Julie Thompson reviews A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

“I expect our letters to be someday public property, and, though I write with little self-consciousness about being overheard at some future date, talking intermittently to you and to myself, it seems to me what has concerned us is richly human and significantly focused on the concerns of our time and our tribe.” – Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, August 2, 1989 (Intro, xiii)

Some of the most powerful love stories occur between friends. I have always longed for a bosom buddy, someone who would stand by my side fending off the zombie apocalypse and navigating ethical dilemmas. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, presents fourteen years (1981-1995) of correspondence between Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, two such friends. Margaret Atwood, a longtime friend of Jane and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, penned the foreword and is mentioned with affection in the letters.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) was an author and social commentator, a tidy summation of the innumerable roles and contributions she made to the Arts and LGBT+ community. Among her novels, she is perhaps best known for her 1964 romance, The Desert of the Heart (later produced as the 1985 film, Desert Hearts). Rule emigrated with Sonthoff from the United States in the 1950s and made their home in Galiano, British Columbia.

Rick Bébout (1950-2009) wrote prolifically for The Body Politic (TBP) (a Toronto-based publication written for LGBT+ readers, on social issues and culture) and contributed to other publications, as well; tirelessly advocated for the rights and respect of queer folks. He assembled through AIDS education materials for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the Hassle Free Clinic, among others. A fellow American expatriate, Bébout moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and later gained Canadian citizenship.

Rule’s and Bébout’s relationship began as that of writer and editor, when she submitted articles and pieces for her column, “So’s Your Grandmother”, to TBP. As managing editor, Bébout lived and breathed the magazine; the ebb and flow of his life was dictated by the publication cycle. He juggled multiple hats and personalities at TBP. Over the years, a deep friendship developed. Topics they discussed run the gamut, including racism, same-sex marriage, violence against women, freedom of expression, and the effect of fantasy on behavior.

Rule and Bébout weathered the heartbreaks of losing friends to AIDS, the frustration in fighting for equal dissemination of health information and access to health care, career changes, and more. They offered strength, solace, and safe space. More than once, Rule and Sonthoff bought Bébout round-trip plane tickets to Galiano Island, where he could relax at their home and elsewhere on the West Coast of Canada. Subtle clues about the evolution of their relationship manifests in subtle ways, such as how they sign-off their letters. The transition of Rick’s sign-offs from the semi-formal “sincerely” (1981) to the more companionable “love” (1985), for example, shows a shift of sentiment.

It’s not only the sweeping scope of events and issues, but the more mundane, everyday pleasures of life, that draw me into their story: Helen and Jane reading aloud to each other at night; swimming at a community pool; and Rick meeting and making friends at gay bars in Toronto. Between the two writers, they show the joys and challenges of rural and city lives.

“We die bravely and well, so many of us, giving all the way to the end – and those of us left mourning hold to that and cherish it and grow from it. But dammit, the end is too soon, and children born today will never know things they might have known if the end were not so soon for so many of us. That’s my rage, that’s what my grief is for: what’s lost.” —Rick Bébout, 1988 (Introduction, xxv).

Rule and Bébout were cognizant of the potential posterity of their letters, given their high visibility within the Arts and LGBT+ community. When Schuster approached them with her idea of publishing the letters, they not only approved, but facilitated access to materials in various formats. Headnotes and endnotes for each chapter (how I refer to sections encompassing a calendar year) enrich the two friends’ discussions. A “Dramatis Personae” section details persons of note found in the letters. It is also worth noting the immensity of Schuster’s project. Her skilled editing chiseled 2,700 pages of correspondence into a coherent and engaging volume representing twenty-five percent of the original total.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to “watch” their friendship grow. I highly recommend A Queer Love Story for folks interested in LGBT+ history and fans of Jane rule, in particular. If you want to learn more about Jane Rule and view her through the autobiographical lens, check out her posthumously published memoir, Taking My Life  (2011), reviewed last year by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. You can learn more about Rick Bébout via his website, http://www.rbebout.com/. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout is available for purchase on May 1, 2017.

Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof received from the University of British Columbia Press and are subject to change at time of publication.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party by Lisa E. Davis

undercover-girl

Undercover Girl chronicles the exploits of Angela Calomiris, an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the 1940s. An otherwise easy-to-miss figure in history, author Lisa E. Davis goes behind-the-scenes to reveal a more complex story of Calomiris’s life. The depiction of her impoverished childhood in New York through her fifteen minutes of fame as a witness for the prosecution during the Smith Act trials of 1949, and how it clashed with the version that Calomiris presented to the press, is fascinating. Author Lisa E. Davis also explores the divisive nature of Red Scare tactics, the ways in which it pitted groups against each other, and promoted fear, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. This provides essential context for Calomiris’s behavior and how her fabrications were positively received by mainstream American citizens, the press, and government agencies. Davis’s appraisal of her subject is critical and well-researched.

