Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

So, I know that Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is, like, the lesbian book. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I really wasn’t all that into it. Terrible, I know! But hear me out.
 
Background:  Tipping the Velvet is set in Victorian England in the 1890s. It’s a coming of age “lesbian romp” involving singing drag kings, prostitutes, sugar mommas, and suffragists. Just about every type of lesbian activity you can imagine is portrayed in this book. (And I don’t mean that in an erotic sense, although there’s quite a bit of that, too.)
 
This book’s 1998 publication and subsequent literary reception and commercial success paved the way for many other lesbian books. And I am so, so happy about that. But the actual content of this book didn’t do much for me. Here’s why:
    1. The main character, Nan, was completely awful. The way she treats other people is totally wretched. Her irrational behavior is so unrelatable. I really just wanted to smack her. Repeatedly. Ugh.
    2. The plot just sort of… rambled. And on the one hand, that’s sort of how life is, right? Directionless? Unexpectedly veering off into weirdness? A little smutty? I would say yes. But on the other hand, books are not real life. And I prefer books with a little more structure.
    3. Oysters. Before she left home to fulfill her lesbian destiny, Nan’s favorite activity was sucking on juicy oysters. Which, I mean, really? Really?
I’m not saying this was the worst book ever.Tipping the Velvet was okay (and in fact, much better than many other works of lesbian literature I’ve read). I just felt let down after hearing so many great things about it! And after having read Fingersmith, I had really high expectations! All dashed!
 
Anyway, I think you should still read this. Or at least watch the BBC miniseries adaptation. But don’t expect it to be life changing or whatever. This is more like homework, so that you can converse intelligently with other people on the subject of queer media. Because if most people have only encountered one lesbian book in their lives, it’s probably this one. (Sigh. Can we change this? Can we all get together and take a vote? Where are my lesbian literati at? Call me, ladies.)
 
Tipping the Velvet has also been reviewed for the Lesbrary by Ami and Danika.

Laura Mandanas Reviews A Fucking Brief History of Fucking by Janet Mason

Dedicated to the author’s “wide ranging tribe of friends, accomplices, and cuntpatriots,” A Fucking Brief History of Fucking is a chapbook of poetry by Philadelphia-based writer Janet Mason. And it is so, so lesbian. In one poem, a former dancer gives another woman a musculo-skeletal overview of how pasties are twirled; in another, two women autograph tampons and throw them around the bar. So fucking great.

Though there are some lovely sad and serious poems in this collection, I find that Mason is at her best when she’s at her silliest. My favorite was “The Cunt Sonnet.” Opening lines: “The cathedral of my cunt is a real cunt-nundrum: what and who it wants often I do not.” Love love love the ridiculous cunt puns. So will you. You should own this.A Fucking Brief History of Fucking is available for $5 at Giovanni’s Bookstore in Philadelphia. Some of Mason’s other chapbooks (When I Was Straight and a woman alone) are also available on her website, www.amusejanetmason.com.

Laura Mandanas reviews Drift by Rachel Maddow

As the first out lesbian primetime anchor, Rachel Maddow has always been a pleasure to watch. She’s also a pleasure to read. Engaging and full of personality, the voice and tone of her recent release, Drift, will sound very familiar to fans of The Rachel Maddow Show. (Literally. As in, I could hear the author’s voice in my head as I read each and every sentence. Which was great, because I’m madly in love with Rachel Maddow’s sexy brain and adorable haircut. Ahem. An unbiased review this is not.)

The central argument of Maddow’s book is that over the past 40 years, US military life has drifted away from US civilian life, causing a profound shift in the country’s approach to war-making. Increasingly secretive and privatized, war is now essentially waged at the whim of the president. Drift traces back the chain of events that brought us here.

While readers who aren’t familiar with American politics or history might have to look up a few things here or there, the book lays things out in an exceedingly clear manner. Anyone with at least a passing interest in American warfare should be able to follow along. It’s worth a read no matter which direction one leans politically.

