Danika reviews Meanwhile, Elsewhere edited by Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett

This is a huge book. Metaphorically, of course: it’s a big step in queer lit that we have a collection like this now, a collection of SFF stories all by and about trans people. We’re finally moving towards having stories that neither minimize queerness nor make it our only defining feature. But actually, I’m talking about it’s physical size. It’s 447 pages, and the book is taller and wider than your average paperback: more like a textbook than a novel. Although I really enjoyed reading this, it did take me a while to get through, because its physical size makes it awkward to hold and the length was intimidating.

It was well worth the time it took me to read it, though! I was happy to see that there are plenty of sapphic stories included: in fact, at least 10 of the 25 stories has a women-loving-women main character. Although this collection is sci fi and fantasy, and trans people in general, there’s definitely a stronger presence of science fiction and trans women.

As always in an anthology, some of these were bigger hits than others, but even the stories I didn’t personally enjoy I could see other people loving. (Like “It’s Called Fashion,” which I found difficult to follow, but I can see other readers really clicking with.) The stories vary a lot in their scope and premise. Some build a complex cyberpunk world in 20 pages, while others imagine a world only slightly different than ours. One story follows someone in space quietly ruminating about microaggressions, while another follows a woman whose brain-eating amoeba communicates through dreams and grows via orgasms.

A few stories I found so fascinating that I could easily write papers about them: “Satan, Are You There? It’s Me, Laura.” by Aesling Fae attempts to reclaim Satan as a trans woman, and as the protector of trans women. Outside of context, the devil and a trans woman sounds offensive, but Fae makes it an empowering thesis. Like Carmilla the series takes the monstrous lesbian and turns her into a hero, this story does the same thing with the devil.

The other story that really made me think was “Rent, Don’t Sell” by Calvin Gimpelevich. In this world, the technology for body-swapping had been made viable, but under capitalism, it’s used for things like: swapping your body with a trainer’s so they can do your exercise for you, hiring someone to detox for you, and, of course, having sex while inhabiting someone else’s body. This has a lot of interesting discussions about identity. The side character is a trans women who swapped bodies with a trans guy, but now regrets it and wants to transition with her own body, so she’s suing to try to get it back.

Some of my other favorites were “What Cheer” by RJ Edwards, where the main character spends a couple days with her alien close, and learns appreciation for herself and her life; “After the Big One” by Cooper Lee Bombardier, where a motley crew of queer argue about discourse and privilege, but have to come together to survive disaster; and “Gamers” by Imogen Binnie, which is about Zelda and time travel and being in an unhealthy relationship with a dependent girlfriend.

I do want to mention some serious trigger warnings for transphobia, transmisogyny, violence, gore, and rape in various stories. Specifically, the one story I had a problem with is “Delicate Bodies” by Bridget Liang, in which the main character is a zombie who rapes and then kills her ex-boyfriends/crushes. I get the zombie revenge fantasy, but I was getting nauseated reading about her brutally raping multiple people, and the text seems to suggest that they deserve it. They may have been jerks, but they didn’t do anything comparable. It soured the collection some for me. I also want to mention a trigger warning for suicide in “Visions” (though that’s not one of the sapphic stories).

I highly recommend this collection to just about everyone. It’s ambitious and necessary and has some fantastic stories. (And that sapphic story abundance doesn’t hurt!)

Julie Thompson reviews A Heart Well-Traveled: Tales of Long Distance Romance & Unlikely Outcomes by edited by Sallyanne Monti

A Heart Well-Traveled presents nineteen stories, highlighting the stress and strain, and love and hope between couples physically and emotionally separated by circumstance. Long distance love and all of its baggage (distance, work, social obligations, limited free time) are things with which I am all too familiar, making this collection especially appealing to me.