The Photo League (TPL, 1936-1951), a club focused on capturing the lives of ordinary folks, was Angela’s primary target during her time as an FBI informant. TPL drew the attention and ire of the FBI due to its advertisement of club classes in The Daily Worker, a newspaper of the Communist Party USA, and its photographs chronicling New York City life, which included images of African-Americans. Her bread and butter income came from divulging names and activities, as well as her own amateur photographs, of the TPL to the FBI. A closeted lesbian, Calomiris played up her public image as an “All-American girl” (read: America first, heterosexual). As Davis delves into Calomiris’s appearances in the media and on the witness stand, contradictory information proves challenging to untangle. Readers are treated to an epilogue of the informant’s life after the trial. Did she attain wealth and lasting fame, as some of her fellow informants did licensing their stories in film and television? Did her duplicitous and fabulist tendencies continue to isolate her from friends and community?

Davis draws from de-classified FBI reports available through the Freedom of Information Act; oral interviews with people who knew Calomiris during the 1940s-1950s; archival collections; film, radio, scripts, and sound recordings; newspaper and journal articles; theses; and books. All of these materials enrich the narrative and provide the work with a credibility lacking in its subject’s own life. Calomiris’s keen desire for fame and fortune is perhaps one reason she meticulously preserved her extensive collection of newspaper and magazine articles, correspondence, and other ephemera. The large collection was ultimately bestowed, through the executrix of her estate, to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City.

An engrossing tale for researchers, history buffs, and casual readers alike. Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party is slated for release in May 2017.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews The Liberators of Willow Run by Marianne K. Martin

the-liberators-of-willow-run

***A little bit of spoilers ahead***

Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.

During World War II, the United States “enlisted” women to help with the war effort on the homefront. At the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Audrey Draper is securing her independence with each B-24 Liberator heavy bomber her crew assembles. The women tax their minds and limbs as they build plane after plane after plane. The demand is incessant, so for the most part no one cares about their co-workers’ personal lives unless it interferes with the work at hand.

In another world not many miles away in Jackson, Michigan, Ruth Evans is shipped off to The Crittenton Home, a place for families to hide pregnant, unwed relations. The deep friendships that Ruth develops with some of the women give her strength to overcome the limitations of her environment. These relationships will determine the course her life and the lives of those around her, takes.

Most of the women employed at the bomber plant are married or engaged or otherwise involved; Audrey and Nona are exceptions. For the world at large, Audrey has a boyfriend stationed overseas with the US Army. She isn’t comfortable with the lies her sexuality necessitates, but she does what she has to in order to protect her autonomy. Between 1943 and 1946, she has a steady job and folks don’t complain (much) about the slacks she wears or lack of rouge on her cheeks. It is what comes after the war that she worries about. Can she secure a meaningful career, one that doesn’t require too many personal compromises? While the novel wraps up all loose ends rather quickly at the end, the conclusion is not implausible. It resonates with the hopeful tone that permeates the story.

The tale initially alternates between Audrey and Ruth, converging a quarter way into the book when the two women meet and bond over scoops of ice cream. Their burgeoning friendship is impeded by guilt and insecurity. The Liberators of Willow Run follows a familiar push-and-pull romance, with the heroines discovering more about themselves and the women they will become as they help other people and each other. It’s a quick read; I devoured it on New Year’s Day.

The leads and supporting cast possess admirable qualities: they lift each other up, instead of trampling each other underfoot. Certain aspects of the story are a bit surprising. Nona’s ready acceptance of a secret Audrey shares at the start of their friendship, for example. Not to say that some folks aren’t unflappable; perhaps the two women’s status as “other” makes this acceptance possible. At times, the world of Willow Run feels like a sky with minimal clouds. This isn’t to say that the women don’t experience misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, and limited career options. They do, but those moments never feel insurmountable or harrowing. The novel could have easily gotten stuck telling too many stories at once or seeming to tack on certain narratives without infusing them with genuine feeling.