Terrifically well researched, this book makes a strong case for a) how weird things have gotten, and b) how important it is to fix it. In the last chapter, Maddow gives a bullet point list of ways to begin. It’s excellent stuff.

Bottom line: Drift is a smart book by a smart (and somewhat smart-alecky) lady. There aren’t any lesbian characters between the covers, but you should read it anyway.

For a sample, check out msnbc.com. For upcoming book tour dates and locations, check out The Maddow Blog.

Laura Mandanas reviews The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

So… before we get started, there are a few things I want to make perfectly clear:

  1. The main character in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a cis male.
  2. The author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a cis male.
  3. The original Swedish title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women.

Does The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo qualify as lesbian literature? I mean… not in the strictest sense. (Clearly, right?) But there is the matter of the secondary protagonist, Lisbeth Salandar, who is far and away the most interesting character in the entire series of books.

Here’s how Lisbeth’s sexuality is described:

Salander – unlike Mimmi – had never thought of herself as a lesbian. She had never brooded over whether she was straight, gay, or even bisexual. She did not give a damn about labels, did not see that it was anyone else’s business whom she spent her nights with. If she had to choose, she preferred guys–and they were in the lead, statistically speaking. The only problem was finding a guy who was not a jerk and one who was also good in bed; Mimmi was a sweet compromise, and she turned Salander on. They had met in a beer tent at the Pride Festival a year ago, and Mimmi was the only person that Salander had introduced to the Evil Fingers.* But it was just a casual affair for both of them. It was nice lying close to Mimmi’s warm, soft body, and Salander did not mind waking up with her and their having breakfast together.

There is, in the book, mention of her sleeping with a woman. There is also, in the book, significantly more mention of her sleeping with a man. There are no trans* characters, so there’s no mention of her sleeping with them, but it wouldn’t seem a bit out of place. The book is very sex positive, despite its sundry misogynist characters (who mostly get what’s coming to them).

Speaking of which: trigger warnings. There are graphic descriptions of rape and other sexual violence. There’s murder. There’s animal abuse. There’s child abuse. Lisbeth is described (in passing) as “anorexic-looking.” If you know that you’re very sensitive about these topics, I recommend that you avoid this book. And definitely avoid themovies.

On the whole, I enjoyed The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It falls in the category of crime thriller, which I don’t often read, but the journalist-turned-detective thing appealed to me. (Did I not mention the plot yet? It’s a murder mystery that takes place in early 2000s Sweden. We follow recently disgraced political journalist Mikael Blomkvist as he takes on the case of a teenage girl who disappeared without a trace 36 years prior.) The plot is twisty, but not in a unfollowable way. And there’s plenty of action, in multiple senses of the word.

My one pet peeve with the book was how freaking often Larsson sent his characters to go get coffee. Like, every other page. Hooray for characters exhibiting true-to-life human behavior, but, really? Is it really, truly necessary to provide evidence of their caffeine addictions in such banal, repetitive, frequent detail? I almost prefer the remorseless, brutal misogyny. Almost.

*Sadly, the “Evil Fingers” is not a euphemism for any sort of lesbian sex act – it’s just the nickname for her group of friends. Missed opportunities! Alas!

Laura Mandanas reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

The first chapter of Ash by Malinda Lo stopped me in my tracks. Lo’s writing here is not the type that should be read hurriedly — speed reading here would be like sprinting through the Taj Mahal, blindfolded, and calling it sightseeing. Such a waste! No, readers will do best to advance slowly. Pause. Ponder. Resume wandering, slowly. Bask in each word of the luminous and evocative prose. This book is one worth lingering over.

Placed in a vaguely medieval secondary fantasy world, this “Cinderella” retelling follows young Aisling (“Ash”) as she comes to terms with personal tragedy and struggles to work out her place in the world. Curious, independent, and full of longing for her lost mother and the fairy world, Ash reminds me heavily of the character Saaski from The Moorchild. Like Saaski, Ash has to make a choice between two very different worlds. Unlike Saaski, Ash has no human boy companion to help her. Prince Charming does no rescuing; indeed, Ash shows very little interest in him whatsoever. But this does not mean that she is alone.

