Susan reviews My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is an autobiographical manga about the creator’s life as a young queer Japanese woman with depression, who decides that the best way to resolve her difficulties connecting with people and her understanding of her own sexuality is to hire an escort.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneless is a a really fascinating look at the creator’s life, especially because the way she talks about her depression is extremely relatable. Some of the mental loops she describes and her resolutions (She talks about how she always treated herself and her accomplishments like crap because she couldn’t love herself, but once she started actually looking after herself the people around her started treating her better! And there is a panel of her yelling “If this is how it is, I’ve got nothing to lose! I’ll claw my way out of bed with my last dying breath!” which is how I feel about my mental health too!) are extremely familiar, but presented in a way that softens the blow. She makes me laugh even as I’m nodding along. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the problems she’s had, or how awkward she is, and it’s impressive.

(I found the sections where she spoke about her mother to be very strange, but in much the same way that I found the way Alison Bechdel spoke about hers in Are You My Mother? to be strange, so I don’t think that part of the book was ever going to work for me. Your mileage may vary!)

The art style is very minimal and sketchy, which works for the narrative of the book. It does so much of the heavy lifting to keep things on this side of funny and bearable, even when she’s talking about serious matters like her eating disorder. I found it especially effective for the scenes at the love hotel, because it’s not presented in a titillating way! I’m a fan of story about sex workers than manages to not centre the male gaze, and the fact that this story focuses on how awkward Nagata Kabi felt herself to be really works. I especially loved the follow-up comic where she talks to another escort from the agency, and the authorial comment that it’s much easier to speak to people who know her from her manga, because “it was like I’d submitted material about my personality in advance.”

Basically, this was an entertaining manga that speaks frankly about Nagata Kabi’s depression and recovery, and the way that hiring a sex worker changed how she thought about herself. It was really cool, and I enjoyed it a lot!

(The follow-up manga, My Solo Exchange Diary, has also been licensed and should be out this month!)

[Caution warning: depression, eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Claire Blatter reviews The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This book is a very complex one. I put off doing the review for a while, letting myself absorb the content fully. It’s only three hundred something pages, but the story within is heavy. It is about some very triggering content, including a suicide attempt, many references to people who have committed suicide, and descriptions of violence against women. I will be talking a little bit about this kind of stuff in my review, so consider yourself warned.

The story is about two different stories that might or might not have happened, according to the unreliable narrator. A lot of the story focuses on duality: the character is named India Morgan Phelps, but people also call her Imp, her mother and grandmother both committed suicide in two very different ways, the inciting event occurs either in July or August, and the woman she meets might be a siren or a werewolf.

Confused? Yeah, so is the protagonist.

Imp has schizophrenia, and this is very important to the story. Of course, when mental illness plays an important role in the story, I get hyper critical. It’s so easy to just make mental illness into the big scary monster, especially in horror or similar genres. But because the author identifies so deeply with the protagonist we don’t see the schizophrenia as some demonic possession. It’s part of the story, and part of the main character falling apart, but it’s not the enemy. It’s just part of the story, and part of the protagonist.

Another part is her unique take on life. She’s a lesbian, and at the time the story takes place she lives with her girlfriend, who is trans. This is treated very respectfully, which makes sense considering the author is a trans lesbian herself. She is fascinated with art and writing, which come into play as symbols of her understanding of what happened. Imp is trying to tell us the honest story of the past six months or so, and tell us in her unique voice.

It is confusing, as I had said earlier, which made it hard to get into. Also, with all the art and literature talk, it gets a little hard to understand. Some of the art is actually real, and others seem to be made up for the story, which was another thing I didn’t really get. But it doesn’t really matter–being confused is part of the experience. While it is something important, it can take some time to get used to. It was worth it to get to the end in my view.

This story, aside from its drawbacks, is incredible. It is one of the most unique stories I’ve read. The author is a mentally ill trans woman, and so this definitely feels like it comes from the heart. You could place it in horror, with the sinister feeling developed throughout the novel, or fantasy with the creatures of legends and loose grip on reality, or even label it as a memoir considering how it is written, but none of those are quite right. It’s a deeply personal novel, one that I appreciated profoundly as a mentally ill lesbian myself. I would suggest it to anyone who likes complex and dark novels!

