for more violence. The gun drives the protagonist further into the mystery, allows her to operate on its level.
The protagonist’s preoccupation with the mystery helps distract her from the pain of her failed relationship. Delores has left her for someone else, and the whole world has started to fall about. Her heartbreak is everywhere and all consuming. When she puts the grip of the gun in her mouth she finds that, “it smelled like stale licorice or polished wood and it tasted like Delores.” It all goes back to Delores being gone: everything connects back to that loss. When she’s sitting alone in the bar, “Somebody played Patsy Cline on the jukebox and that made me even sadder, but in a pleasurable melancholy way, not a painful Delores-type way.” The hurt and preoccupation is present on every page. It hurts.
If we only ask for positive representations of lesbians we’ll never get books like this: nasty, mean books that ring true. Lesbians can be terrible people, can be terrible to each other, can do terrible things.
Yet, at the end, when the mystery is unraveled, there’s a man as the real villain, which isn’t surprising. As roughly as lesbians might treat each other, it’s still men who cause the most damage because they start off with the most power and influence. Schulman resists a sentimental ending, is not at all interested in any vision of sisterhood or unity. She articulates something much more subtle and desperate: that while lesbians can be terrible to each other, ultimately we need to stand together in solidarity against patriarchy and homophobia that can kill us so easily. Schulman sums it up beautifully:
I’ve trained myself to avoid all potentially unpleasant situations with men, even though I walk into them constantly with women. Once I realized women could be pretty nasty, I actually considered boys for about five minutes until I remembered they bored me very quickly, and if someone you love is going to bring tragedy into your life, you should at least be interested in them.
It’s a very honest novel. The writing is very direct, and very lovely. I love all the small details Schulman weaves in, details, observations like “Under her leather gloves were five long and polished nails on her right hand and three long polished nails on her left. The index and middle were cut, not chewed, to the cuticle.” My favorite part of the whole book might be the thought that, “The only thing that happened in the last two decades that made any sense to me at all was Patti Smith. When Patti Smith came along, even I got hip, but then she went away.” That’s just cool.
In her first collection of short stories, Nancy Jo Cullen displays her talent for creating distinct characters and blessing them with the same insecurities that haunt the rest of us. Although each has their own unique personality, one commonality among all of the characters in this collection is their acquiescence to despair. From the despondent waitress/dancer to the widower whose dead wife’s ashes ride shotgun wherever he goes, it seems that each of these characters has surrendered to the oppressive hopelessness that smothers their existence. Sure, there are some glimmers of optimism here and there: The sullen teenage girl who feels invisible gets an ego boost when her older cousin rubs his hard-on against her during a consensual albeit ill-advised make-out session; A recently divorced woman achieves a sense of vindication through having all of her pubic hair waxed off and then hurling a rock through her ex-wife’s window.
However these characters identify, whoever they love (or don’t love), this book is filled with tension, desolation, and dreams that, upon being realized, don’t turn out to be so dreamy. Each of these characters aches to escape, to transcend. In “Happy Birthday”, a woman who describes her marriage to her wife as a carcass they are dragging behind them takes a night’s reprieve from motherhood and wifehood by walking out on her demented mother’s 83rd birthday party and hitchhiking to Banff. In “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time”, another tale of making-do, a closeted gay husband and a wife who would prefer to not sleep with him anyways break their celibacy in an attempt to conceive.
Situated primarily in British Columbia, many of these stories are set in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the music of that time is often utilized to set the tone. The era’s song lyrics are woven into the narrative like musical pathetic fallacy. The stories are all sort in length, averaging about 16 pages each. They move at a good pace that keeps you anticipating what fresh socially-awkward hell these poor people will find themselves in next. The stories in this collection expose something that we can all relate to: The myriad ways in which other people disappoint us, and the futility with which we attempt to reconcile this disappointment with our innate optimism. These characters pull their terrible circumstances around their shoulders like an itchy wool blanket, and try to garner warmth despite the excruciating discomfort.
Gut Symmetries is a beautifully written love triangle involving two physicists and a poet. It’s a romance between science and mythology. Jove and Stella seem like an odd couple, the scientist and the poet, who knew each other since they were children and are destined to be together. Jove and Alice look like an obvious story, the older man and the young pupil. These two pairings seem like things we should understand — things get interesting when Stella meets Alice. Instead of jealousy and anger the two women begin a relationship of their own.
