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.

Krait reviews Love’s Perfect Vintage by Elizabeth Andre

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Would you let your mother find your next girlfriend? Beautiful thirty-two year old African-American Aisha Watson works hard all week as a budget analyst and plays hard all weekend as a competitive longsword fighter. But her heart was recently broken, and she’s not even so sure she wants to be in love again after a series of dating disasters. Aisha’s mother decides to find her a nice girl and introduces her to Kris Donnelly.

Kris, with long chestnut brown hair and vibrant green eyes, is Aisha’s former high school classmate who is all grown up and become one of Chicago’s leading sommeliers. In between choosing fine wines, she’s just getting back into dating as Aisha is leaving the scene, but Aisha is about to learn that her mother may be right about something. Could Kris be the woman for whom she’s been searching?

To be released on February 19th, Love’s Perfect Vintage is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of ‘Lesbian Light Reads.’ Despite being light on page count (42 pages, according to my Kindle) as well as tone, Love’s Perfect Vintagemanages to give us a believable Meet Cute and happy ending for a well-adjusted lesbian couple.

Right off the bat, both Aisha and Kris feel like fully-fledged adults. Aisha has a career and hobbies and a life before she meets Kris and she continues to enjoy them once she and Kris start dating. Neither heroine is a flat archetype, and I really enjoyed Aisha’s relationship with her parents. Andre also sells the chemistry between Aisha and Kris when they meet at a barbeque thrown by Aisha’s family. A short line establishes that they were acquainted in high school, making the instant “Wow, you’ve grown up” feel believable.

The narrative feel of the story puts me in mind of the story a new friend might tell you about how they met their partner. There’s no real conflict, just a couple of months of them getting to know each other, working dates into their schedules and realizing the relationship is a serious one. I appreciated that both Aisha and Kris continued to go out on exploratory dates with a few people (though we don’t see the dates) before realizing how well they fit together. The whole situation feels like the organic growth of a healthy relationship, and it really does feel realistic.

If you need a reminder that happy lesbians in healthy relationships exist this Valentine’s, this is definitely the story for you. I’m so impressed with what Andre managed to do in 42 pages and I’ll definitely look at her other work.

(And the blurb mentions it, but a black lesbian heroine! We absolutely need more of that).

Danika reviews Black Girl Love by Anondra Williams

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Black Girl Love is a collection of short stories and poems about, unsurprisingly, love between black women. Each story is very short, usually just a tiny snippet of a relationship. Sometimes they are love stories, sometimes they are erotica, sometimes break-up stories, and sometimes quite dark explorations of interactions between women. I liked the variety and the themes introduced, but personally I felt like there wasn’t enough time to get invested in each story, so there were few stories that I felt really invested in. I did enjoy one series of stories in which we got three different perspectives on the same story, partly because it allowed for more depth in that narrative.

There were a couple of moments that tripped me up, including the only mention of trans people being a narrator saying “transgender my ass” about her ex, as well as the only story that addresses mental health [spoiler, highlight to read] ending with the mentally ill person killing her ex[end spoiler]. There were also quite a few typos scattered throughout. Overall there were a lot of parts that intrigued me about this collection, but I didn’t feel like I could really dig into it. At the same time, I have to acknowledge as a white reader that this isn’t a book that was written for me, and I expect that other readers will get something different from it.

Kalyanii reviews The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

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My journey through The First Person and Other Stories, a collection by British writer Ali Smith, manifested as a perpetual pendulum swing between rapt attention to the tales’ unfolding and an uncomfortable sense of groundlessness mingled with a fair degree of alienation. I’ll admit, at several points along the way, I entertained the idea of abandoning the work, just before I was drawn back in. Midway through, it dawned on me. I wasn’t responding to the merit of the writing itself; I was reacting to the way in which the writing was affecting me.

Several of the most poignant stories are written in the first person, addressing “you,” which can’t help but to hit pretty close to the bone, especially given that all contextual clues lead to the understanding that “I” and “you” are former lovers. Boasting a couple of bruised egos, a few resentments and a whole lot of ambivalence, the relationship is revisited and perhaps even reconvened via the rewriting of history. If we can assume that it is the same couple featured throughout the collection, we begin to glean a deeper understanding of both women and their history as we witness their interactions at various junctures.

Among these particular stories, I found “The Second Person” to be most engaging given how very ludicrous we civilized adults can be when protecting our heart in the presence of the woman to whom we once offered it so freely. Claiming to know who the other person truly is and how she would behave in an utterly rhetorical circumstance, the first person narrator describes with utter certainty the way in which her former lover would purchase an accordion with very specific qualities “precisely because” she can’t play it. The former lover then retaliates with her own version of how the scenario would play out had the narrator been the one to make the visit to the music shop. The entire progression and escalation of the conversation is priceless.