Secondary characters showcase a range of attitudes regarding women and African-Americans in the workplace. Up until the divergent narratives merge, I thought that Nona would play a larger role in the novel. She is a self-aware woman who is unwilling to sacrifice her educational and career goals. Unlike her white counterparts, she must contend with both sexism and racism. She is also generous in her friendships and confident when facing barriers. Jack and Lucy, a married couple who work at Willow Run and give Audrey rides to work, take a pragmatic view of life and seek a level playing field for folks who do the best they can. When riots near the church Nona is staying at prevent her from getting to work on time, Jack speaks up on her behalf because the foreman isn’t willing to listen to women. Myopic views on social roles are found in characters like the crew foreman, who constantly groans about women at the plant, and in June, a reluctant wage earner who believes a woman’s only place is in the home, raising children. She also ignores Nona, and speaks over Bennie, an easy going co-worker who stutters when he speaks.

The Liberators of Willow Run gives readers a world in which the family you choose enables endless possibilities.It brims with hope in the face of limited choices and half-truths. The women are keenly aware of their limitations, though their friends more readily see the good, the potential, that lie in their hearts. While I would have enjoyed more details placing me solidly in the United States during the 1940s, it was an overall enjoyable lazy day read.

Women on the Warpath (1943) – Inside the Willow Run B-24 Plant: https://youtu.be/HQKvBPjxMo4

Building The B-24 Bomber During WWII “Story Of Willow Run” 74182
https://archive.org/details/74182StoryOfWillowRun

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews Secret Diaries Past and Present by Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

secret-diaries

In 2013, British writer and academic Helena Whitbread and diarist Natasha Holme (a pseudonym), met to discuss a subject of mutual interest: diaries written by lesbians in original code. Aside from investigating the connection between two diarists, as stated in the title, highlights include early and adult sexuality, preservation and publication, and obsessive writing. The similarities and differences presented over the course of the book provide a fascinating insight into how connected these women are despite great distances of time, social status, and solitary endeavors.

By the time the authors of Secret Diaries at down to talk in Brighton, Helena had spent over thirty years exploring the life of fellow Halifax native, Anne Lister (1791-1840). Anne played many roles over the course of her life: businesswoman, landowner, lifelong learner, lover, and friend. As of this writing, she is also considered the first modern lesbian. The more personal sections of Anne’s journals are coded with what she referred to as “crypthand”; while on the other side Natasha shrouds every single entry, no matter how mundane, in code. Thanks to Whitbread’s unflagging scholarship and promotion, Anne’s journals have been added to the United Kingdom Memory of the World Register for documentary heritage of UK significance in 2011. Whitbread’s in-depth knowledge of Anne Lister’s life allows her to act as a sort of intermediary in the discussion.

Co-author Natasha Holme was born in England in 1969 to middle class parents. Her experiences growing up with a dogmatic Christian father and volatile mother had a long lasting influence on the formation of her identity and relationships. Diaries offered a safe harbor for her thoughts and questions. Many folks find the same kind of comfort and sense-making afforded through journaling.

One point that strikes me is how the act of creating and the existence of physical copies have allowed this conversation to take place. Think about all of the tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, diaries, and other forms of communication you’ve created and all of the people with whom you’ve interacted. Think about people two hundred years from now. What kind of conversation will you facilitate through your private and public recordings? Anne Lister’s contribution to this book is unintentional, while Holme has published her diaries and thoughts on the diaries.

Natasha discusses her compulsive need to record every aspect of her life in great detail. Every entry is in code. As a teen and young adult, she often squirreled herself away to work at the laborious task of writing down conversations, activities, and thoughts. Over the course of her life, Natasha has written nearly nine million words. I am amazed at the energy and time she has devoted to her diaries. I have written in journals off and on over the years, but have never reached the consistency Natasha has demonstrated in memorializing her life. Natasha eventually edited and published three volumes from diary entries written in the 1980s to the early 1990s.

Anne Lister, on the other hand, did not have such safeguards against damage or loss. On at least one occasion, a diary had gone missing in transit. Thanks to whatever wonderful combination of factors (the secure hole in the wall she hid the diaries in, atmospheric conditions, lack of fire, etc), her personal accounts survived centuries and censorship. Who knows how many stories have not survived time? It further emphasizes how important it is to not assume that what we are aware of is the sum total of the human story. LGBT+ stories are especially vulnerable to loss; their existence and publication is essential.

