Mfred Reviews Double-D Double Cross by Christa Faust

Butch Fatale is a Los Angeles-based private dick just barely scrapping by on whatever cases come her way.  While having sex with an old friend, a new case walks in the door– another butch is looking for her missing ex-girlfriend, Angie.  Butch suspects Angie is just another fallen ex-junkie, but decides to follow the leads where they may take her.  As it turns out, straight into trouble– Armenian gangsters, high-priced escort services, murder, mayhem, etc.  And a lot more sex.

Faust has written an odd book that reads as both a tribute and a farcical take on the classic mystery pulps of yore.  I can’t say it worked for me, but I think there is definitely a niche out there for interested readers.   As a devoted fan of romance novels, I was surprised to find myself thinking the sex gratuitous and overly-explict.  The first third of the book read like the filler plot in a porno and I was frustrated by the lack of a concrete story.   The sex scenes were not there to develop characters or plot and so I found them more distracting then titillating.

Once the mystery started to unravel, however, the story picked up and I enjoyed it.  When Faust lets Butch do her mystery-solving thing, both the writing and the character shine.  I also liked Faust’s command of setting– modern day LA became a seedy, rich setting for a classic noir tale.

Except that as the story continued into the final third,  Butch got lucky one too many times for me.  A common trope in pulp fiction is the literally down-trodden hero– so beat upon as to almost not function, yet also somehow able to save the day with his wits and his luck.  Butch got so lucky, so often, that I stopped believing she was good at her job.  A couple of promising scenes were utterly wasted when Butch took so long telling me about all of the mental connections she was making and clues she was putting together to beat the bad guy instead of just throwing the right punch at the right moment.

I also wasn’t really sure who this book was written for– a queer reader?  Pulp afficionados?  Straight men?  There were a few inside jokes I adored, like the character named Brink Bannon (Ann Bannon wrote the classic Beebo Brinker lesbian pulp novels).  But other times, Butch’s narrative voice veered into a preachy tone that rang false for a book written for queer audiences.  And the way Butch sexualizes every single woman she comes across made me rather uncomfortable– I wasn’t participating in it and it never hooked me, as a queer reader.

Mfred reviews Passion’s Bright Fury by Radclyffe

Trauma surgeon Saxon Sinclair does not want Jude Castle filming a documentary in her top-rated NYC trauma center.  Jude Castle does not want Bossy McBossersons Sinclair telling her a damn thing, ever. Both have emotional baggage and dark secrets to hide.  

Radclyffe gets so many things right, I find her romance books  a joy to read.  Each character, for all the dark emotional turmoil, felt relatable in basic and fundamental ways.  The dialogue was natural, the humor sincere, and most importantly, the romance felt hot.  

One thing that bothered me: narrative-interrupting inner voice.  Occasionally, the third person narration would veer into a character’s internal, first person voice for a sentence or two.  It wasn’t always super clear when this was happening, so there were a few passages I had to re-read in order to understand who the hell was talking and why.  

A second issue I had was with the near tragic ending.  A book that is about the relationships between two people, their emotional struggles, etc. etc. does not need an explosive but OMG! saved-in-the-nick of time climax to get to that happy ending.  In fact, having characters realize the depth of their love simply because their beloved almost died?  I found it really obvious.  

I really like how Radclyffe creates intelligent, emotional women— and that neither of these attributes takes anything away from the other. I also like they way she writes lesbian relationships.  Her books are realistic about being gay and out, while also telling a love story.  Passion’s Bright Fury showcases these talents.

Mfred Reviews Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Laura goes off to college and meets Beth.  Beth inspires in her a frenzied, frightening passion, which she can barely contain.  Beth, in her loneliness, is drawn to Laura’s worship of her.  They start an affair.  Until Beth meets Charlie, and finally falls in love.

This is basically the plot of Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out and on this cursory, superficial level, I sort of enjoyed it.  It’s not the most well-written story I have ever read, and in particular, I found the narrative head-hopping from one character to the next jarring.   However, as a pulp novel, it satisfies.  There are a lot of trembling arms and heaving sighs, a lot of exclamatory statements and women on the brink of overwhelming desires.

As a modern day reader, I didn’t much like it.  Laura, for being the star of the scandalous lesbian plot, fairly disappears from the book for the last half.  When she is present, her character is presented as an underwhelming girl-child, always crying or about to cry.  Beth’s motivations for wandering in and out of a lesbian romance are explained in the most facile psych 101 terms (she wasn’t loved enough as a child!).  Charlie is an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it.

As a modern day lesbian, I liked it even less.  I will say, that for something produced in pulp literature world of the late 1950s, Odd Girl Out is less judgmental and less condemning than I expected.  There is no happy queer ending, but on the other hand, Laura is able to achieve a sort of self-acceptance that is presented in an admirable light.  Beth and Charlie definitely win the narrative race to heteronormative success, but Bannon carves out a small space for Laura too, and I appreciated that.

