Lena reviews Occasions of Sin by Elena Graf


Occasions of Sin, Elena Graf’s historical romance, presents an engaging and entertaining journey through the convents and hospitals of Weimar Germany.  The novel opens with Margarethe von Stahle, a German countess arriving at the convent her family has patronized for several centuries.  We quickly learn that in addition to being a countess, Margarethe is also a lauded surgeon and head of surgery at a hospital in Berlin.  She’s arrived at the convent to select a new Head Nurse from the nuns at the convent.  The best candidate, a mysterious nun named Sister Augustine, provides Margarethe with as many questions as answers.  The two return to Berlin and become close friends as Margarethe attempts to discover the secrets of Sister Augustine’s past and reconcile with her growing attraction to a woman under vow.

From there the novel is a sprawling trek across Europe in the 1930s, the social hierarchy of the Germany aristocracy, and the centuries-old secrets of a cloistered sect of nuns.  It is a purely conventional historical romance saved by a strong and engaging narrative voice.  Margarethe, who’s voice takes us through the first section of the book, is an interesting and well-rounded character.  Graf does a nice job of giving a character with idealized circumstances a flawed and believable voice, though at times she does feel a bit too perfect.  Curiously, Sister Augustine, who narrates later sections, is a weaker character, but her sections remain engaging in the context of the book.  These voices help the rather unsurprising plot remain a pleasant read.  Instead of boredom at its predictability, these narrators and their experiences endow the events of the story with new layers and charm.

Graf should also be applauded for the thorough creation of her world.  The research makes the reading experience feel immersive and inhabits both the style of the narrative passages and the dialogue, a rare treat these days.  Graf also has the gift of providing enough information about topics such as pre-war German politics and the convent system to be interesting and necessary for the plot without getting carried away.  That being said, it was surprising that the looming presence of World War II, or the shadows of World War I, didn’t play a larger role in the book.  Except for a couple of instances, it was easy to forget that just years after the events of the novel, its entire world would be irrevocably changed.  While this did drive home the isolation of Margarethe’s privileged world, one couldn’t help but read excepting the Nazi Party to burst in and spoil everything.

However, the threats of the next decade stay firmly in the future and this charming tale of nuns, surgery and German aristocracy is a pleasant and addicting read.

Lena reviews Mariel Cove Season 1 Episode 1: This Flight Tonight


This Flight Tonight, the first novella in the weekly web series, Mariel Cove, is a promising start to an ambitious project.  It opens with Arianna Trenton, a lesbian journalist, making her to Conch Island, off the coast of Washington, for her latest assignment.  From there we meet the other inhabitants of Mariel Cove, a female community on the edge of the island.  There’s Tal, a scuba diving instructor, Roisin, the owner of the local café, and Kennedy, a rather dark and twisted lawyer with an interesting and unknown backstory.

At this point there’s not a lot of plot.  This first novella, at around thirteen thousand words, leaps from place to place to introduce what feels like too many people for this short of a piece.  I have to applaud the creators, the pacing of this first story works well, fast enough to get through necessary introductions, but still spending enough time for readers to get to know the characters.   There is a large supporting cast but at the moment they’re handled well.  I’m quite curious to see how the creators will balance the conflicting and overlapping storylines of this group.

What plot does come through in this first episode is intriguing and interesting.  We spend the most concrete time with Kennedy, the sadistic lawyer, who seems to be dealing out blackmail and abuse to several women in Mariel Cove while trying desperately to hide something from everyone including the readers.  She’s a fascinating character and I’m interest to learn more about this apparent villain.

Written through a series of collaborations, Mariel Cove updates once a week for the next several months and I’m excited to see what happens with this guilty pleasure serial.

Lena reviews Broken Star by Joann Lee


It’s been said that there are only seven basic stories and everything we write falls somewhere within their confines.  I’m generally a bit more optimistic about our creative prowess, but sometimes there are stories so formulaic that I think even seven basic plots is generous and perhaps it’s more like four.

Broken Star, by Joann Lee, is a plot that has been written a hundred times over.  There are two characters, an undeniable spark of attraction, external danger, internal conflict and a litany of other reasons that should prevent these characters from being together.  This time the roles were filled by Lynn, a pop star, and Alexis, a police detective and single mother.  They are initially brought together by the threat of a serial rapist in their neighborhood, but both also have dark secrets from their pasts that they must address.

It was the kind of book where I knew what was going to happen at least twenty pages in advance and while I would have liked to have been surprised, everything came to pass more or less how I thought it would.  Once we had jumped through all the predictable hoops and wrapped up more than enough loose ends, the ending itself was so saccharine that I could barely stick with it.