Four stars!

Shira Glassman reviews The Gift of Your Love by Kayla Bashe

The Gift of Your Love by Kayla Bashe is a good fit for anyone looking for woman-centered SFF, f/f without graphic sex scenes, or shorter queer fiction.

Neely is a foreigner who only ended up in this city by accident — she traveled here with her merchant father as a child, but he ended up dead and she grew up in an orphanage far from home. Now she’s living on the street, not just because of her lack of local family, but because of a recent heartache — an abusive boss who tossed her out into the cold world. She needs people and safety and healing — but right now, she needs apples. Tasty, tasty apples. Too bad that just after stealing them, she gets attacked by a gigantic tentacle monster.

BUT HEY, that’s not so bad if it means you get rescued by a cute butch woman whose family then takes you in under their wing? All of whom have magical powers? (As does Neely, by the way.)

Here, let me let Forester sweep you off your feet, too—

“Not a diet. I just like eating foods that will give me big muscles.” She glanced down at her already-intimidating body, which Neely thought was the perfect combination of soft and strong. “Well, bigger. My dream is to be strong enough to carry a hunting dog under each arm. That way, I’ll bring joy to anyone who sees me, because they’ll be able to get kisses from two dogs at once.”

I love the writing craft in this description of her, when we first meet her, bolding mine: “And those eyes… a wolf’s eyes, a warrior’s eyes, the deep blue at the heart of a fire.”

Also, she uses potatoes as a weapon because once they’re underground they can grow, and that’s a superpower that sings to my very heart. As well as amusing me because using a potato as a weapon.

This is Kay Bashe’s latest “adorable queer people doing their best in a speculative world while recovering from trauma” romance — yes, it’s a brand image at this point. If you’re not familiar with Bashe’s work, they often contain teams of magical girls (and sometimes nonbinary people, too, although we don’t get any in the immediate family here) that read as somewhere between superhero found-families like X-Men or Avengers plus the magical girl squads of Sailor Moon and Read or Die–except, heavily slanted towards queerness and disability representation (often reflecting Bashe’s own) and sometimes more ethnically diverse. There’s usually a heavy focus on interpersonal relationships and character development alongside the adventure itself, which is sometimes just a framework on which to hang the former meaty emotional stuff. This one slots neatly into that subgenre.

It’s short and sweet, and most of the romance consists of mutual pining for each other before a closing scene get-together — and yes, it’s that characteristic Bashe type of pining where both ladies think the other one is Far Too Amazing to Like Someone as Trash As Me (while, being anything but trash, and saving each other, and doing all kinds of brave and magical things.)

Gift of Your Love also gives us an older woman mentor figure as part of the family. For those of us who couldn’t get enough of General Organa (or having her and Admiral Holdo in the same movie!) and feel a deep emptiness that we won’t get more, this is neat.

Bashe’s characters face microaggressions and stresses that are clearly plucked from real life. One of the other ladies in the little magical family has a peanut allergy, and only the other characters’ vigilance saves her from the casual dismissiveness of a disbelieving restaurant employee–which could have led to her serious disaster. The love interest, Forester, worries that she’s not a good enough feminist because of the way her OCD causes her to hyperfocus on the picayune details — this could easily be any one of us after reading the wrong thinkpiece.

In fact, Forester’s struggles with her violent intrusive thoughts, and the way she copes with the accompanying guilt, are especially poignant having been written by an author with same. (I’ve written #ownvoices intrusive thoughts myself, with Prince Kaveh, but they’re of a different type and it was interesting for me as someone with a similar-but-different issue to see what else is out there in brainweird land.) I hope anyone else out there whose brain betrays them like this finds community in the representation and validation in her heroism.

Incidentally, the main characters are coded Jewish inasmuch as they’re outsiders from somewhere else who don’t eat pork and are written by a Jewish author.

Oh and did I mention, there’s a “oh no we’ll have to share the only bed” trope at one point? This story is adorable. Even through all the heavy themes of women struggling to find value in themselves and being far from home with nobody there for you.