MFred reviews Bittersweet by Nevada Barr

The back copy of Nevada Barr’s Bittersweet promised me a truthful, accurate portrayal of two women living together in the 1800s West.  Imogene, a spinster teacher, is forced from her job in the East when her secret affair with a female student is revealed.  She ends up in small Pennsylvania farming town, where she starts a friendship with Sarah Mary.  However, malicious gossip eventually finds her again, and Imogene and Sarah are chased out to Nevada, where they try to start again.

The book is equally Imogene and Sarah’s stories, which I found difficult.  Imogene is older, more experienced, and to me, much more interesting.  She is described as exceedingly tall and strong for a woman – so not only is she old, single, over-educated, but she also physically embodies the characteristics of spinsterhood.  Barr is not an explicit writer – the queerness of Imogene’s character is implied more than it is spelled out.  I wanted more of her, her inner feelings and struggles, than I got.

Sarah, on the other hand, is introduced as a child.  When she reaches around 15, she is married to a local neighbor.  Her life is difficult and hard; she is immature in both age and experience.  Her friendship with Imogene, I think, has more to do with Imogene’s loneliness than with a lot of commonality of character.  It takes Sarah quite a long time, in both page numbers and in plot, to become an interesting character.  Most of the time, I felt that Sarah was just a victim for Imogene to protect, not a true partner.

Without being too spoilery, here is Sarah trying to decide her future:

She squeezed her eyes shut and willed the words to heaven.  When she opened them she was alone and small under the ring of mountains, the little grave at her feet.  “If not, Lord, I’m going to cast my lot with love.”  The defiance returned and she added, “Half a year. I’ll listen half a year.” (198).

I think Bittersweet runs a bit slow and overly long, but Nevada Barr is a gifted writer.  The Old West comes alive, without cliche, in her writing.  Where Barr succeeds is in telling the lives of women– mothers, daughters, wives, and spinsters.  I found it fascinating and interesting, even when the story slowed down.

Mfred reviews Valencia by Michelle Tea

What to say about this book?  I can’t quite put my finger on Valencia, can’t pin it down or summarize my reaction to it.

Perhaps my first mistake was to read the introduction.  My copy is a reprint, with Tea adding commentary on her own ambivalent feelings regarding the semi-autobiographical story of being young, queer, drunk and high, in love, broken-hearted, hungover, penniless, jobless, restless, in San Francisco.  Starting the book with that strong sense of ambivalence may have colored my reading of it.

Each chapter in the novel is a new girl, or a new party, or a new job, told explicitly and graphically, in stream-of-consciousness style.  Sometimes the story blazes and sometimes it falters.  Sometimes it even dawdles and loses the thread completely.  By the end, it becomes quite lyrical and emotive, and I felt drawn to Tea’s narrator where she had annoyed and alienated previously.  But I was also angry!  Why was all this beauty confined to the very last chapter of the book?!

Published in 2000, I’m not sure the book has the same impact today.  Would it win awards or receive so much praise if written in 2011?  There have been quite a few “women-on-the-verge” confessional-style memoirs and stories since the late 90s/early 2000s — maybe this one stands out for being Capital-Q Queer?  But reading it, I was even reminded of books by Kerouac and Diane DiPrima.  In this sense, Tea’s explicitness when detailing all of the the sex, drugs, and aimlessness of her life, felt stale.

Or, maybe it’s me?  Maybe if I was younger and less settled in my life, Tea’s meanderings between girlfriends and emotional crises would have resonated more.  One thing I can say for Michelle Tea, I was not indifferent to her writing.

It took until page 164 for me to find a passage that I truly liked:

As long as I was able to keep my mind from my heart, it seemed like a pretty cool situation. Brave and exciting. But my heart was a whirling, starving void that sucked and sucked like a terrible black hole, and when it gobbled up my logic it made what I was doing look lonely, and sleazy. I laced my Docs and grabbed my leather jacket.

Mfred reviews Skin Beneath by Nairne Holtz

I cannot adequately explain the joy, the incredible sense of pleasure, I derived from reading this book. Even as the book’s plot unraveled a bit at the end, I enjoyed every moment of reading Nairne Holtz’s Skin Beneath. The first paragraph:

Sam unlocks the mailbox in the lobby of her building, takes out a single envelope, opens the back flap to discover a postcard inside. She reads the words on the postcard: “Your sister died while investigating a political conspiracy. Coincidence? How often do women kill themselves with a gun? Think about it.”

What an opening, right? First, the sentence is not a fluke– the entire novel occurs in third person, present tense. Which is just… amazing. In a lesser writer’s hands, it could have come across as gimmicky, or even intrusive. It was a little mesmerizing, instead, to experience the events of a book at the same time as the protagonist. And secondly, the subject matter! A dead sister! A conspiracy! Holtz not only writes well, she also imagines a great plot.