I’d have to note “Writ” as perhaps the most touching piece within the collection as the narrator sits across the table from her fourteen-year-old self. Witnessing the expression of insolence that her younger visage “makes a thing of beauty,” she finds herself quite proud; and, while she yearns to give her a heads-up as to who she ought to trust as well as who to and not to bed, she also aches to provide assurances that things are going to turn out alright. She cannot utter any of it, however, for the journey lies in the unknown, which should be denied no one.

From my perspective, the most disturbing tale by far was “The Child,” which initially struck me as simply absurd until I picked up on the greater meaning. The story opens with the narrator’s discovery of a chubby, blond-haired, “embarrassingly beautiful” baby boy in her grocery cart when she returns from tracking down bouquet garni for her soup. As adorable as the child may be, surrounded by strangers gushing over his loveliness, his behavior in private becomes quite another matter. When alone with the narrator, who finds herself developing an increasing tenderness for him, the baby unleashes a flurry of horrifyingly misogynistic and otherwise offensive jokes and pronouncements most frequently attributed to those on the far religious right. One might deduce that the child’s attitudes serve to align motherhood with an overarching culture of women’s oppression.

I wasn’t quite as keen on “True Short Story” and “Fidelio and Bess” as well as a couple others merely because they didn’t resonate with me. They also tended toward the more experimental, and I fear I didn’t appreciate Smith’s approach as well as someone else might. There were also a few instances in which her stream of consciousness tested my patience, compromising my willingness and ability to follow along.

Smith does indeed push the envelope in exploring the boundaries, whether real or imaged, of the short story form. Time and time again, she appears to break all of the cardinal rules of writing, only to create a more profound impact than one would expect, regardless of how true-to-the-rules it is crafted. Each story is written in incredibly simple language yet contains more nuance than can be grasped in a single read-through. Just when I felt that Smith was betraying the basic tenet of “show, don’t tell,” I discovered that very little of what was happening actually appeared on the page. It was all written between the lines.

Playfully scoffing at our tendency to seek absolutes and a tidy resolution, Smith illuminates the contradictions inherent within our nature as well as the messiness of our attempts to reconcile the incongruent parts of ourselves with the most vulnerable parts of those we love. Just as there’s likely a bit of the autobiographical within the writing of The First Person and Other Stories, there’s little doubt that, as readers, we can expect to find our most imperfect selves mirrored within the “I” and “you” as they appear upon and beyond the page.

Krait reviews Winged Things: A Lesbian YA Short Story Collection by Jennifer Diemer and Sarah Diemer

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WINGED THINGS is a bewitching collection of young adult short stories, ranging from paranormal to fantasy, all featuring a lesbian heroine. This collection is part of Project Unicorn, a fiction project that seeks to address the near nonexistence of lesbian main characters in young adult fiction by giving them their own stories.

Winged Things, as the blurb suggests, is part of an awesome project by Sarah and Jennifer Diemer to expand the cast of lesbian protagonists in YA fiction. Project Unicorn is currently on hiatus, but a current total of 51 free short stories are available online. Winged Things is the sixth in a series of e-zines collecting the stories of Project Unicorn, with two new stories not available online.

Generally speaking, I really enjoyed this collection. It’s the sort of thing I wish I’d been able to read growing up, where there are no tragic lesbians and everything ends on a hopeful note. There’s a lightness to the stories, no doubt helped by the motif of flying running through the collection. The protagonists are young girls growing and expanding into new and lovely creatures. (Or people, depending on the story).

On an individual basis, a few stories really stood out for me. (Some spoiler-y quotes to follow)

In “When We Flew,” our heroine Ola lives in a tiny village where everyone is born with wings, but they’re considered shameful appendages, fit only to be removed at 17. I was struck by some really gorgeous turns of phrase:

“And on the scheduled day of Removing, I removed myself. I flew on wings that had been destined for dust but grazed the stars instead.”

This particular quote is fairly typical of the narrative style, so if you prefer very precise, concrete prose, the writing might not be for you.

Both “Aphrodite Has A Daughter” and “Flower Constancy” are two stories that I would love to see expanded, whether just into a longer form or into a full novel. “Aphrodite” is a short retelling of the meeting of Eros and Psyche, where Eros is the jaded daughter of Aphrodite, the embodiment of “love-in-action.” I would absolutely love to see a lesbian retelling of the full story of Eros and Psyche, particularly in Diemer’s style. “Flower Constancy” is a historical that actually ends happily for two young women in England. I didn’t get a firm sense of what time period it was set in, but the descriptions of the house and the butterfly garden make me think Victorian.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Winged Things if you enjoy speculative and fantasy short stories, and it’s definitely suitable for young teens and up.