Though Ash never declares a label for her sexuality, her burgeoning relationships indicate bisexuality. (Note that as a young adult novel, there’s no explicit sex of any kind in the book.) In this world, same sex relationships are as commonplace and unremarkable as opposite sex relationships. Lo explains on her website, “In Ash’s world, there is no homosexuality or heterosexuality; there is only love. The story is about her falling in love. It’s not about her being gay.”

My favorite thing about this book is the depth and realism that Lo depicts in her inter-character relationships. Heartwarmingly full of that familiar first time awkwardness, Ash’s relationship with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, is a pleasure to watch unfold. Conversely, her incisive relationship with the dangerous and seductive fairy Sidhean is bone-chilling… but mesmerising. Even the complicated sisterly bond Ash has with her two stepsisters — absolutely beautifully rendered.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will warn you that it comes without fanfare, tacked on almost as an afterthought. It wasn’t terrible, but the big, book-long buildup had me expecting more. Luckily, there’s a prequel?

Ash is available in paperback ($8.49), hardcover ($12.33), and ebook ($7.99).

Laura Mandanas reviews “Gigglepuss” by Giselle Renarde

I have to say: I was a bit concerned when, four paragraphs in, the main love interest was characterized as a “Japanese anime schoolgirl.” (Like, really people. Can we just stop with the racist Asian exotification and extraordinarily sleazy fetishization of teenage girls? That would be great.) Normally I would have stopped reading there, but with Lesbrary readers in mind, I continued on. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as I expected; as it turns out, Mitsuki is 20, and Asian “othering” is actually mildly poked fun at in this story. So, yay for that. You’re free to read “Gigglepuss” by Giselle Renarde with a clear conscience.

Unfortunately, not having the above information, I found myself entirely unable to get into it on my first read through. By the time I got to the story’s climax, there just… was none. Stereotyping is super unsexy in my book, and though this one redeemed itself by the end, the initial turnoff was overpowering. Despite this, the engaging and cheerfully explicit writing eventually won me over – it just took some time. I quite enjoyed the story on my second read through a couple weeks later. So take that as you will.

Without giving too much away, “Gigglepuss” is an erotic romance about two queer women in a small town. It is not a love story, and it is not a lengthy dissertation with laboriously developed characters. It is short, sexy, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – which feels appropriate, coming from an author who began writing erotica on a dare.

The main highlight of the story for me was the main character: a sweet-talking lady-killer named Lorna. (Think Shane  from The L Word in print form.) I mean, that, of course, and the sex. Always the sex. Even when the occasionally overenthusiastic descriptions made me giggle.

 “Gigglepuss” is available to download for $1.49 at All Romance.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fearless by Erin O’Reilly

Fearless by Erin O’Reilly is a work of historical fiction about the brave members of the Auxiliary Transport Authority who ferried planes during World War II. Delivering aircraft from the factories to Royal Air Force stations throughout the United Kingdom, ATA pilots flew in the face of danger on a daily basis. This book follows pilots of the first all women’s ferry pool at Hatfield.

Now, let me tell you: I wanted to like this book. I really did. Who doesn’t love a tale of scrappy lesbian underdogs? And badass, evil-fighting pilots, at that? Alas, it was not to be.

There were too many characters. Waaaaay too many characters. They were “strong” characters, from a variety of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, but still. Unnecessary. Most cross center stage just once for their introduction, then fade into the background. After 100 pages of this, you just want to skip past it all.

Worse, perhaps, than the glut of characters was when they actually opened their mouths to speak. To call it “stilted” would be a grievous understatement; the writing quality read like highbrow fanfiction. The characterization had potential, but you could tell the work lacked serious editing. Grammatical errors and typos littered the pages, especially towards the end.