As these short stories unfold, we travel from big cities to wilderness treks, online encounters and trips across State lines and overseas. They also take numerous chances on affairs of the heart between seeming opposites and the risks associated with starting all over again in new places. This anthology does a wonderful job of illuminating the uncertainty, hesitation, anxiety, as well as the exhilaration, passion, and love these women share. We venture into an uncertain union as Cameron, daughter of Hollywood royalty, and Emily, a Nebraska native attempting to navigate the Hollywood machine, play against type in “Just Like in the Movies” by N.R. Dunham. In “Trail Magic” by Michele M. Reynolds, Nat discovers that faith can become a tangible concept when she stops to pick up a Dove. And a two-year relationship facing a fork in the road between Butte, Montana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

One of my favorite stories, “A Caramel Macchiato with a Friend” by Lila Bruce, takes place between two women who meet at a coffee shop after chatting online for about a year. Remember that X-Files episode, “2Shy” in which women become gelatinous goo after online dating gone very, very wrong? Think of how much heartache (not to mention that whole staying alive part) could have been spared if those women had had a friend standing by with a safe phrase. Lila Bruce’s story is funny, awkward, and cute. Lauren trips all over herself and fumbles her way through her coffee meet-up with Dana in Jerry Lewis-fashion, making what she thinks is the worst possible impression. As varied as these stories are, you’re likely to find one (or two or three) that you relate to in some way. I never did online dating, preferring to read through the Lust and Love Labs in The Stranger. But the swirl of emotions and nerves (and the worries of Katy, Lauren’s friend) resonates with parts of my experiences.

The variety of ways in which these authors define love between women from a wide range of demographics and HEA (Happily Ever After) prevents dull repetition. Overall, it’s a fine romance for hopeless romantics and cautious cynics alike, with plenty of sugar and spice, however (and whenever) you find your sweethearts.

Stephanie reviews Her Sigh: A Lesbian Anthology by Victoria Zagar

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As most of you know, I LOVE short story collections, so when I came across Her Sigh: A Lesbian Anthology by Victoria Zagar, I thought I’d give it a go.  Short stories don’t get a lot of love in lesbian literature, (most folks want to read romance novels), so I’m always excited when I see that a new collection has been released.

To start, Her Sigh isn’t quite what I expected. Silly me, when I saw that it was an anthology, I thought it was a multi-author collection; it’s not. All fourteen stories are by Zagar, and they mostly have a similar theme: love. Zagar also works hard at creating dystopian/fantasy settings where love seems to conquer all, and in a few of the stories, it does.

For example, both “Sophie’s Song” and “Expiration Date” focus on post-nuclear war society, although neither story gives us much information on the wars, or how far into the future the stories are set. “Expiration Date” is a rather interesting take on family in an era where population control is paramount to society’s existence. In order to quell married couples’ desire for children, the government has come up with a novel solution, the Realichild, where couples are allowed to raise a child for limited period of time. Revealing anything more might spoil the story, but I really liked the way that Zagar normalizes the lesbian couple, but problematizes the ways in which the nuclear family (no pun intended) is still central to a happy family.

A few of the other stories read a bit like fairy tales or fables: a princess must decide whether or not to marry a prince when her true love is a female knight; a young woman seeks an arranged marriage to save her family, but is in love with the village seamstress, and another young woman realizes that she is the reincarnation of an ancient creature’s lover.

Overall, the collection is a solid read although there were a few times when I just rolled my eyes. How many cabins in the woods can there be in lesbian la-la land?  How many old world villages? Additionally, a couple of the stories felt a bit rushed. Short stories are difficult to write, so I understand that everything can’t fit, but I do think that if you’re going to create dystopian societies, space colonies, or old world villages, then make sure that they don’t all feel the same, otherwise your readers might become bored.  Although this wasn’t really my cup of tea, if you like lesbian romance with a flair for the otherworldly thrown in, this may be the collection for you.

Stephanie reviews Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

 

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Don’t Explain is a collection of short stories by Black lesbian author, activist, and philanthropist Jewelle Gomez. Most widely known for her Black lesbian vampire novel The Gilda Stories, Gomez’s Don’t Explain is a collection of nine stories that employ rich, sensual, language to introduce readers to several carefully constructed characters whose stories set our minds and bodies afire. Although the collection was written in 1998, the stories are as poignant and relatable as they were when the book was published nearly twenty years ago.

For example, my favorite story in the collection, “Water With the Wine” is a new take on an old trope, the May-December romance. Gomez carefully deconstructs the most commonly held notions about romance between older and younger lesbians, and posits another reality for the women in her story. Alberta and Emma meet and become involved at an academic conference; however, differences in age, class and race threaten to destroy their budding relationship. Gomez deals sensitively and honestly with these issues and deepens our understanding of what it means to fall in love after the blossom of youth.