Shira Glassman is a hair factory and storyteller living in a bi townhouse on the moon. She just released a new high-heat f/f romance in which a super hero lady finally asks out the damsel-in-distress she’s been rescuing (and flirting with) for months. But will they ever get to have a normal date or are there too many Monsters of the Week? Cinnamon Blade: Knife in Shining Armor is $1.99 on Kindle!

Danika reviews Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is a quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles complex subjects. It immediately reminded me of Radio Silenceanother YA novel that explores race, sexuality, mental health, and adolescence seamlessly. I’m grateful that we now live in a time where queer young adult books have really matured, so to speak. In the days of Annie On My Mind, just being a white teen coming out as gay was scandalous enough, nevermind having anything else going on in your life.

Now, we finally have books that even when addressing the coming out arc can have more complexity and layers. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness.

But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. And it only gets more complicated when they both fall for the same girl.

The blurbs for this title seem to suggest that Suzette and her brother are pitted against each other, competing for the same girl. That’s not accurate. The core of this story is Suzette and Lionel’s relationship, and Suzette wouldn’t endanger that for a crush. So there is a love triangle, but it’s not as dramatic as that would suggest.

I really enjoyed Little & LionIt has a lot of subtle aspects that make the reading experience richer, including microaggressions (whether that’s racism, ableism, biphobia, or antisemitism). For example, I loved when Suzette got frustrated at the double-standard that bi people are not able to have a crush on two people, especially of different genders, at the same time, for fear of being associated with anti-bi stereotypes. I rolled my eyes at a review on Goodreads which played into this and accused Suzette of “emotional cheating,” despite her not even being in an official relationship.

I can’t comment on the mental health representation here, because I don’t have significant knowledge of bipolar disorder, but overall I thought this was a beautiful book, and makes me feel optimistic about the of queer lit, and specifically bi & lesbian young adult books, to know that these sorts of stories are being published. It’s about time!

Danika reviews Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

This. Was. Adorable. I was between rating this 4 stars or 5, but I couldn’t think of anything that I would change about it to improve it, so I guess that makes it an automatic 5 stars!

Queens of Geek follows two point of view characters, Charlie and Taylor, as well as their friend Jamie. All three are going to Supacon, a big fandom convention. Charlie is a Chinese-Australian actress who is at Supacon both for the fun of it and to promote her movie. She’s also bisexual! Unfortunately, she is still living in the shadows of her ex-boyfriend and co-star, whom the fans would love if she got back together with (even though he’s a real jerk). Taylor is fat, geeky, anxious, and has Asperger’s. She’s excited to experience the fandom that she loves in real life, but she’s also overwhelmed by all of the elements of the con that can increase her anxiety. Luckily, Jamie is there to make everything seem less terrifying. He’s supportive, kind, and funny–and Taylor doesn’t want to endanger their friendship by acknowledging her feelings for him.

That’s a lot of summary, but it’s because there’s so much here that I love! I’ve only gone to a few conventions so far, but I absolutely love the ones that I have been to. The energy has been amazing and sometimes overwhelming. The idea of reading a whole book set at a con was exciting! And Queens of Geek lives up to that, really capturing the frenetic energy of a convention. It also reads like a love letter to fandom (while still acknowledging some of its faults). There are so many geeky references, too! And Taylor posts on Tumblr throughout the book!

As the cover would suggest, this is also about the two love stories of Taylor and Charlie. Although I picked this book up for the f/f romance, I was charmed by Taylor’s friends-to-lovers plot line with Jamie. They have a good friendship, built on trust and support. They also have some solid banter. Of course, I was just as invested in Charlie’s romance! In fact, given her experience with her awful ex, I was desperately hoping that she got a healthy, drama-free love story. Of course, it’s not much of a story with no drama at all, but I still was very happy with where it lead. Charlie meets a fellow Youtube star, and it turns out they are both fans of each other! Their flirtation is adorable, and it’s great to read a book that includes a romance between two women of colour.