The one thing O’Reilly got right was the research — there were great historical details worked in, however awkwardly — but it wasn’t enough to redeem the rest. For me, the preface was more interesting than the actual plot. So if you’re interested, do yourself a favor on this one: skip the story and go straight to the source material.

You’re welcome.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.

The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)

Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction

Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!

Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A few weeks ago, I decided to bring a book into the tub for a relaxing bubble bath. When the temperature was right, I gingerly picked up the paperback and eased my way into the frothy suds, cautiously avoiding the slightest splash. I took careful pains to hold the book a deliberate 6-8 inches out of the water. I even piled up towels at the edge of the tub in case of slippery-fingered emergency. It didn’t matter; within 20 minutes the book was completely waterlogged. The culprit? Not bathwater, but tears. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg had me weeping by the end of the first chapter.
Stone Butch Blues is a beautifully written novel. The main character, Jess, is a young Jewish butch coming of age in the late ‘60s. Drowning in loneliness, Jess finds companionship in the queer community frequenting working-class gay bars. In this pre-Stonewall era, however, their mere existence is enough to prompt brutal attack from all sides. As the story unfolds, each of these characters weather hardships of an enormity I can barely comprehend.

Jess is a complicated character, and the book (thankfully) never backs away from this. I particularly appreciated the range of characters shown throughout in the book. “Butch” identity is not reserved strictly for lesbian women that present themselves in traditionally masculine ways; men, straight and bisexual women, and transgender people can all lay equally legitimate claim to the identity.

 Stone Butch Blues is the winner of numerous literary awards, and its clear to see why. This book is an essential read — and not just for the person who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man” (ha). This is a book for anyone with a soul.

Stone Butch Blues is one of the most widely read pieces of LGBT literature, and appears on the shelves of many major retailers.

Laura Mandanas and Nichole review Sleeping with the Frenemy by KT Grant

Nichole:

I absolutely loved this book. Deborah is possibly one of the most relatable characters I’ve come across in a long time and still she is raw and sweet and a bit of a bitch. She’s been through hell and manages to come out on top and I know I spent the entire book rooting for her success.

Deborah is the main character and from the first page I was drawn into her. She is sexy and shy and oh so sweet, but there is a darker side to Deborah’s life. Grant brings to life in raw, unyeilding terms, the horrors of abusive relationships, which stand true no matter the sex of the partners. But Deborah is not a victim, not anymore anyway.

Perhaps that’s why I clung to every page. She isn’t running, but becoming something bigger, something better and realizing she is deserving of more than the “love” she’s had for four years.

The icing on the cake came with Brigette, a fiery red head with a passion for art and Deborah. Tenderness and an ache for love pulse through her every move and Grant lets you see that in the sweetest way.

Sure there are times when the plot drags and a few choppy sentences, but overall this novel had me spell bound. (I literally read it in one sitting.) A great plot, heavy emotion and a few sweet, sultry love scenes make this book a keeper in my collection. 🙂

– Nichole

—————————-

Laura:

I had a bit of a different take on this book. While I found the sex scenes to be compelling and well written, they were the lone bright spots in a sea of mediocrity. Sleeping with the Frenemy is utterly predictable; there’s just no cleverness, no imagination, no life. The plot reads as if Lifetime fired their absolute worst scriptwriter and he or she got a $5 an hour temp job churning out cheap romance paperbacks. The villain even has a classical music soundtrack, for crying out loud.

Also? This is just a minor annoyance I had, but Sleeping with the Frenemy really doesn’t make sense as a title. Frenemy: friend + enemy. Neither of the women the protagonist sleeps with meet this description. A more appropriate title might have been “Damp: Ladies Who Need to Get It On 30+ Times A Day.” Or “J. Anistonitis: Life With Spidey-Sense Nipples.” Or possibly “Foolish: An Abused Young Woman Who Never Even Considers Calling The Police and Almost Gets Killed Because Of It.”

Beyond that, the ebook is cheap and the sex scenes are plentiful. I wouldn’t call this a bad book, but it’s certainly not a good one, either. Your call.

– Laura