Despite its brevity, Secret Diaries offers readers with a lot to mull over. The multiple vantage points from which Whitbread and Holme discuss the diaries inspires further questions, making it a great fit for book clubs. I have been sitting with this book for nearly a month and am still chewing on the nuances of coded identities and the interconnectedness of our stories. If you need to take the long view of history, especially now, add this title to your TBR shelf.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

thin-bright-line-bledsoe

“There is so much we don’t know, can’t know, in doing historical research. Emma Donoghue writes, in the afterword of her collection Astray, ‘when you work in the hybrid form of historical fiction, there will be Seven-League-Boot moments: crucial facts joyfully uncovered in dusty archives and online databases, as well as great leaps of insight and imagination. But you will also be haunted by a looming absence: the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost, that can never be recovered.’” (Postscript)

A Thin Bright Line, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, tells the story of a life lived fully, yet not quite openly. Bledsoe starts from the end of her namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe’s, life and proceeds to build on the available fragments. The two women’s lives follow amazingly similar career paths and sexual orientation, despite decades and miles apart. Bledsoe was nine years old when her aunt died in an apartment fire in 1966. As a result, she has few clear memories of her aunt, a vague, albeit benevolent, figure who made periodic visits and sent gifts. The woman was a benign mystery to her family. In an era without social media and portable devices tracking every move, it was much easier to leave without a trace, or else leave behind few clues about who you were.

A detailed entry for Lucybelle, found by chance in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, as well as an obituary in the Journal of Glaciology, sparked years of research leading to this novel. Bledsoe scavenged her father’s memories of his sister. Among them, her aunt’s aspirations to write a novel; her penchant for organizing school-wide jokes and flash mob-type performances; and reciting humorous poetry. As for the adult Lucybelle became, there is far less information available. A handful of primary documents, such as the reports left behind following the fatal apartment fire, and interviews with the remaining people who knew her aunt in some capacity, were all that remained of a seemingly rich and vibrant life.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was born in 1923 to a devout Christian household in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Her mother was a housewife and her father had a dual career as a farmer and county judge. As a child, Lucybelle displayed a keen intellect, as evidenced by her voracious reading habits and ability to pass the Arkansas bar without having had attended law school. The novel spans a decade and opens on New York City, 1956, about ten years after she left her hometown. The former country girl had by this time built a successful career for herself at the Geological Society of America as an Assistant Editor. She shares an apartment with her longtime girlfriend, Phyllis, and their dachshund, L’Forte. She also enjoys the city’s nightlife with a core group of friends. Everything seems good enough, even if it involves a bit of compromise. However, her life is upended when her relationship shatters and a sudden job offer is pushed at her by Henri Bader, a European ice scientist working for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The novel flows from New York to Chicago to Vermont. Along the way, Lucybelle experiences overt and vague threats from her employer and sources unknown. She learns how to compartmentalize her life, balancing her employer’s demands that she refrain from dating women with a challenging career. The novel is full of coded terrain: her workplaces at Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and her private and family lives. Through her relationships and career, Lucybelle makes sense of the path she wants her life to take. Despite having her life extinguished just as she seems to fully realize it, the novel is an incredible tribute.

Bledsoe paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of her aunt, displaying an understanding of the period’s public, private, and personal politics, and social mores. Some of the characters are works of fiction, such as Lucybelle’s Chicago girlfriend Stella, her cluster of friends in New York City, and coworkers at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. However, the many lives that factor into this story all reflect some aspect of life during the Cold War, in the period covering 1956-1966. Each of the women featured react differently to societal pressures and offer a sort of option for how Lucybelle might conduct her own life. A Thin Bright Line is an engaging and immersive story, featuring strong, intelligent women.

Mid-century queer history is fascinating and complex. Most of the literature and sources mentioned in the novel can be borrowed via public libraries in the United States or purchased online. I acquired the first two volumes of collected issues of The Ladder via my local public library’s interlibrary loan system. I recommend supplementing your reading with the titles listed below.

  1. Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé

  2. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

  3. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur.

Julie Thompson reviews Flinging It by G. Benson

flinging-it-g-benson

Flinging It mixes pleasure and pain, levity and heartache, discomfort and freedom, as the protagonists, Cora and Frazer, fumble their way forward (and backward). The romance, set in Perth, Australia, is light and fun, but is also an emotional rollercoaster. I tried to keep certain plot points vague, but this review may seem sort of spoiler-y.

When it comes to sticky and seemingly hopeless  circumstances, like the ones Frazer and Cora find themselves in, I think of a scene from Katherine V. Forrest’s novel Curious Wine. It’s contains an important message that this story shares: it’s never too late to change the direction your life takes. I can probably relate my favorite romance to just about any story.