Another thing that I appreciated in Queens of Geek is that there is no contrived obstacles to the romances. Typically, I find, a romance has a standard plot: couple gets together -> couple splits up because it’s not the end of the book yet, so the author had to invent a reason to break them up -> couple gets back together at the end of the book. Usually this contrivance is something that a simple conversation between the two would have fixed. Instead, the obstacles that Taylor/Jamie and Charlie/Alyssa face makes sense to their characters. Taylor is reluctant to add another change to this tumultuous time in her life while dealing with all of the anxiety that this change invites. Charlie is dealing with a very public break up and is reluctant to have another relationship in the public eye, while Alyssa’s last relationship was with someone who refused to acknowledge their relationship in public for the entire time they were dating (more than a year). Those are all legitimate positions to hold, and ones that conflict. It makes sense that it takes them some time in the book to work those out.

Did I mention that I read this book in one day? I don’t usually do that, and I wasn’t intending to, but I just kept getting drawn back into the story. I also found myself laughing aloud several times while reading. The banter between both couples works really well, and when there’s a fandom joke thrown in as well, I can’t resist.

Besides all of the diverse elements (did I mention that it actually uses the word “bisexual”?) and geeky fun, there’s also a well-paced plot, compelling romances, and memorable and fully-realized characters. This was such a fun, heartwarming read. Just lovely.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi

I thought Teri Hatcher’s Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life had poisoned celebrity autobiographies for me forever, but when I first heard of Portia’s Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, I knew I had to get it. (This may or may not have had to do with how cute I think she is.) I had simultaneously high and low hopes for this book — high because of all the hype surrounding it, which I suppose is only natural when the author’s one half of the most famous lesbian couple and probably on Oprah’s speed-dial; and low because this still is a book written by an unproven author, after all.

In Unbearable Lightness, Portia details her struggles with eating disorders and her sexuality. As mentioned in her interviews, she wrote it from the “perspective of a sick person” and so most of the book tracks her intense obsession with weight loss and increasingly extreme behaviour until she reaches an all-time low of 82 pounds (about 37kg).

I decided not to eat the egg whites. I didn’t need them. As they slid off the plate and into the trash, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I felt invincible, powerful. Not eating them was incredibly difficult and by not eating them I had just proven to myself that I was stronger than my basic instincts, that I could deny them. I wouldn’t give in to the desire to eat, because after all, isn’t that what fat people do? They give in to desire? They know they shouldn’t eat the brownie, but they just can’t help themselves.

What immediately struck me was how readable the memoir was. When writing about mental illnesses in particular, I believe, authors have to work doubly hard to have their readers empathise with being in a position most people aren’t usually sympathetic to while at the same time avoid writing a piece that is excessively intense or triggering. Let’s put it this way: when dealing with someone with depression, people instinctively think, “Why can’t you just be happy? It’s not that hard.” Portia deftly brings her readers into the mindset of an anorexic/bulimic without overwhelming them, and the overall effect is that you get a story about a life you will never experience — and never hope to — but with a person in the middle of it whose battles you can strongly relate to.

As Portia’s weight steadily decreases, the narrative alternates between her life in Hollywood (particularly on the set of Ally McBeal, the show which catapulted her to fame) and her childhood in Australia. She tells the story of how a desperate desire to constantly remake herself pushed her to change her name on a whim at age 15 — Portia de Rossi was actually born Amanda Lee Rogers — and to ditch her “perfectly worn black leather engineers’ boots” in favour of more feminine Capri pants and high heels years later as she faced celebrity-dom.

The story of her sexuality, or more specifically, her quest to hide and/or deny it, is interwoven with her life with EDs. While I did find that this issue sometimes felt forced and didn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative, I don’t think the memoir would be complete without it because there is no doubt in my mind that having to hide such a big part of yourself would have an incredibly destructive effect on your sense of self, leaving you particularly vulnerable to things like EDs. Also, it leaves for some pretty brilliant I-like-other-girls-but-I’m-not-a-lesbian anecdotes, and there’s of course the beautiful irony that she constantly looked to Ellen DeGeneres as an example of why she couldn’t afford to come out as a lesbian and… well.

My girlfriend had to be heterosexual because I didn’t want to be a lesbian. If she was heterosexual, then it suggested that I was also heterosexual. Also, I was scared of lesbians. In fact, I would cross the street if I saw one coming toward me. One time I didn’t cross the street and I ended up sleeping with a lesbian because I felt sorry for her. She had just lost her girlfriend in a car accident and I was devastated for her. Nothing sounded worse to me than losing your girlfriend; that the one precious connection that you had made in your whole life was gone, wasted, lost in a car wreck. It sounded so much worse to me than a wife losing her husband — it was worse than anything. I found this woman to be quite unattractive. She was overweight and had a shaved head and facial piercings. But I had to sleep with her. It was only polite.