Jove is a self centered man, who never imagined the women in his life existing beyond him. Stella and Alice had expectations about who the other was going to be, but they surprise each other. As their relationship blossoms they move away from Jove’s influence.
There is one line from the first time Alice and Stella first had sex that I really appreciated. Winterson writes that, “Desiring her I felt my own desirability. It was an act of power but not power over her. I was my own conquest.” It really resonated as to why women appreciating each other can be a huge thing in a patriarchal male gaze world.
The beginning was slow, but it picks up as it starts to explore the world around the characters, how they got to the tangled mess of their relationship, and how their lives got them to this place. Winterson starts catching us up with action that has already happened. The plot doesn’t provide much forward momentum until close to the end.
Winterson comments on the nature of the novel that she’s creating. As her character relays her own past, Winterson writes, “I should have preferred it to be neater, tauter, the pace of a mystery, the thrill of a romance. What I had were fragments of colored glass held up to the light . . . This is my signal flashing towards you.” They’re absolutely beautiful fragments.
The ending gets a bit gory, but always wrapped in beautiful imagery. The prose is consistently wonderful. Winterson uses the language of science and mythology to draw up an intricate world.
The chapters get their titles from tarot cards. Winterson juxtaposes the ways science and mysticism think about how the world is bound together. She incorporates physics into her poetry. She uses superstring theory as metaphor, and the novel gets its title from GUT symmetries, a concept that I’ll admit to not absorbing the science of. She discusses planetary movements in terms of both science and astrology, all getting to the idea that the universe works in a way that is larger than any one person.
Stella and Alice and Jove are their own actors, but also their families and heritage. The world she describes works within systems. There are patterns that are older than people, bound to repeat, or maybe not. Winterson writes that:
“In the Torah, the Hebrew ‘to know,’ often used in a sexual context, is not about facts but about connections. Knowledge, not as accumulation, but as charge and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Instead of a hoard of certainties, bug-collected, to make me feel secure, I can give up taxonomy and invite myself to the dance: the patterns, rhythms, multiplicities, paradoxes, shifts, currents, cross-currents, irregularities, irrationalities, geniuses, joints, pivots, worked over time, and through time, to find the lines of thought that still transmit.”
In Gut Symmetries Winterson explores the dance between a world with rules and repetition, and a world with spontaneity and love change who people are.
LGBT people have existed from the beginning of humanity, although too many historical records prefer to omit this. As a result, many real stories of queer men and women have been lost. William Klaber’s novel, The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, is a fictional take on the life of a real woman in the 1850s who wore men’s clothes, married another woman, and went by a male identity. (It isn’t completely clear whether Lucy was a lesbian or transgender, but the novel depicts her as a woman.)
The story opens when Lucy, abandoned by her husband, leaves her young daughter in the care of her family, hoping to eventually find a job and a place for the two of them to live. Lucy knows that men have a far easier time finding work, so she cuts her hair and dresses in men’s clothes. This book follows her first twenty years as Joseph Lobdell, from the time she taught a dancing school to meeting and marrying her wife, Marie Perry. An epilogue reveals what became of Lucy, Marie, and Lucy’s daughter Helen after the year 1876.
William Klaber really respects Lucy Lobdell, and it shows in his novel. He makes Lucy so real and believable with the way he describes her thoughts and conflicting emotions, and the details of her surroundings also give her story the feel of a real memoir. The historic aspects of Lucy’s time, such as the outfits the people wore and the laws they followed, are incredibly accurate. Clearly a lot of research was done to make the story authentic.
While Lucy’s story is fascinating, many times it can be very hard to read about the ignorance she faced. The ideas of a woman wearing men’s clothes, posing as a man, and loving another woman were seen as perversions and crimes, leading to imprisonment or lifetime lockups in asylums. In the novel, Lucy does encounter misogynistic people, and their narrow-minded comments and taunts are infuriating. Many of the characters in the story who discover Lucy’s secret react badly, from shunning to outright violence and imprisonment. It is distressing and heart-breaking to read of all the atrocities Lucy is put through, knowing that back then the prejudice was thought to be justified. Her ultimate fate is also very sad; she wanted to live her life in peace, but people’s hatred and ignorance refused to allow it.