Frazer, a dedicated midwife and administrator, pours herself into leading Midwifery at the hospital where she works. It’s stable, steady employment. The hospital provides a secure launch point from which she can pursue her heart’s project: providing intensive support to pregnant people during and after their pregnancies. It’s also a safety net that both helps and hinders her and one that she’ll struggle to step away from.

Cora, meanwhile, is suffocating in her marriage to Alec, a man who also controls her professional life as her boss at the hospital. It’s an emotionally manipulative relationship, one in which Cora is disappearing. Alec insists that her interests, career as a social worker, and friendships don’t matter; and if they are deemed worthwhile, it’s only in relation to how expedient they are to his own ambitions.

Monday morning meetings and casual greetings are all the women share. They develop a strong friendship after Frazer approaches Cora about helping to re-draft her project proposal. They spend more and more time together outside of the hospital, relishing shared ideas, banter, and encouragement. Their relationship quickly complicates as they increasingly rely on each other for emotional support and sexual release. Guilt cuts into any pleasure they derive from each other. Whenever Frazer sees Alec after the first night with Cora, she thinks “I slept with your wife”.

 

Cora, for her part, is entangled in feelings of guilt, desperation, and thirst for a loving partnership. She keeps telling herself that she has to fix her marriage because she cheated.  She tells herself that she owes Alec the chance to “change”. However, the relationship has been plagued for months, years, by arguments and manipulation. Benson portrays his controlling and manipulative behavior with thinly veiled hostility, rage, and arrogance. It’s when he doesn’t get his way that the mask slips. The scenes in which they argue show how Cora always ends up on the losing side, even when she’s in the “power seat” in her office. Scenes in which she accepts Alec’s version of events over her own nearly every time are disturbing. Her internal struggle with her intense unhappiness and his domineering evolves at a pace that feels true to her character, based on her circumstances. Whenever she tries to leave him, he proceeds to demean her, telling her that she can’t do that to him, that she would be nothing without him, that her parents would be so disappointed in her for getting a divorce. Persons caught up in a cycle of emotional and mental abuse find it difficult to escape from the cycle, especially when they are cut off from a wide support network. Cora had assumed in the past that such behavior was “normal”. She makes this comment more than once in the story and I wonder what her dating and home life growing up were like.

Frazer comes to resent how the terms of their relationship always fall on Cora’s terms. When Cora feels overwhelmed by guilt, it’s off. When Frazer wants to pull back, Cora gives her no space. Their relationship isn’t on solid or healthy footing, either. They push and pull each other until they can’t ignore the tenuous balance of having a workplace affair. Both women seek out crutches to help them along. Frazer dives into swimming and alcohol. Cora also goes out more often and wakes up with slight hangovers.

The story explores a range of topics, including emotionally abusive relationships; workplace romance; pregnancy; hospital bureaucracy; infidelity; divorce; and investing in yourself. Frazer comes from an Indian-Australian family and Cora’s family heritage brings together Thai, Korean, and Australian. While the two women’s families are important to them, the story includes only minimal scenes in which we hear that they had a get together or dinner. Those relationships are not expanded on, aside from Frazer’s sister Jemma.

Secondary characters provide shine and add much needed support, love, and reality checks for Frazer and Cora. Jemma, Frazer’s annoyingly persistent, yet much loved, younger sister. Tia, Frazer’s close work friend and secretary for Alec, holds her friend accountable with tough love. And Lisa, Cora’s indefatigable best friend. Lisa, puts her energies behind helping Cora.despite struggling with heavy issues of her own. Cora, for her part, expresses concern over her friend’s plight, but vacillates between self-absorption and attentiveness.

Jack, a bisexual transgender teen, is one of the pregnancy program’s first patients. His ex-boyfriend drops out of the picture after learning of Jack’s pregnancy. The novel explores the difficulties of Jack’s situation: homeless, pregnant, and dropped out of school. Frazer and Cora combine their expertise to provide Jack with essential support during and after the pregnancy. First and foremost, they listen to him. Although he is a minor character, his role is essential to how the two women’s relationship plays out.

I felt satisfied by the way their storylines played out. No one in this novel is perfect and the two leads make more than their fair share of mistakes, but Alec takes the cake for being vile and odious and utterly irredeemable. How sustainable a relationship can be when it starts off this way? If the women had not distanced themselves from each other and cut down on contact, the conclusion would have felt less than satisfying. A cloud would have hung over their intentions and expectations. Towards the end, though, the women are compelled to make critical choices that will decide how close they come to realizing their dreams, passions, and truest selves. Flinging It is a romance that inspires muddled feelings. I’d love to hear what others think about this romance. Please let me know in the comments!

