Elinor reviews It’s Complicated by A.J. Adaire

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When It’s Complicated opens, Tori is a lonely lesbian in her mid-thirties, living on the Jersey Shore and spending all her time at the medical facility where she works as a night pharmacist and where her partner, Liz, receives care. Liz has been in a coma for three years following an accident. Doctors know that Liz will almost certainly never regain consciousness, and that even if she does she may need extensive care for the rest of her days. The life Tori and Liz shared for almost a decade is a thing of the past, and it’s made worse because Liz and Tori never legally formalized their relationship, so Liz’s homophobic parents make all her medical decisions. It was Liz’s parents who decided to keep Liz on life support even after it became obvious that she’d never wake up, something Liz would not have wanted. Liz’s parents also moved her from Philadelphia—where Liz and Tori lived, worked, and had friends—to a medical care facility in New Jersey. Tori left her job, her support network, and even her dog to be closer to Liz. Since the move, Tori spends six to eight hours every day talking and reading to Liz and visits during her work breaks too. Tori’s only friend is M.J., Liz’s nurse.

The bright spot in Tori’s dreary is situation is an attractive female runner who jogs near the boardwalk. Tori makes a point of visiting the boardwalk during the woman’s daily run, but feels terribly guilty for her attraction, which she thinks is disloyal to Liz. When Tori and the runner, Bev, meet-cute in the grocery store and discover that they’re neighbors, the friendship takes root instantly. Even more conveniently, Bev is single, gay, just about Tori’s age, also works nights, and is new in town and eager to make a friend. Bev has a tragic back-story of her own, and has been too insecure to go on a date in years. Her interest in Tori makes her want to change that, except, as Tori explains early on, it’s complicated. Tori considers herself to be in a monogamous relationship with Liz until one of them dies, and Liz is still technically alive.

All of that happens within the first few chapters. What follows is an intense friendship between Tori and Bev, and a lot of lesbian processing with friends, family, a therapist, and each other. Bev and Tori have fun and there’s a subplot about match making for their straight friends, but the meat of the book is two people trying to figure out the boundaries of their relationship. If more than a hundred pages of dissecting feelings about feelings makes your skin crawl, avoid this one.

But if you are in the mood for a novella rich in lesbian processing, It’s Complicated is a decent read. It’s inelegantly written at times and Adaire has a tendency to tell rather than show, but it’s a sweet enough story. I had fun reading this book, though I couldn’t quite believe the premise. I found Tori’s guilt about having a crush and the number of hours she devotes to Liz over the top given the number of years since the accident, Liz’s prognosis, and the excellent professional care Liz receives. Tori even worries she is being emotionally unfaithful to Liz by becoming good friends with attractive Bev, a fear that people in the book treat very seriously but I found hard to swallow.

There were a few other things in this book I found baffling. Liz’s parents’ unrelenting anti-gay sentiments came with no explanation. They were cartoonish homophobes with nothing much else to them. I don’t like flat villains, and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t fleshed out as characters. Another head scratcher is that Tori never talks or even thinks about the life she and Liz had dreamed of having together. Tori and Liz were only in their thirties at the time of the accident and considered themselves committed for life, so you’d think they shared some vision of what that might look like. Tori misses Liz, but she never mourns any plans or hopes they had for the future. Liz was quite closeted for reasons I didn’t find believable in a modern, East Coast city. Taken together, these things reminded me of “tragic lesbian” stories from earlier decades, not from the book’s 2012 setting.

That being said and despite the sad subject matter, I found it a relaxing read when I suspended my disbelief. The biggest problem I had was that the ending felt rushed. Without giving anything away, a huge surprise appears after what seems like the climax of the book, and isn’t given the time to be realistic resolved. Most of the book unfolds at a slow and steady pace, but the last thirty pages are stuffed with information. It’s a jarring shift, and made the extremely tidy ending feel unearned. It’s unfortunate, because I would have liked the ending fine if it hadn’t happened so quickly. If you like angst and heaps of processing, I recommend it for lesbian romance fans, with a warning that the ending falls short.

Karelia Stetz-Waters reviews Bella Key by Scarlet Chastain

Somewhere in Manhattan there is a think tank wherein scientists have spent the last ten years perfecting an instrument that will allow them to measure a book’s suitability for beach reading. On the Beach Readability Index (BRI) the novella Bella Key, by Scarlet Chastain, scores a perfect ten.

The first point in Bella Key’s BRI favor is that the story is set on a beach. The beach-reader can immerse herself in sand and surf, both fictional and actual.

Bella Key takes its name from the tiny island off the coast of Florida where the book is set. Bella Key’s heroine, Maddie, travels there on a whim, feeling overwhelmed and beset upon by her job and her mother’s insistence that she marry the male attorney she has been dating. She feels like something is missing and she finds it in the form of Sunny, the beautiful bed and breakfast owner who lets her stay for free, provided Maddie cooks for the two of them.