 Lee’s got some pieces working for her.  She clearly knows how to work through a plot, and the pacing of the book, which could have lagged unbearably, was light and effective.  The dialogue was mostly all lines I felt like I’d heard before, but there were moments of refreshing individuality that I would have liked to see more of.

While the plot is entirely predictable and overused, it is overused because it is exciting and romantic.  Lee could have gotten away with it, if she hadn’t let the storyline consume the piece.  The book was all contrivance, slogging from event to event like a tired gymnast going through their once-flashy routine.  The characters tried to be charming, but they were too stuck in the confines of their situation to have any more personality than the requirements of their life struggles.  If her formula hadn’t been so rigid and her protagonists such cookie-cutter characters, I think the book really could have flown.

Lena reviews Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia by Natasha Holme

“Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia” is a year’s worth of diary entries that chronicle with terrifying frankness the author, Natasha Holme’s, first lesbian crushes and her descent into disordered eating.  The stark candor of the account paints a fascinating portrait of a person and a specific time in recent history.

The book, set in 1989, begins with the Natasha’s summer experience in Germany.  While it’s not specified, it seems that she’s doing some kind of service work with a group of other internationals.  She gets along with the rest of her team, and especially Alex, the other British girl in the group.  The two bond over their shared experience of intense crushes on former teachers.  As the summer goes on the two develop a very close friendship built partially on sexual subtext.  They both return home and attempt to continue their close relationship while also trying to define their sexualities.
When Natasha returns to school she explores the gay community while also attempting to figure out her sexual preferences through trial and error.  At the same time, her bond with Alex reaches obsessive proportions and when the two start to grow apart, Natasha’s obsession turns to her body and physical appearance.

I flew through this book in almost one sitting, an experience I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, but at a certain point, it’s almost impossible to turn away.  There are entries almost every day and as things progress, the author’s obsessions become painfully apparent.  Her descriptions of interactions with others are usually characterized by interrogation-like questioning about sexuality, physical appearance and judgments of character.  They’re uncomfortable questions, the gathering of evidence and reassurance.  And as things got worse and worse, I read to find out if anyone in this person’s world would find a way to break through to her, if anyone would be able to help her.  It was almost as if I read to keep her alive.

In 2013, the age of internet journals and pop culture obsessions, and a radically different understanding of eating disorders, homosexuality and adolescence, this is a fascinating book to read.  The parallels between this private diary and blogs as confessionals were very apparent and very uncomfortable.  I found lots of it really frightening and difficult and for some it’s probably very triggering, but at the same time it’s an important story.  It’s a record, both for the author and the rest of us, of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go in creating safe and accepting environments.  

Lena reviews Something In the Wine by Jae


Jae’s new book, “Something in the Wine,” is a nice little page-turner that develops and delivers a satisfying story.  The story follows Annie, an accountant whose life is so boring she doesn’t realize it, and Drew, a lonely vintner.  The two team up to masquerade as lovers to play the ultimate trick on Annie’s prankster brother.  Of course, Annie enters this situation only wanting revenge on her brother, but, in classic lesbian-in-love-with-a-straight-girl fashion, Drew is more interested in spending time with Annie.

The premise is well set-up and does a good job of pulling us into the story, but Jae ultimately leans too hard on a flimsy conceit.  The plot to trick Annie’s brother justifies the increasing amount of time the two spend together as they both ignore their feelings.  Annie begins to doubt her heterosexuality and they both start to overstep boundaries.  Here is one of several instances that Jae sets up fairly high stakes of manipulation for the characters, both of themselves and each other, and doesn’t follow through.  Both characters become increasingly dependent on the trick instead confronting how they actually feel, and for me there came a time when the story’s conceit couldn’t sustain that dependency.  Jae does a really nice job with her characters, they’re interesting, intelligent and likable, and I felt this development hindered her plot.  I couldn’t believe that characters that intelligent and caring could go on manipulating each other to the degree they achieve in this story.  I wanted more from the characters, I wanted them to act on the stakes set out for them

Of course, there are things aiding the mutual denial.  Annie is plagued by painfully well-developed internalized homophobia and Drew is held back by a somewhat debilitating sense decency.  But despite her on fears and anxieties, there is very little external homophobic conflict.  Because of that Annie’s perception of her world and its prejudices didn’t seem to match its reality and I was curious about the source of that difference.  In the same vein, Annie’s parents are so distracted by their own lives that they have mostly forgotten their daughter.  Once again, Jae does a great job creating the scenario and watching the interplay between parents and child is moving and painful, but I felt there was more opportunity for exploration of the great stakes she created.