Interestingly, this is a difficult book to sum up because it’s only a mystery on the surface. Five years after her sister’s death by overdose, Sam receives a post card claiming Chloe’s death was not an accident at all, but murder. Still struggling with grief and guilt, Sam decides to trace the mystery of her sister’s last months by moving to Montreal and trying to figure out who Chloe knew, where she worked, what she did, etc., before dying in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. In Montreal, she becomes entangled with Omar and Romey, Chloe’s ex-boyfriend and ex-roommate– both of whom appear to have secrets of their own.

The mystery of Chole’s death is the impetus for Sam to change her life — as she finds out more and more about the secrets of her sister’s life, she also has to deal with her own secrets, her own hidden truths. She also falls hard for Romey, even as she doesn’t quite trust her new girlfriend, or Romey’s relationship to Omar. It’s an incredible journey to follow, and I love the way new clues about Chloe reveal new sides to Sam and Romey. However, Holtz doesn’t maintain the momentum, and the end felt anti-climatic. It all kind of collapses in on itself, as some of the conspiracy revelations get a bit extraordinary in the last half of the book.

All in all, this was a great read that I highly recommend and I will definitely be picking up more books by Holtz.

MFred reviews Call Me Softly by D. Jackson Leigh and Jukebox by Gina Noelle Daggett

Around the time I was ten years old, “horse girls” emerged and it was clear I definitely was not one of them.  Sure, I tried.  I read Black Beauty and watched National Velvet.  But I was way more into the Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew; horses just did not appeal.

Imagine my surprise, twenty-some years later (oh god), to find myself enjoying Call Me Softly.  As the book opens, all of the Wetheringtons have been killed off, except Lillie.  On her grandmother’s deathbed, she promises to return to the polo estate in South Carolina, and deliver herself over to Swain Butler. Swain, her grandmother promises, will help keep Lillie safe.  Swain is the Wetherington’s famed horse trainer and polo player, and unbeknownst to her, also at the heart of some serious family secrets.  Lillie carries these secrets–and all their dangers– back with her, but finds herself falling for the gorgeous horse woman too.

One thing I really liked about Call Me Softly was the even-handedness with which Leigh wrote Swain and Lillie.  Swain is fairly butch in appearance; works a traditional male job, but she has made a place for herself in her community and the wider equestrian world. Leigh allows Swain to be confident, sexy, and unapologetic about herself.  The same can be said for Lillie– who by description sounds pretty high femme to me, but never once exhibits any of the “oh god am I gay enough” crises often encountered in feminine lesbian characterizations.  It’s nice to read two queer women who are drama-free about it.

If I was going to pick at this book for something, it wouldn’t be the paper-thin mystery or the occasional lapse into passive-voiced telling by the narrative voice.  The identity of the villain wasn’t really much of a mystery– I guessed who it was within the first few chapters.   And yeah, the “will-they-won’t-they” between Swain and Lillie was a bit drawn out, because really?  It’s a romance.  They will.   Get on with the smooching already!

No, my main issue was the slut-shaming.  The book opens with a sex scene between Swain and another woman.  It’s obvious this woman is sensual and voracious; but Swain is a willing participant and enjoys having sex with her.  Later, when this Lolita shows up to make some moves on Swain, Lillie (and friends) get real ugly.  Call her a slut and a hussy, behind her back.  I found it jarring.  It completely pulled me out of the story and engaged all of my feminist ire.  Leigh probably meant this to be a sign of Lillie’s growing feelings for Swain, but hell, Swain slept with this woman too.  And Swain does nothing to defend her former partner!   I mean, it’s a romance novel– it seems a little hypocritical of Leigh to imply judgement of one woman’s sexuality while writing pretty hot sex scenes involving two others.  Hard enough being a woman and a queer, know what I’m saying?  We don’t need to be shaming each other too.

Over all, though, the book was entertaining and fun to read.  Not the greatest romance novel in the world, but not the worst either.


Mfred Did Not Finish Jukebox

I don’t care how romantic a love story may be, if the writing is bad enough, I will hate reading it.

Example #1:  Would you like to read the most boring food fight scene in the history of the world?  Ok! Here it is:

One morning, Harper and Grace had been abnormally raucous with one another.  It had started the night before when they were making cupcakes and Grace smeared chocolate mix across Harper’s face.  That alone had resulted in an all-out chocolate cake war in the Alessis’ gourmet kitchen.  When they were done, mix was on the ceiling, all over the thick wood island and matted in both girls’ hair and clothes.  Fortunately, no one was home at the time.

In the end, Grace won the cake war, pining Harper to the floor, her slippery chocolate-covered knees restraining Harper’s arms until she conceded defeat.  Grace pushed buttons inside Harper, buttons she enjoyed having pushed.