From there Bella Key unfolds like the classic romance, complete with requisite sexual tension, colorful supporting characters, a fair dose of sex, and [surprise!] a happy ending.  The story is thoroughly enjoyable and the writing is very professional. Chastain does not make any rookie mistakes. The pacing is good. The scenes are vivid. Dialogue moves quickly.

I only have two criticisms, both of which are related to the genre. Criticizing a book’s genre-based aspects is something I basically disapprove of. You can’t read a sleepy memoir about growing up Methodist and say it would have been more fun if there had been strippers or maybe an alien abduction.  It’s just not helpful. But here I go…

My first criticism was that I found Bella Key to be a bit short. (It’s a novella, so, of course, it’s short.)

I had read that the e-publishing revolution had brought the novella back from obscurity. I wanted to explore this literary form, so I picked Bella Key.

Now here is a true confession I would never make at my day job (I am an English professor and writer by trade): I don’t really like short stories. The problem is that they are so short. If I’m satisfied when they end at page 12, then they can’t have been that good to begin with. (There are a few exceptions. I love Isak Dinesen, and I’m a sucker for anthologies with a theme like Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City.) But usually I’m just disappointed when a short story is over.

I felt somewhat that way about Bella Key. It’s a perfect 10 on the Beach Readability Index because you can start it right after you finish your clam strips and finish it before you hit the margarita shack. But it is a good read, so, at the end of the day, I wish it had lasted longer.

My second criticism was that I didn’t quite believe the sex.

Everyone knows that the sex in romance novels is not realistic.  I’m okay with that. In fact, I get a little embarrassed when romance novelists try to be realistic by having the dog jump on the couple while they are in bed or by having one of the lovers get up and pee. That’s not what I came for.

Nonetheless, when dutiful, overworked, previously-heterosexual Maddie has sex with Sunny for the second time and covers her body in honey and then licks it off, I don’t believe it. I just don’t know anyone who would go that high on the glycemic index on her first lesbian weekend.  Of course, that’s the whole point. Bella Key is an erotic romance novel. Chastain would be well within her right to tell me that if I wanted real sex, I could just get a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves and read up.

Self-servingly, I’d like to point out that the scene would have worked if Bella Key had been a novel. If the honey came out on page 200 it would have all made sense.

At the end of the day, the really interesting thing about Bella Key is not the sex nor the fact that it is a novella, but the fact that Scarlet Chastain is a pen name for Sandra Bunino, a well-published author of M/F erotic romance.  (I read a few interviews with Chastain/Bunino. She sounds like a genuinely nice person.) Bella Key was not written for an exclusively – or even a primarily – lesbian readership.

I know some people who disapprove of this kind of crossing over, feeling that  lesbian erotica should be written for and by lesbians only.

Personally, I liked the idea that a successful M/F romance writer would introduce her primarily heterosexual readers to a lesbian love story. I can hear a few of my more politically correct friends saying “but that’s just another form of objectification!”

Maybe.

But I grew up on media that portrayed queer women as evil or noble-and-destined-to-be-tragically-killed.  Those were the options. I’ll take lesbians-as-sexy-romantic-heroines any day.

 

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Hot Line by Alison Grey

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Before reading Hot Line, I hadn’t looked into the premise of the book. I just knew it was an erotic novella. From the first page, I could guess that the premise would be different from most romance novels/erotica stories I’ve read. (Which is great, because the thing I like least about romance/erotica novels is the repetition.) It begins with Christina (alias Chantal) answering calls at her job at a sex hot line. She gets a call from a woman, Lydia, who just wants to talk. Then, excuse the cliche, Lydia makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

For an erotica story, Hot Line is very much in the characters’ heads. We get a lot of insight into what both of them are thinking, including the awkwardness, hesitation, and double-guessing. Sometimes this could seem like over-explaining, and occasionally they seemed put off by pretty normal things, considering the circumstances. But for the most part, it gave much more characterization and honesty to what I’m used to from an erotic story. There were occasional awkward phrasings, but that could be the translation. (That’s another thing: it’s nice to read a lesfic story not set in the US. Hot Line is based in Germany.) Though, there is a bit of the old romance novel trope of needless angst. Both Christina and Lydia try to convince themselves that they don’t like each other, or that the other person doesn’t feel the same way, when there’s pretty ample evidence for what they feel.

What I was most impressed by in Hot Line is the progression of the relationship. Considering the premise and the length of the story, not to mention the genre, I found their relationship to be much better developed than I was expecting. [Mild/vague spoilers, highlight to read] Weeks pass. They get to know each other. [end spoilers] This is partly because of the novella’s tendency to dwell in their thoughts. It made their relationship more believable and oddly organic (again, considering the premise). The ending is a bit abrupt, but it really gives you all you need. I would recommend Hot Line if you’re intrigued by the premise or are looking for a lesfic novella.

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