“White Flower” is a chronicle of desire, not quite erotica, but pretty close. Luisa and Naomi “can’t have a relationship, it’s too consuming too everything,” so their meetings are infrequent but filled with all of the lust and passion that two women can share. This story will leave you panting, it will also leave you wondering at what point the unbridled desire turns to obsession and manipulation.

In “Lynx and Strand,” the longest story in the collection, Gomez forays into the genre where I believe she does her best writing, speculative fiction. To put it simply, speculative fiction is not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, but an imaginative blend of the two genres, and in this story, explores what it means to live in a future where same-sex relationships are still policed by the state. Here, Gomez tackles issues of futuristic state governments, homophobia, body art, and what it means to truly become one with your partner.  The story is timely, some might say prophetic, because even though it was written nearly two decades ago, LGBTQ persons’ right to bodily autonomy is still being challenged, even threatened, in 2016.

For those familiar with Gomez’s The Gilda Stories, “Houston” offers a new chapter into the life of her Black lesbian vampire and offers a provocative look at what it means to be humane when you actually aren’t human at all.

All of the stories in this collection are sensitive, sensual, and offer a pleasant alternative to “mainstream” lesbian fiction.  The collection also focuses on Black women’s experiences, and this is what truly sets it apart from most of the lesbian fiction on the market today. The collection is short, only 168 pages long, but each of the stories offers entrée into the life of Black women, mostly lesbian, that illuminates the complexity of our lives and the power of our loving. If you have not had an opportunity to read any of Jewelle Gomez’s work, start with this collection and I am certain that you will want to read more!

Lauren reviews The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel by Vincent Cross

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The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel is a short story about an order of nuns that administer exorcisms. In particular, readers are introduced to Sister Teresa and Sister Elizabeth. The sisters have traveled to a small village to assist Father Gregory with a recent crime that he believes will require a spiritual interrogation. At first, nothing seems odd about the nuns. They are dutiful with religious and cultural etiquette. Fast-forward past the opening and Cross unveils the “worldy” side of these women, which removes the veil between the reader and the historical setting, and allows Teresa and Elizabeth to add deeper hues to the story.

Given this is a short story I can’t delve into the plot without risking spoilers. Therefore, I’ll shift to the parts of the narrative that interested and concerned me.

First off, Little Sisters is erotic, which augments the relationship between the characters, as well as the banishment of evil. The erotic is more than sexual. It exists in several layers. It’s physical and spiritual and romantic. On this same note, there is a layer of Cross’ eroticism that pestered me as the story escalated and climaxed. And it started with this sentence:

“We want the thing to smell our scent, but we don’t want our bodies to betray us.”

Sparing the details, I asked myself why is it necessary for these women to use their vessels in such a risky way? Arguably, they are asked to sacrifice their sanctity. Do their actions convey that women are powerful beyond measure? Or, is this just another instance of women “using” what God gave them to make themselves relevant in an unequal world and an attempt to maintain balance between good and evil? Which, ultimately, saves men. If the tables were turned and male clergy were responsible for the exorcism, how would the climatic event in this story change? To me, it would be much different.

There are times when the erotic can be liberating.  There are times when the sexuality and the erotic gaze are self-serving and only maintain sexist ideals. I feel that Little Sisters walks a fine line. The story is well written, but where (and if) readers teeter along this line is subjective, of course.

I would have liked for Cross to allow the nuns to address two of my lingering questions: first, who are they protecting, and second, do they feel their holy vessel is the only way?

As a reviewer, I rarely feel the need to strike an iron hammer by recommending or not recommending a read. Therefore, I’ll end as I usually do. Little Sisters is story for those who enjoy short stories and want to venture into an old world, erotic, and paranormal read featuring religious women that boldly face demons.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter,www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

Julie Thompson reviews Me and My Boi edited by Sacchi Green

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“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.