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Julie Thompson reviews You're The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White

9780988735576

Arisa White’s newest poetry collection, You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened, plumbs the depths of what it means to exist in the world as queer, female, a person of color, and beyond. She undresses a multitude of topics, including race, family, and relationships. The collection offers tender, tumultuous, and light moments.

In the introduction, White shares how a Wikipedia page full of translated terms for gay provided the initial inspiration for this work. She discovered “how sexist the language was, the fear of the feminine, how domestic, how patriarchal, how imaginative, and the beauty [she] discovered when [she] paused to wonder about the humanity inside these words and phrases” (Introduction, 9). Notes on the origins for poems titled with derogatory terms and cultural references are located at the end of the collection.

The collection draws its title from the poem “When They Say” (WTS), a poem filled with strong, intense imagery and challenging questions. “Gun(n) for Sakia Gunn” speaks to the 2003 murder of Sakia Gunn, a lesbian teenager from Newark, New Jersey. “Kokobar”, one of my favorites because of how White draws out the inherent beauty in everyday transactions and interactions, is the name of “the first cybercafé owned and operated by African American women” in Brooklyn, New York. Bullets, obsession, and mangled love, create a new constellation (“Hold Your Part of a Deal”). Infidelity becomes a rotten orchard (“Dirty Fruit”).

I could wax poetic about how much I love explorations of existence and identity through words-sounds-syllables. How culture, age, and history flavor the words that leave our lips. How fluid and malleable words and their meanings are and how translations can’t and don’t necessarily bridge the gap between multiple words. Before starting this review, I read and re-read the poems, both silently and aloud. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is a collection that will stay with you for a long time.

You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is available October 11, 2016 from Small Press Distribution.

Julie Thompson reviews Me and My Boi edited by Sacchi Green

me-and-my-boi-cover

“Gender has no boundaries, and neither does lust.” — Sacchi Green, Introduction

Me and My Boi, edited by Sacchi Green, is a collection of twenty erotic encounters between those who, in addition to identifying as lesbian, also identify as bois, butches, masculine-of-center, or eschew gender labels altogether. These individuals seek out sexual romps and emotionally charged situations. Sometimes they satisfy existing desires or discover new ones when paired with the right partner at the right time. The diversity of experiences showcased in this volume allow for a greater possibility of connection with readers. That being said, not every story will resonate with every reader; we all have personal preferences that will find a home in (hopefully) at least one or two of the stories presented here.

The stories unfold against quotidian and risqué situations, well-worn paths and the unknown. Readers peer in on a car garage in the English countryside as two women get acquainted (“A Fresh Start” by Melissa Mayhew); join long-term partners on their Parisian honeymoon (“Gargoyle Lovers” by Sacchi Green); and get locked into a bar bathroom with a bittersweet memory (“Hot Pants” by Jen Cross). The characters negotiate intimacy dynamics and grapple with what their choices may or may not communicate about their identities (“Nisrine Inside” by Pavini Moray; “Resurrection” by Victoria Villasenor).

While I enjoyed the collection overall, there were a few stories suited to my personal taste and that I look forward to revisiting. Strong women who are handy with a tool, sport grease smudged jeans, and possess a subtle tenderness, are the characters that melt me to the page. In Sommer Marsden’s Bennie, Ava finds her long held desires reciprocated with the handsome butch-next-door, Bennie. I appreciate how Me and My Boi (M&MB) shares a range of sexual desires, which include needs for hard and soft; fast and slow; bound and free; and more. For people who want to flirt with danger, M&MBhas it. For people who want a safer, yet no less lusty fling, they’ll find it here. I admit that I struggled with the first half of “Resurrection” because I wasn’t sure how much was consensual seduction and how much was coercion. I know that as a reader I engage with stories through my own lenses. I’m interested in how other readers interpreted that portion of the story.

Other stories engaged me more on an emotional level than on an erotic one. One such story  is “Not Just Hair” by Annabeth Leong. Darla is eager to find a butch that will allow her to act out her desires as a femme top. The usual kink crowd gathers around scenes of controlled lust or cruise for playmates. Observing and participating femmes, butches, tops, and bottoms assess each other for possibilities and compatibility. Darla struggles against the restrictions imposed on her as a femme, by her partners, and by the group. When she thinks she’s spotted an unfamiliar butch, she eagerly approaches, only to find that it’s someone she knows. Shawn, at heart a butch bottom, is also breaking out of the stifling role as a femme bottom that her partner had expected. The two women see each other and embrace the opportunity to be who they are inside and out.