There’s a lot working for this book.  Jae does a good job building the elements of her story, but doesn’t let them percolate together.  Elements seem pushed together instead of coming to their natural conclusions.  And while I enjoyed the ending and found it very heartfelt, it ultimately wasn’t satisfying because of how much baggage I knew the characters still carried.

Lena reviews Gay Pride and Prejudice by Kate Christie (and Jane Austen)


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At this point, I’m kind of convinced that Kate Christie and I have some bizarre rainbow mind connection we’re not aware of yet.  Not only is “Gay Pride and Prejudice,” her delightful book, an idea I’ve had in the back of my head for several years, but it follows the same romantic trajectory that I would have used.  All I can say is, great minds think alike, and Christie has done such a marvelous job and I’m glad someone got around to gay adaptation of this story.  It’s about time.

Christie’s book follows the current trend of classic literature with a twist.  There’s been “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (which has since spawned a sequel and graphic novel), as well as “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,” and it seems fitting that someone’s updated a classic book to include something a bit more prevalent in contemporary culture.  Not to make sea monsters feel overlooked.

The book is great fun.  It’s clear that Christie worked to keep as much of Austen’s original language and while this edition does require a bit more exposition, the prose still retains Austen’s sparkling lightness.  Christie also does a wonderful job of letting the reader in on the joke while still giving them plenty to wonder about.  It’s refreshing to see a book about lesbian romance in which being a lesbian is not the big scandal or secret.  We are not on the edges of our seats wondering who is gay, but wondering who they will end up with.

What I liked most about reading this book was wondering in what ways it would deviate from the original.  All of the original elements are still there – a relationship initially based on pride and disdain, an unexpected declaration of love, family scandals, and some weddings – but they’re all tweaked slightly.  Discovering just how they would be tweaked and how much the plot would curve while still following the path we already know.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I did have a couple small complaints.  The narrative did tend to leap from one character to another and it was hard to preserve Austen’s narrative style that was so daring at the time.  The original novel stays resolutely in omniscient until it leans gently towards a character and gets so close with its third person narrative that it dips into a stream of consciousness moment before springing away again.  I understand why Christie opted for a more roving close third, we would never have gotten anyone’s sexuality through dialogue and the novel would have been slowed down considerably.  And my other minor complaint does include a small spoiler.  It will be in the next paragraph.  I think that’s fair warning.

Because I’m a romantic, I was pretty bummed there wasn’t a first kiss scene.  It’s totally silly, and there probably isn’t one in the original book, but I still wanted it.  I was also kind of surprised, just because Christie had stayed pretty close to the Austen pastiche, that there was direct mention of sex.  But it was kind of fun.

That’s all for the spoilers.  “Gay Pride and Prejudice” is great fun to read and I’ve already told all my friends to read it twice.  I’m excited to see what’s next for Kate Christie, maybe even some more gay adaptations of classic literature.

Lena reviews The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap by Paulette Mahurin

Paulette Mahurin’s lovely book, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, is about ripples.  About the ways in which rumor spreads through a community and affects all its citizens emotionally and physically.

Even though the trial and subsequent conviction of Oscar Wilde on charges of indecency stands out as a significant moment a century later, its contemporary impact is often overlooked.  Ms. Mahurin examines the ripples of the Wilde controversy, halfway across the world from its epicenter.  She picks up her story in Red River Pass, a small ranching town in Nevada.  The news of Wilde’s sentence arrives by telegraph and quickly spreads by word of mouth through the small town.  Eventually it reaches Mildred Dunlap, a solitary woman who lives on the outskirts of town with her cousin, Edra.  Concerned that Wilde’s story might prompt the residents of Red River Pass to look closer at her own lifestyle, she concocts an elaborate scheme to throw them off the trail.  The results ripple throughout the town, changing its conventions and social hierarchy.

In exploring rumor and its effects, Ms. Mahurin touches on a theme that is still very prevalent.  As a reader it was refreshing to see the physical toll that rumors can have, the physical consequences of stress are so often overlooked in today’s world.  I also thought looking at the Wilde controversy through such a far-reaching scope made a lot of good points about how connected we are across the globe even in a time before phones and the internet.

I was quite impressed with Ms. Mahurin’s first book.  It’s a pretty ambitious project that I thought she handled quite well.  Not only is it a well researched book, but she clearly cares about her characters and there are some lovely passages that bring them to life.  I also appreciated that even though Ms. Mahurin took the time to fully explore some of her characters, there were still some who remained mysterious despite being fully realized presences in the text.  The book is certainly a worthwhile read for history fans or anyone in search of a good story.

Lena reviews No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics edited by Justin Hall

I probably should start off by addressing my biases.  I’m one of those people who thought Allison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” actually was one of the best books of the past ten years, one of those people who knows all the staff at the local comic book store and, although I try to smile and nod sympathetically, I’m one of those people who can’t figure out why someone would say, “Comics just don’t do it for me.”  There are pictures and words and sometimes superheroes – anything can happen.