The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell is a heavy, often depressing, story, but this is also the account of a queer person’s life, a life that had for a long time been forgotten.
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.
First things first, don’t read the back cover of When Fox Is a Thousand. At least not on the 2004 reprint by Arsenal Pulp Press. The plot points it describes don’t come into play until near the end of the book.
This is a slow burn of a read. It’s beautifully done: it’s told through three alternating viewpoints, all indicated by a symbol in the beginning of each section. One is the story of the fox, who is nearing her thousandth birthday, which will bring her greater powers and knowledge than she has known in her long lifetime. Sparsely scattered through the book is the story of Yu Hsuan-Chi, a real-life poetess from ninth-century China. Lastly is Artemis’s story, a young woman in modern-day Vancouver.
When Fox Is a Thousand is told like folklore. Even Artemis’s story, which is primarily about struggling with relationships of all kinds as a twenty-something while dealing with sexism and racism, has an undercurrent of magic and the surreal. The narrative keeps creeping forward, but embedded are many short fable-like stories, inspired by Chinese mythology.
Each narrator sets a different tone in her story. I was most intrigued by Yu Hsuan-Chi’s story, who falls for a woman during the T’ang dynasty, and that without even realizing until the afterword that she was inspired by a real person. I picked up this book unsure if it actually had queer women content or not, and was surprised to find that each of the three narrators has relationships with other women.
Artemis’s story was the hardest for me to read. I think it’s very true to being in your early twenties, especially if you’re involved in a social justice-type group. (Though that is entirely my own bias.) She has relationships with multiple women throughout the novel, but they seem to always end up toxic, even just as friendships. They discuss politics and activism without applying the underlying assumption of compassion and respect to each other. I found it painfully honest at times.
There isn’t a clear resolution at the end of this story, but that’s not the point. It’s immersive and atmospheric, unfolding at a languid pace while enveloping you in the poetic language. This is a book that I think would benefit from rereading, and to be honest, I can’t believe this isn’t a classic of lesbian fiction. It’s beautiful and challenging. Definitely worth the read.
Dreamland City had me hooked from the first page. Lily, a freshman at Duke University, has arrived on a full scholarship despite not having much enthusiasm for academics. Naturally gifted, she’s been launched into a environment of well-off peers while still coming home as often as possible to the trailer park (Dreamland City) she grew up in. The first chapter of the book describes Lily trying to escape a family friend as he tells her–for the millionth time–about her birth. Born in a kiddie pool out back of their trailer to a mother who was drunk and high, hers wasn’t the water birth the parenting magazines had in mind.
I came into this book expecting a young adult/new lesbian adult romance. As it became obvious that Lily has an ongoing sexual and romantic relationship with her stepfather, I realized this was going to be darker than I originally anticipated, but I still enjoyed the ongoing relationship between Lily and Reagan. Reagan is from an “old money” family, and between that, her good looks, and her enmeshment in Greek (sorority) politics, she appears to be the kind of perfection Lily can’t stand. When they’re assigned together for a project, however, they form an unlikely relationship, and I was beginning to think the YA/NA romance angle was back on track. That is rapidly derailed, however, and Dreamland City takes a turn for the grim that I wasn’t expecting. Perspective shifts suddenly to Reagan, and we learn what’s hidden behind the veneer of perfection.
This was definitely a read that surprised me. I actually put down the book halfway through in shock, and then speedread to the end of the chapter to see if maybe it was a dream sequence. Although this wasn’t the narrative I had prepared for, it definitely delivered. Both Reagan and Lily are deeply interesting characters: flawed, judgmental, angry, and desperate to survive, but in completely different contexts.
As for the romance aspect, Reagan and Lily both have ongoing relationships with men, and although they have the closest romance and sexual relationship with each other, there isn’t any label applied to it or to them. This isn’t a feel-good story. It’s a raw account of broken people pulling each other through, but all of the characters’ relationships with each other are bittersweet.
Although this wasn’t what I was expecting, Dreamland City turned out to be one of my favourite reads so far this year. It’s engrossing and compelling. My only complain would be one minor continuity error. If you’re okay with gritty narratives with all the beauty of a broken window, definitely pick this one up.
Trigger warnings for rape and graphic violence.
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