The stories offer reflections of how we see ourselves and how we see others, as well as how we believe others should think of us and of themselves. It’s a mouthful and a mindful to process. Yet, more often than not, erotica at its best is a delectable mixture of physical, intellectual, emotional elements.

Julie Thompson reviews Roller Girl (A Lake Lovelace novel) by Vanessa North

roller girl vanessa north

Riptide Publishing
Release date: July 25, 2016

Roller Girl is the third installment of Vanessa North’s “Lake Lovelace” series. It stars Tina Durham, a retired pro wake boarder, who finds herself at a crossroads in her life. One of her main concerns is relying on other people too much. After her divorce (which happens before the novel begins), she reflects on how her ex-wife had taken care of most of the day-to-day maintenance of the house, as well as other tasks. Tina asks herself throughout the story if she can take care of herself. Where is the line between asking for help and over relying on other people to solve her problems? Late one night, her washing machine goes on the fritz.

Enter Joanne “Joe Mama” Delario, coach of the local women’s roller derby team and plumber extraordinaire. It’s lust at first sight, though Joe also sizes Tina up as a perfect addition to the derby team. The two women hit it off and meet up for a casual date soon after. It’s Tina’s first foray into the dating world after her divorce and since she began publicly living as a woman.

When Tina shares her identity as trans woman on the first date, Joe isn’t fazed. The major kink in their relationship has nothing to do with Tina’s gender identity. Rather, it centers on whether or not the two of them dating will wedge the roller derby team apart. The last thing Tina wants is for her potential teammates to think that she was awarded special privileges by hooking up with the coach. She’s a professional athlete and prides herself on her hard work and skill. Support comes from all corners – her friends and their partners, Ben and Davis, Eddie and Wish; roller derby teammates; her boss and clients; and local media. Tina experiences a lot of game changing moments in her life over a short period of time, but the author does a good job of weaving them towards a satisfying conclusion.

The author makes sure that her leading lady experiences everything from the tremulous nerves of a first date to heart pounding sweaty sex to the ultimate question of what does this relationship mean to you and do we have a future? Tina doesn’t have “fade to black” or “the door slowly closes” sex. The bedroom scenes are respectful, but not to the extent that the women are held with kid gloves. Both women’s bodies are a beautiful tangle of limbs and pleasure, not objects of revulsion or something to be fetishized.

The Lake Lovelace Rollergirls give Tina an outlet for her competitive drive, as well as a chance to make new friends and join in a sisterhood of strong women. It’s been awhile since she’s participated in anything athletic outside of the small gym where she works as a personal trainer. The team interactions as the women gear up for practice, tryouts, and bouts, are fun, with a fair amount of mental and physical bruises. Tina comes up with a saucy, meaningful derby moniker, but I’ll leave that as a surprise.

Roller Derby is the first lesbian romance I’ve read that stars a transgender woman. It also features one of my favorite sports, roller derby. These women are hell on wheels, but are ultimately a welcoming and supportive bunch. The novel paints an overall positive picture for Tina, though there are enough hurdles in her path to cause interesting drama. If you’ve read lesbian novels with trans women as protagonists, please let me know in the comments section below!

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has a gender statement on its website. It’s an inclusive organization where all are welcome. Go derby!

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association: https://wftda.com/wftda-gender-statement

Julie Thompson reviews Love in Action by Augusta Hill

love in action

I discovered this bundle by happenstance on Twitter, one of the things I enjoy about using it. The Indiana Jones-esque font on the cover drew me in like a moth to flame. As I sat in my airline seat bound for abbreviated adventure in the unknowns of Iowa, I dove straight into the stories. Love in Action is the collection’s name for the three novellas: Love Unearthed, Love Rescued, and Love Spied.

Augusta Hill uses the soft and tough, fresh and seasoned romantic pairings often found in romance novels and deftly pulls it off. The romances avoid falling prey to the doldrums of predictability. You know the leads will dance into the sunset together, but Hill makes it a lot of fun to tag along as the heroines discover more about themselves as they face high stakes and fall in love. Hill sets a quick pace to her stories, allowing you to get to know characters through action rather than bogging down events with a tedium of backstories and explaining what the women are feeling. Secondary characters help facilitate events and flesh out the leads, without seeming too flat or taking a lot of attention away from the protagonists. The tone is summer blockbuster fun, with a nice blend of tension and levity. No matter where your travels take you this summer, I recommend packing these bite-sized romantic adventures along.

