Anna reviewed I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

I Can’t Think Straight, a novel by Shamim Sarif, is a rarity among lesbian romances. It was adapted from the screenplay of Sharif’s recent film of the same name, which is unusual–generally the movies are created from the books. It also features a cast of almost exclusively non-white characters, which I found refreshing. In the interest of getting a fuller picture, I also watched the film, and I’m here to report that the book was the better of the two, thanks largely to the absence of actors

The story focuses on Tala, a young woman of Palestinian descent whose family is among Jordan’s elite. Tala makes her home primarily in London but, as the action opens, is preparing to celebrate at her fourth engagement party in Jordan. Her counterpart is Leyla, a British Indian woman and fledgling novelist who is dating Tala’s best friend in London. Both women are independent thinkers who struggle to find their place among more traditional family members. Although Leyla is antagonized by Tala’s blunt questioning of her Muslim faith at their first meeting, they soon find out that they have more in common than they might have suspected, including a predisposition toward the company of women. After a steamy overnight, Tala finds herself caught between Leyla, about whom she feels she could develop sincere feelings, and her fiancee Hani, who is perfect in almost every way–except that he’s a man. Tala must come to grips with her own feelings under pressure from an overbearing mother and the weight of cultural expectations . . . ideally before she gets married.

The coming-out tale is an old (and sometimes tired) trope in mainstream lesbian romance, but it takes on a different dimension here. I can hardly think of any coming out stories that feature not one but two non-Caucasian women, and Sarif does a good job of tying Tala and Leyla’s struggles in with the larger cultural setting. The consequences aren’t painted as dire if neither of them choose honesty, but the choice to come out and live as openly gay will definitely have an impact on the way they are perceived.

The title is an obvious pun, just as the outcome of the story is obvious once the characters are put through the necessary misery of coming out to themselves and their families. There are some nice turns of phrase in Sarif’s writing, but there are also some lines that were lifted directly from the screenplay and land somewhat awkwardly. One of the most notable things (and perhaps this derives from the screenplay adaptation as well) was the way that secondary characters were fleshed out for the reader as the narrative jumped to their points-of-view. That’s not a technique generally found in standard lesbian romance, and it helped to reveal the motivations of other players involved and affected by Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Overall an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, read.

Anna reviews Storms by Gerri Hill

I’ve read almost all of the books Gerri Hill has written. I’ve enjoyed romances like Behind the Pine Curtain and Love Waits and been more skeptical of recent “action-romance” pieces like The Scorpion. Thankfully, Storms (2011) falls more into the mold of the engaging romances I favor, in both good and bad ways.

Carson Cartwright is an heiress who has spent the many years since being exiled from her family’s Montana ranch traveling and having casual sexual encounters. She is very careful not to get too attached to any person or place. When her twin brother, Chase, entreats her to visit their father on his deathbed, she returns home for the first time since her mother’s tragic death–for which she was blamed by her father. The prodigal daughter is not welcomed back with open arms by all of her four brothers or her father, however. She soon discovers that the ranch is failing, and the brothers have grudgingly agreed to hire an attractive consultant, Kerry Elder, to advise them on transforming the property to a lucrative guest ranch.

Carson immediately perks up upon encountering Kerry, even though her brother Cody (all of the siblings have C-names) feels that he has a prior claim and warns Kerry of her woman-stealing ways. Kerry, who considers herself straight, was not above strategically flirting to get a contract, but bristles at Cody’s protective attitude. When the women are left alone together as the brothers participate in the ranch’s cattle drive, sparks begin to fly as storms rage across the prairie landscape.

The chemistry between Carson and Kerry is believable and ably depicted, although I did sigh a bit when I got to the “Kerry isn’t straight, she’s just never been with a woman before!” discussions. The book was comfortably predictable in terms of the romance, employing such tropes as the older housekeeper who secretly roots for Carson and Kerry to get together; the jealous and violent family member; the prodigal child returning; deathbed drama; and violent storms as a metaphor for internal turmoil. However, all of these things are well-worn and recognizable in the way a favorite pair of shoes might be. And I will likely wear this pair again, the next time Hill releases a book.