Holly reviews Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen

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In her first collection of short stories, Nancy Jo Cullen displays her talent for creating distinct characters and blessing them with the same insecurities that haunt the rest of us.  Although each has their own unique personality, one commonality among all of the characters in this collection is their acquiescence to despair.  From the despondent waitress/dancer to the widower whose dead wife’s ashes ride shotgun wherever he goes, it seems that each of these characters has surrendered to the oppressive hopelessness that smothers their existence.  Sure, there are some glimmers of optimism here and there: The sullen teenage girl who feels invisible gets an ego boost when her older cousin rubs his hard-on against her during a consensual albeit ill-advised make-out session; A recently divorced woman achieves a sense of vindication through having all of her pubic hair waxed off and then hurling a rock through her ex-wife’s window.  

However these characters identify, whoever they love (or don’t love), this book is filled with tension, desolation, and dreams that, upon being realized, don’t turn out to be so dreamy.  Each of these characters aches to escape, to transcend.  In “Happy Birthday”, a woman who describes her marriage to her wife as a carcass they are dragging behind them takes a night’s reprieve from motherhood and wifehood by walking out on her demented mother’s 83rd birthday party and hitchhiking to Banff.  In “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time”, another tale of making-do, a closeted gay husband and a wife who would prefer to not sleep with him anyways break their celibacy in an attempt to conceive.  

Situated primarily in British Columbia, many of these stories are set in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the music of that time is often utilized to set the tone.  The era’s song lyrics are woven into the narrative like musical pathetic fallacy.  The stories are all sort in length, averaging about 16 pages each.  They move at a good pace that keeps you anticipating what fresh socially-awkward hell these poor people will find themselves in next.  The stories in this collection expose something that we can all relate to: The myriad ways in which other people disappoint us, and the futility with which we attempt to reconcile this disappointment with our innate optimism.  These characters pull their terrible circumstances around their shoulders like an itchy wool blanket, and try to garner warmth despite the excruciating discomfort.

 

Danika reviews Painting Their Portraits in Winter by Myriam Gurba

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This is a book with a heartbeat, as alive as if the words were put down in blood. Probably a macabre first impression of a book, but one that I think really fits Painting Their Portraits In Winter. This is a collection of short stories, some interlinked and some freestanding, rooted in Mexican culture and storytelling both in Mexico itself and in the US. Queerness isn’t at the forefront of most of these stories, but when it does come up, it always feels spot-on to me.

I reach into Andrew’s coffin. My fingers touched his. I appraised them. They felt chilly, stiff, and anti-climactic, like omens of my future attempts at compulsory heterosexuality.

Death does play a major role throughout this collection. Oddly enough, having read this not long after Falling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson, both books contain a story about a ghost living (mostly) unseen and unnoticed in the physical world, and they both made for fascinating reads.

Myriam Gurba shows incredible skill for language, and even when I wasn’t completely following the plot, the lush sentences were enough to dive into. I don’t feel like I can do justice to this book, but if you enjoy rich, dark storytelling, definitely pick this one up.

Danika reviews Falling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

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First things first: this is a short story collection with only one story that has queer women content. (Though it is the longest story, for what it’s worth.) Usually, I probably wouldn’t include a book with that little queer women content at the Lesbrary, or at least I would only review that particular story, but here’s the thing: I loved this book. This was a book that I tried to draw out the experience of reading because I didn’t want it to end. It had me hooked from the introduction. Actually, the first sentence had me sitting down and paying attention: I didn’t used to like people much.

Besides, there is additional queer content beyond “Ours Is the Prettiest”. One of my favourite stories was a cozy narrative about a gay couple (who are in a BDSM relationship) that have a missing chicken. The stories vary throughout in tone and genre, some feeling light and airy, and some veering into horror. What holds the collection together is Nalo Hopkinson’s effortless blending of the fantastic and the mundane. They are usually rooted in reality, but they have elements that transcend it.

“Ours Is the Prettiest” is a Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I haven’t read any of the other Borderlands books (though I was intrigued enough by this story that I certainly will now), but I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.