First, this scene is all set up for another food fight that starts the next day!  So why is it so detailed?  It shouldn’t take two paragraphs of exposition to set up a scene.  Second, PASSIVE VOICE IS BORING VOICE.  There is no action in this scene!  Third, what exactly is the the most important sentence here?  Grace pushes Harper’s buttons and she likes it.  Did this scene actually tell me that?  No.  The narrative voice did, and that is BORING TOO.

Example #2: Would you like to read a confusing and also strangely icky orgasm scene?  OK!

As Grace split Harper in half, she held held onto the bed sheet with both hands, crumpling it like wads of paper.

Harper squeezed tighter, again, trying to make it last.

Until finally, she let go.

Somewhere deep below the surface, as Harper’s young, fragile frame shook, her foundation gave way–just like in the earthquake–and everything about her crashed down the hill into the vineyard and olive grove.  There was no more imagining.

The big one finally hit.

When Harper smelled herself on Grace’s face, something inside her released, popped open allowing all the fear which had consumed her to dissipate.  With intention, she squirmed away from Grace and got on top; Harper was ready to dive into what she’d dreamed about since she was a teenager.

My thoughts, in the order they occurred:

  1. First of all, may the good lord keep me from ever being split in half.  Sounds frightening.
  2.  And how does one, exactly, get split in half while also squeezing tighter?
  3. “Smelled herself” is the kind of physical detail that isn’t detailed enough– is it titilating, or is it gross?  Are we really meant to wonder that, right after Harper’s first orgasm?
  4. If this orgasm was so physically and emotionally intense, why is she immediately rolling over and making moves on Grace?
  5. I mean, can a sister heave a sigh, maybe lay in bed for a second, to consider the ramifications of losing all of her fear in one fell swoop?

This is too much thinking. And this is only about 60 pages into the book!

I made it about another ten before I realized I actually hated, hated, reading it.  All of the possibilities of the story, the small delights of meeting new characters, disappeared under the passive and inconsistent voice.  So I gave up.

Mfred reviews Piece of My Heart by Julia Watts

Can a poor end to an otherwise okay book truly ruin the entire reading experience?  This is the question I have been pondering since reading Julia Watt’s Piece of My Heart.

Jess Hamlin starts grad school just out of the closet and broken hearted.  Pining for her former (yet still straight) roommate, she begins a series of gay adventures, like going to lesbian bars, making queer friends, dating actual lesbians… Only to end with the book participating in some seriously transphobic “hi-jinks” that made me rethink everything I had considered enjoyable about the book.

Here is what happens (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT):  At the very end of the novel, when Jess has finally let go of her fear, met a great lady, and started a happy lesbian life, Julie Watts brings in a villain.  Grady, one of Jess’ students, makes romantic overtures of the unwanted “I love lesbians because of the 3somes!” variety.  Michelle, Jess’ new girlfriend, gets pissed and plots vengeance– her male-to-female dominatrix friend Chastity will trick Grady into gettin’ freaky with her, only to reveal herself as the man she really is!  Hilarious, right?!!

These are sarcastic exclamation marks, by the way.

When Jess and her lesbian friends meet Chastity, they spend pages and pages goggling at her inexplicable feminine beauty.  Their gazes linger, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over her face and breasts.  To prove just how incredible it all is, Michelle whips out pre-transition photos of Chastity and shows everyone, also telling them her former name, without her permission.  One character asks her, over dinner, whether or not she has had bottom surgery.  Aside from being humiliating, it’s also downright rude and ill-mannered.  The point is made, clearly and explicitly, that Chastity isn’t really a woman, no matter how feminine she may look on the outside.

But we haven’t even gotten to the comedy yet!  After all the plotting, Grady is, of course, completely and utterly emasculated by the sight of a trans woman’s penis, and runs from the room.  All of the lesbians die of laughter and high-five each other for finally evening the score with conservative heterosexuals everywhere.  No one seems to appreciate that they have made a mockery of Chastity at the same time.

Watts and her characters fetishize Chastity the exact same way Grady objectifies Jess and her girlfriend.  Chastity’s sole purpose is to be a horribly attractive freakshow that can both entice and humiliate anyone who looks at her.  The way the characters treat her, from outright staring at her body to the rude questions about her genitals, sickened me.  The way Julia Watts wrote Chastity as a totally defined by the state of her genitals also sicked me.   A trans person’s body is not  a punch line.  It is not public property, for everyone to gawk at and use.  The more I think about it, the angrier I get, and unfortunately, I cannot detach from these feelings.

It might not be fair, but how the book ended completely colored my opinion of the entire book itself.  I can’t divide the good from the bad.  I also refuse to make excuses for the book:  it’s not that old, it’s not that funny, and someone writing a queer book for queer readers should have known better.