Anna reviews The Jewel Box by Alcamia Payne

Clemmie Beaumont is a just-widowed southern belle who prefers the company of women. Pearl, a recently freed slave, is her new maid. She’s described as a sensual, “exotic” creature who has been watching Clemmie from the shadows and jumps on her first opportunity to slide a well-formed and “dextrous” [sic] toe up Clemmie’s skirts. Yes, The Jewel Box, by Alcamia Payne, is that kind of story, in which women meet and then, an hour later, are riding out toe-inspired orgasms in public. Clemmie also has a box of jewelry which could save her plantation from financial ruin if she sold the contents, but she isn’t willing to part with any of those bright baubles–mirroring the fact that she’s not willing to sell herself to a new husband, even though she’s strikingly beautiful and could have her pick of men. Instead, she and Pearl [Spoiler Alert], who by the end of the story (perhaps even the end of their first mutual sexual encounter, it’s not clear) consider themselves married, have concocted a plan to rob other members of Clemmie’s social class at fancy parties.[1]

I am sorry to report that the story (a slim 70 pages) is wildly improbable at best. The historical setting–the waning days of the Civil War–is potentially interesting. Just think, one could explore race, class, post-war economics (beyond the light treatment that drives Clemmie’s dilemma), sexuality and gender roles, and so on. However, the way characters interact, and Clemmie’s opinions, are decidedly modern. Clemmie is known to parade around her plantation in men’s clothing, believes women and men and blacks and whites should be equals, etc., but also seems unwilling to indulge her forbidden desires. She casually accepts the toe-fondling, then initially pleads innocence when Pearl offers her more intimacy. After that initial encounter, the author lets weeks pass during which, it is revealed later, they have circled each other in a dance of increasing sexual fascination. However, that build-up is tossed away in a few lines of dialogue, in favor of an encounter over Clemmie’s jewels that takes up half the story.

The overall concept–a forbidden affair between a privileged white woman and a former slave–could have been handled better in about a hundred different ways, but it was really the writing that disappointed the most. Take, for example, this sentence, which is something that Clemmie thinks idly to herself: “That hard rod beneath a man’s pants doesn’t arouse me in the least, whereas the prospect of that soft triangle of pink flesh concealing the womanly jewel makes me run like a river.” Between the flat characterizations, the strangely fast-then-slow seduction story, the constant comparison of female anatomy to jewels, and choice phrases such as “opulent breasts,” “pendant orbs,” and “formidable clitoris,” this short novella managed to drag on an epically long time.

[1] Which Pearl attends with Clemmie, even though she is a former slave. And dressed, not as a maid, but in Clemmie’s clothes. They have matching diamond nipple piercings. Er, spoiler.

Anna reviews Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau

Rulebreaker by Cathy Pegau, is set on a mining colony on a planet somewhere far away from Earth and some time after the year 2100. Liv Braxton is a small-time criminal who is convinced by her ex-husband, Tonio, to perpetrate one last con. This job will give her the money she needs to leave the business once and for all and retire to a vacation planet, far away from the threat of dying in the prison mines. Liv and Tonio have been hired by a pair of rather sinister brothers who intend to blackmail the Exeter mining company over their use of an unpublicized air filtration system for miners. In order to do so, they need someone on the inside, but as head of Research & Development R.J. “Zia” Talbot’s assistant, Liv finds herself becoming more attached to her employer than Felon’s Rule Number One: Don’t Get Emotionally Involved would seem to allow. Complications, including the arrival of Liv’s con artist mother on the scene and the continuous threat of exposure by either the authorities or the Exeter company, keep cropping up. Liv has been instructed to do whatever it takes to earn her mark’s trust and get the hard evidence the gang needs, but what happens when she becomes too willing to get close to Zia?

Despite the science fiction setting, the novel is more concerned with human elements, such as the interplay between Liv and Tonio, Liv and her mother, and–of course–Liv and Zia. The plot was believable, the setting was well-conceived and consistent, and there weren’t any threads left untied at the conclusion. Pegau showed herself willing to make difficult authorial decisions in order to lend weight to her narrative, and both Liv and Zia were portrayed as sympathetic, if flawed, people. My main quibble was the author’s resistance to using the Oxford comma, which could have made a sentence like “The guard, an elderly couple, Calvin and I lay on our bellies, hands on the backs of our heads and cheeks to the rough wood” more straightforward. . . but that is my own pet peeve, and I can’t really hold it against the book. I’ll just hold it against the book’s editor.

I knew I liked Rulebreaker when I kept thinking of other books and fanfiction to compare it to. Despite my strong dislike for the current trend of employer-employee romances in Harlequin romances, I do have a few I like in terms of lesbian fiction. For another good “boss romance,” try Too Close to Touch by Georgia Beers. I also highly recommend Telanu’s Andy/Miranda fanfiction from the world of The Devil Wears Prada, which can be found at her site, The Rag and Bone Shop. For a great lesbian “con” book, see Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. For another story of corporate greed and corruption and spreadsheets + romance, try Karin Kallmaker’s Car Pool.