N.B. I would like to know exactly how she identifies those lesbians coming down the street, because I really suck at that. And while it does sound like Portia may have been conned into believing a sob story so that aforementioned lesbian could get into her pants, Ellen actually had a girlfriend who died in a car accident when she was 21.

The only gripe I have about the book is that at the end of it, I still felt there were a fair number of loose ends that needed to be tied up. She mentions her father quite a bit both in the book and her interviews and it is evident that his death when she was a child severely impacted her (naturally), but I don’t know what kind of father he was or what their relationship was like. (In contrast, I found the portrayal of her mother as a figure of many contradictions — nurturing but pressurising, caring but also careless — amazingly realistic.) This might be a minor point but I would also have liked to know more about Bean, her dog who was her sole companion for many years. Most significantly, the book is a lot more about “loss” than it is about “gain,” and there is very little about her recovery.

To be frank, if it weren’t for Portia’s name and fame — or perhaps more accurately, Ellen’s — this (audio)book would not be #1 on iTunes. It probably wouldn’t hit any bestsellers list; it is not particularly insightful, clever, or even especially original. It is honest, though, and it is that refreshing straightforwardness that kept me turning the pages. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this book, but it’s definitely worth a read.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review (complete with adorable pictures of Portia) here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Kelly reviews Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein

After the success of the It Gets Better project and the recent publication of the accompanying book, I wanted to revisit another book aimed at suicidal young queers. Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws was first published in 2006. Bornstein is well known as a performance artist and gender warrior, and this book she offers advice for young folks facing bullying, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This book will appeal to some young people for its honesty, though it may turn others off with its occasional corniness. Many adults are likely to enjoy it as well.

The book’s opening chapters drag a bit. Some teens may appreciate the crash course in gender, sexuality, and oppression, but the lack of depth will frustrate others. The heart of the book consists of the 101 alternatives. Each suggestion has been rated for ease, effectiveness, safety, and age-appropriateness. Options range from self-reflective activities like #7: Trash your preferences and reboot, to pure avoidance, as in #14: Run away and hide. Each item has some explanatory text and often further resources to seek out. They are easy to browse and skip through, and the book is best viewed as a guide for occasional reference. Many alternatives are cross-referenced. For example, many lead back to #34: Sing for your supper. Bornstein wants young people to see how to capitalize on their experiences, and uses her own life examples to show the ongoing benefits of self-empowerment. As she is Auntie Kate, some of the recommendations are controversial. However, though she lists self-touch and drug use as options, both are explained within a particular–and quite reasonable–context. (Some parents or teachers may feel uncomfortable with references to sex and drugs, but hey, maybe they could use #7 themselves.)

Overall, Bornstein has created an amiable, flexible set of tools. She recognizes that a lesser form of self-harm is better than suicide, a perspective rarely acknowledged by adults. Her goal is not to trick anyone into being a happier person, but rather to help us grow stronger and build skills to cope in this cruel world.

P.S. Special bonus: the introduction was written by Sara Quin!

Indie Lit Awards, GLBTQ

I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for this year’s ILA GLBTQ section. Before we select the winner, I’d like to post some of my thoughts on the lesbian entry.

[Cover redacted due to cutting scars that might be triggering]

Scars is actually the only nominee with a lesbian protagonist. But that’s definitely not the main issue in Scars. This novel is mostly about being raped as a child and cutting to deal with the pain. It is not an easy book to read. I had to put it down at times because of the graphic details of her cutting, though that’s not a complaint. I struggled with how I felt about this book, because on the one hand it seemed very, very dramatic, especially at the end. (She is being stalked by her childhood rapist, whose identity she has blocked out, leaving every adult male in her life a possible suspect.) On the other hand, I don’t know how this story could have been told without seeming dramatic, and it’s a story worth telling. I really liked some of the secondary characters, especially her girlfriend (and her therapist, who I’m glad is described positively).

Have you read any of the finalists? What did you think of it?