With those disclaimers, “No Straight Lines” is kind of a literary wet dream.  It’s a queer comic anthology that does an impressive job of not only showcasing the best of the last forty years of queer comics, but also giving an sensitive and interesting look at the development of the queer identity.

We begin with a fascinating introduction by editor Justin Hall.  While addressing the conceit of the book, Hall’s introduction also serves as a crash course for those of us, myself included, who don’t know much about the origins of queer comics.  It creates a nice frame of reference for the comics that follow.

The body of the book is divided into three sections: “Comics Come Out: Gay gag strips, underground comix, and lesbian literati,” “File under Queer: Comix to comics, punk zines and art during the plague,” and “A New Millennium: Trans creators, webcomics, and stepping out of the ghetto.”  From there the comics are presented without comment as they were originally published.

In the first section we see the early uses of the comic medium to express a queer voice as well as some really amazing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas paper dolls.  Although lesbians are openly depicted, it is obvious that the cartoonists were still grappling with the sense of “wrongness” associated with the lesbian identity.  Lesbian characters in these comics are shown living within the gothic trope of the madwoman in the haunted castle, imprisoned by a society with satirically harsh laws against homosexuality or having to flee or escape from conventional society.  While these scenarios are all painted in a humorous light, often reclaiming the tropes, there is also a serious attempt to address the mainstream perception that lesbianism is something wrong.

This process is best illustrated by the short comic by Joyce Farmer in which a young girl has a crisis of identity when she realizes the knight she has been fantasizing about is really Ingrid Bergman in drag for the movie “Joan of Arc.”  I myself had a similar crisis at around the same age, except there was no suit of armor to skew Ingrid Bergman’s gender identity in “Casablanca.”  But unlike me, the girl in Farmer’s comic only finds herself in crisis after she is attacked by a friend for her interest in Ingrid.  In contrast to most of the comics in this section, in the last panel we see her wondering what could be wrong with her.

Moving from general perceptions of the queer community, the second section deals specifically with the AIDS virus and its catastrophic effects.  The section begins with one of the few color spreads of the volume, a beautiful and heartbreaking piece from “7 Miles a Second” about the sheer rage that transforms the speaker into a giant, depicted smashing through the steeple of a church.  In the pieces directly relating to the impact of AIDS, there is an increase of shadows and darkness in the art as well as breathtaking honesty.  For someone like me, who was too young to know the worst of the AIDS crisis in America, these comics felt incredibly real and demonstrated how important it is to keep telling those stories.

The act of telling these stories also brings an increase in the first-person narrator.  The earlier comics were often narrated by an outside voice or without a narrator, but as the subject matter becomes more internalized, we see the development of a queer autobiographical voice.  These first-person story-comics were some of my favorites in the book including a gay man’s experiences in Israel (“Weekends Abroad” – Eric Orner) and a beautiful retrospective of a relationship (“Emile” – Fabrice Neaud).  The lesbian comics featured use this voice to explore the creation of  lesbian space; a place were a lesbian identity could flourish away from the rules and moulds of heteronormative society.  There is an effort to define and redefine lesbian stereotypes in comics such as “Bitchy Butch, the world’s angriest dyke” (Roberta Gregory) to give them more depth and clarity.  But such redefinitions often fell flat for me because those stereotypes have morphed in the years since those comics into something else entirely.

The move towards re-identity and re-definition of a lesbian or queer experience carries us out of the second section and into the third.  Allison Bechdel gets straight to the point of the with her comic, “Oppressed Minority Cartoonist,” in which the lesbian label is limiting rather than defining and she would rather simply be a cartoonist.  New voices emerge in the form of trans and genderqueer creators and we see an exploration of new ways to be queer and their impact on the preexisting queer community.   The trans voice is fascinating, but I felt like a lot of the comics dealt with issues that I had just seen comics exploring in the first part of the book.  There is a return to the justification of a queer identity against societal pressure and an anxiety about being gay that hadn’t felt as prevalent in the comics of the eighties and nineties.  I don’t know if this is a product of today’s society as being queer is often fetishized by mainstream media while at the same time our social and political rights continue to be jeopardized and attacked.

As Hall readily admits in his introduction, it is always hard for an anthology to cover everything.  Many of the comics included are selections from longer works and I was often left with a feeling of missing a larger story.  They also struggle with alienating younger readers such as myself.  While stories from the early years of AIDS brought me clarity there were plenty of references and scenes that simply went over my head.  But comics Hall has included present the artist growth and development of a community through four decades and a wonderful piece of queer history.