Anna reviews Ghosts of Winter by Rebecca S. Buck

I enjoy reading historical fiction and, of course, lesbian fiction, so the opportunity to read Rebecca S. Buck’s Ghosts of Winter, which features both, was too good to pass up. Protagonist Ros Wynne has come to a crossroads in her life after losing her mother to cancer, leaving her job, and breaking up with her long-term girlfriend. When a kindly woman from her past passes away, she quite unexpectedly leaves Ros with an 18th century manor house in Northern England and the money with which to restore it to its former glory. Ros takes the challenge as a step toward a new beginning, but arrives at Winter Manor with no idea of who she is now, or what she wants from her life. Enter Anna Everest, the beautiful architect who seems to be as put-together as Ros is falling apart. Sparks fly between them, but Ros can’t be sure of her heart, and Anna has a wedding band on her finger . . .

Against the development of Ros and Anna’s relationship, Buck juxtaposes three stories from Winter’s past–18th century, 19th century, and 20th century–of same-sex love which does not truly have the opportunity to blossom. [Minor spoiler alert] The lord who remakes Winter Manor engages in an illicit relationship with another nobleman; a young lady’s passion for a free-thinking friend turns to ash when her love returns as her brother’s fiancee; and the flapper who prefers her female lover as a beautiful memory bears a child who will one day inherit the property and hand it down to Ros. I enjoyed the way these stories lent a weight and history to the setting of the main plot; as more of the house was repaired, their stories came to light. I almost expected some sort of diary or historical record that would connect the stories more tangibly, but the connection is made for the benefit of the reader, rather than Ros and Anna.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The “thinking about her past mistakes and being unsure” parts of Ros’s character development were often privileged over action or dialogue in a way that sometimes made it slow going. I prefer large blocks of text to be broken up a little bit more, but I appreciated the effort at showing her growth over time. The attraction between the main characters was believable, and I especially enjoyed the glimpses into the past and the tiny traces of their stories that cropped up in the present. So much of gay and lesbian history is unwritten that it was a fun exercise to put a tangible “what if” to the diverse kinds of relationships thatmight have happened but never got recorded.

And finally, who wouldn’t want to inherit a manor house and the money to fix it? I kept expecting Ros to run out of money after the first few weeks of work. In my experience, these things do not usually go together (even if one is fortunate to inherit the house). Well, I guess it might not be for everyone, but the urge to renovate is strong in my family, and this book definitely played to it. Readers who enjoy the historic threads of Ghosts of Winter might also take a look at Lyn Denison’s Past Remembering, in which queer relationships in the past are uncovered in present-day Australia.

Anna reviews Rum Spring by Yolanda Wallace

Rum Spring, by Yolanda Wallace, was published last December by Bold Strokes Books. I have read zero of those extremely popular heterosexual Amish romances, so I have no idea how Rum Spring stacks up, but when I read the tagline of the blurb (“Love or tradition? Which path will she choose?”) I was intrigued. The title refers to “rumspringa,” the Amish tradition of having teenagers venture into the modern world for several years before they commit themselves to the church.

Rebecca Lapp has been friends with Englisher Dylan Mahoney for most of her life, getting to know the other girl despite a language barrier and the restrictions placed upon her by her rigid faith. She knows quite well that her destiny is to marry an Amish boy and spend the rest of her life in her small Pennsylvania town, despite her interest in Dylan and the outside world. Dylan has been in love with Rebecca for years, and has been waiting impatiently for the Amish girl to turn sixteen and begin her rumspringa, hoping that the long list of activities she has created for them (which has enough items to span a lifetime) will help persuade Rebecca to choose Dylan over her family and the only life she has ever known.

The conflict between Rebecca’s feelings for Dylan and her conservative upbringing feels very real, and the consequences are serious. If Rebecca is caught with Dylan, or chooses to leave the church to spend her life as an outsider, she will lose her parents, her other family members, and the religion that has shaped her entire life. Although she admits her love for Dylan to herself and consummates their relationship on her rumspringa, after Rebecca’s sister Sarah is shunned for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she believes that she must remain with her family and commit to the church to fill the void left by her sister. As Dylan struggles to accept that they must forever remain only friends, Rebecca comes to believe that she must be true to herself, no matter the consequences.