Love Unearthed

Dr. Rose Stevens ventures deep into the jungles of Guatemala in search of the burial site of a once magnificent queen, now obscured by centuries of neglect and local ghost stories. Leaning on the shared memory of a small, remote villages, Rose throws the risks to her professional reputation to the wind and digs in. Before she can take her first step into the excavation site, however, she becomes unexpectedly saddled with a group of whiny, inexperienced undergrads from the university where she works. Former US soldier, Gabriella Torres, further complicates matters, exuding confidence, a quick wit, and sex appeal that pull at the fabric of Rose’s professionalism. Rose’s excitement over the upcoming excavation and elusive scholarly achievement that it will bring helps her suppress the attraction she feels for Gabriella. The struggle between the good doctor’s professional ambitions and personal life makes the romance a nice, slow burn.

When an unsavory bunch swoops in and threaten to take it all away, the unlikely group must band together to preserve the rare cultural find from disappearing. Hill packs plenty of thrills, flirtations, comic relief, and romance into this installment of Love in Action. This is my favorite story from the bundle. Sexy archaeologists, plunges into dark and dangerous unknowns, and romance! Oh my…

Love Rescued

Emmeline Smith is sent to Sarajevo, Bosnia, to find her jackass brother, Jacob, who disappeared there while on his mission trip for the Mormon Church. She is a relatively sheltered woman who works for her family’s business and regularly submits herself to painfully mismatched blind dates with single Mormon men that her mother arranges. Coming out as a lesbian to her family has never been high on her list of things to do. Instead, though she grudgingly takes on the task of rounding up the favorite son. It’s a task not without benefits: she thrills at the chance to take her first trip out of the United States and at the opportunity to avoid further pressures on the marriage front.

Hana Divjak is an anarchist, yarn bomber, and animal champion extraordinaire. While she’s close with her group of friends, she’s not exactly out as a lady loving lady. Most of her energy is expended outwardly, trying to make a better world for the people and creatures she cares about. She and Emmeline meet by chance on the streets of Sarajevo. The tough cookie with a heart of gold steps in to help the Emmeline the travel novice from becoming a target for swindlers and pickpockets. They hit it off immediately. Emmeline shares her plight over a cozy dinner for two. It soon becomes clear that Jacob has gotten in over his head with local mobsters.

Emmeline’s worldly naiveté coupled with Hana’s street smarts make for an entertaining pairing. Their outlooks and personal experiences complement and balance each other. I never felt either woman was somehow superior to the other or carried more weight during the story. They challenge each other and support each other all the way to the end.

While the story touches on the hardships faced by Hana and her fellow Bosnians during an era of political instability and armed conflict, don’t expect the novella to deliver a detailed history lecture. Its presence in the story infuses the characters and setting with further layers of meaning and motives.

Love Spied

Nara Yamada is a plucky journalist covering social unrest and political upheaval in Istanbul, Turkey. An ambitious president and a shadowy band of international supporters threaten to throw the country into chaos and damage its prospects for joining the European Union. Nara and her camera crew sneak into an area of the city expressly forbidden to the press at an explosive moment, unaware just how hot things are going to become. She’s tenacious when it comes to reporting and doesn’t let a pesky little thing like running for her life get in the way.

At the moment events in the area go to hell, Ophelia spies with her well-trained eyes the impending chaos, as well as the foreign news crew caught in the thick of it. Ophelia is in Turkey on a highly classified government assignment. When she receives conflicting information from her superiors on the data she worked months to obtain, she finds herself at a standstill. No files exist to document her existence; she moves through life, delivering results to a secret government agency? and then disappearing without a trace. When Ophelia defies company policy to keep a low profile, she sets in motion a chain of events that changes all of their lives. Over the course of their travels, the two women fall in love, and keep each other warm and safe as they try to escape corrupt international agents and local law enforcement.

Love Spied is full of exciting car chases, explosions, secret hideouts, double agents, and of course, romance. I really enjoyed Ophelia’s ability to dispatch her opponents with expert efficiency and fast on her feet smarts. That kind of character is one of my favorites to read about or see onscreen. Both women take chances outside of their usual modus operandi and it pays off.