After I finished this book, I just wanted to hug it to my chest and sigh contentedly. Hopkinson introduces each of her stories and gives a little explanation, and those not only add to the experience of those stories, they also show her personality so much that she’s been added to my list of dream authors to have at a dinner party. This is the third book that I’ve read by her, and though frankly I was bewildered by The Chaos, reading this book in addition to The Salt Roads has made me determined to read her entire back list. If you have any interest at all in fantastical or magical realist short stories, if you like sharp humor or flawed and compelling characters, definitely pick this one up. It’s one of my favourite reads this year.

Elinor reviews Best Lesbian Romance of the Year: Volume One edited by Radclyffe

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I am so happy I read this anthology. The introduction starts with an Audre Lorde quote, which is the right way to kick off a book. The stories ran the gamut from meeting cute to the culmination of decades of longing. Every story ended happily, those happy endings felt genuine and deserved, and drama and angst never overwhelmed any of the love stories. Romance can be hard to condense into a short story, but editor Radclyffe curated a solid collection of 18 tales. This book includes stories from established writers like Sacchi Green, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Giselle Renarde, among many others.

There’s plenty of sex in this anthology, a lot of which rivals some erotica anthologies in terms of heat. I was delighted by this. The sex scenes seemed largely organic to the relationships in these stories and were an extension of the romance. Not every story included sex, and some of my favorite stories involved little more than kissing, a testament to the great writing in this book.

I was glad that this collection had so many stories of long-term couples. This included a couple of more than a decade trying to beat the heat by getting out of their old and AC-less house (and having hot sex) in “Cooling Down, Heating Up.” In “Little Bit of Ivory,” a couple reconnects after one woman has been traveling for work. “A Royal Engagement” offered up a lesbian member of the British royalty and gave her a charming engagement story, while “Going to the Chapel” features a couple bringing out the best in each other, even in absurd circumstances, on the way to their own wedding. “Gargoyle Lovers” rounds out the wedding theme with a sexy Parisian honeymoon. “Wiggle-Wiggle-Womp” comes with a cute twist. “Beautiful” features a kinky narrator and her partner returning to their local BDSM scene after a battle with cancer has transformed the narrator’s body. I loved the way “Beautiful” showcased the tenderness and freedom submission can bring, all while rejecting normative ideals about bodies and beauty. My absolute favorite story in this collection was Rebekah Weatherspoon’s “Forever Yours, Eileen,” about Eileen and June, lifelong friends over the age of sixty who are finally exploring the relationship they’ve both wanted, and waited for, for years. June and Eileen were friends as children in the South, separated when June’s family moved north in fear of 1950s racial violence. Their love bloomed in letters and brief visits even as they married men, raised children, and built typical-looking lives. Now both single, Eileen is meeting June in New York. This one made me cry in a good way.

There were also plenty of couples starting new relationships, too. Radclyffe’s lovely story “Bad Girls and Sweet Kisses” reminded me of being eighteen and in love for the first time. A stuck light bulb sparks new feelings about a helpful friend in “Light.” Camping sounds a lot more fun in “Waterfall” (even though there’s a concussion in this story). You get to indulge your barista-crush in “Red Velvet Cake.” An out-of-character nude modeling gig leads to self-discovery and romance in “Some Nudity Required.” Grumpy teenagers find love with some help from a hippie in “Love Dance.” An ex shows growth in “Dance Fever,” and an assistant gets to see a softer side of her sexy, ice queen boss in “Unexpected Bliss.” “Long Drive” is unique and charming because it focuses on a couple who have been conducting their relationship via phones and Internet after meeting online, and are meeting in person for the first time. Though a few of these new couple love stories seemed to progress their relationships quite fast, it didn’t seem all that unrealistic.

The only story I didn’t really like was “Like a Breath of Ocean Blue,” about a woman crushing on her coworker by the sea. It was just too overwritten for me and the love interest didn’t read like an authentic person. One lackluster story in a collection of eighteen is not bad though.

I was very happy that there was some diversity in gender presentation in this book, and people of different sizes and ages. I wanted more racial diversity, though. With a few exceptions, like “Going to the Chapel” and “Forever Yours, Eileen,” there were a lot of white people in this book. This might just be me, but I also wished Best Lesbian Romance of the Year: Volume One had included a story about lesbians raising kids or on the road to parenthood.

Quibbles aside, this is an excellent anthology of lesbian romance. If you’re at all interested in the genre, you should read this. Highly recommended.