Rum Spring feels a lot like a YA novel, not just for the high school and college scenes (Rebecca and Dylan go to the prom!) but because of the themes of growth and change and “coming of age.” The few sex scenes are well and tastefully done–logical extensions of Dylan and Rebecca’s feelings for one another. Rebecca is definitely a more sympathetic character than Dylan, whose determination to woo Rebecca comes off as a bit controlling (see the aforementioned list, which does not seem to allow Rebecca a great deal of independent thought). And her life is, seemingly, less fraught; Dylan’s family is perfectly accepting of who she is, despite being Catholic. [spoiler] One of the disappointing things about Rum Spring was its relatively easy denouement, which lessened the impact of the narrative buildup with its sweetness. This kind of rose-colored glasses perspective appears elsewhere in Wallace’s narrative:

Dylan had to admit her Catholic faith didn’t have the greatest track record when it came to gays and lesbians, but she thought the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Her parish priest, for one, was incredibly understanding and accepting. Perhaps the pope would eventually share his progressive views (148).

Perhaps this is simply reflective of Dylan’s naive optimism where sociopolitical issues are concerned, but I believe it is reflective of Wallace’s overall message, which seems sweetly unrealistic. I would have preferred a bittersweet ending–in which Rebecca has lost everything she thought she needed, but gained a lasting love (which would have been the best payoff for the dilemma Wallace set up)–to one in which they are able to kiss openly in a room that contains all of their family members, both Amish and English. Apparently I am an incurable cynic. [end spoiler]

Aside from the letdown at the end, I found the book well-written and the characters interesting. If you are fascinated by the Amish and rumspringa, looking for a story of young love triumphing over obstacles, or interested in lesbian romance with strong young adult overtones, Rum Spring might be just the book for you.

Anna reviews Paperback Romance by Karin Kallmaker

I recently picked up a stack of lesbian romance novels at a used bookstore, and Karin Kallmaker’s Paperback Romance (1992) was among them. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve read almost everything she’s written (and own copies of most of her books), but it’s been a very long time since I read this one, so I decided to give it another go. I had a nagging feeling that I hadn’t really enjoyed the book–now nearly twenty years old–the first time around, and I wanted to see if it was due to the book itself or simply my circumstances at the time.

Carolyn Vincense is a successful author of (straight) romance novels who has recently returned from a trip to Paris in which her illusions of romance were shattered after a whirlwind romance and marriage. A virgin on her marriage night, Carolyn comes to the conclusion that she must be frigid and attempts to deal with the writer’s block that inevitably follows her loss of faith in her subject matter. Her agent and best friend Alison is a lesbian who has been in love with her for the past fifteen years, but hasn’t come out to her for fear of losing their friendship and the fleeting moments of closeness that she craves.

When Carolyn receives a substantial check as a result of her writing success, she returns to Europe to savor a musical tour through its famous places. On the first stop (Paris, again) she is unfavorably impressed by the up-and-coming director, Nicolas Frost, who is brilliant with the baton but rather rude in person. Nicolas is really Nicola, a gay woman passing as a man in order to make it in the high-stakes world of music. She and Carolyn cross paths several more times, and their attraction heightens as Carolyn discovers Nicola’s secret and realizes that she may be a lesbian. When Alison arrives in Rome to–finally–declare her love and discovers Carolyn with Nick, Carolyn realizes that she and her best friend may have some unfinished business that has nothing to do with book sales. Will she continue her torrid affair with the deeply closeted Nick, or take a chance on love that may not exist?

Having a narrative that encompasses two overlapping romances is a tricky business, because Kallmaker has to make the reader invested enough in the “coming-out” romance with Nick to keep reading, but still intrigued enough by the possibility of an Alison-Carolyn pairing to not care too much if Nick’s heart gets broken. I think this tension is the root of my dislike of the book on first read; it has taken me a while to develop a tolerance for complication in my lesbian romances. When I first read the book, I believed that Carolyn should stay with Nick, the person with whom she had her first same-sex experiences. I identified with Carolyn’s confusion about her sexuality, but couldn’t understand her conflicted emotions about Alison. Life–and love–are often more complicated, however, and Kallmaker does a good job of representing that tension.

Although there are still several elements that are handled less gracefully than I would have liked–Alison’s ogling of her best friend in the first part of the book comes off as kind of creepy, for example, and some of Carolyn’s soul-searching moments are overwrought–the book has good things to say about staying true to yourself (once you figure out what that is). Of the three characters in the triangle, only Carolyn (and Samantha, the woman in love with Alison who keeps that storyline going) has the courage to say “this is who I am now, and I’m not going to hide.” That’s always a positive message, no matter how long ago a book was published.