Maryam reviews Affinity by Sarah Waters

Affinity was my first venture into the writing of Sarah Waters, and I have to say that I particularly enjoyed it.  This novel in particular came well-recommended: firstly by Amazon(!), and seconded by my advisor, thirded by a friend who owned the book and wound up giving it to me(thanks, Emily!). I especially appreciated the recommendation by my advisor, a religion professor specializing in Spiritualism.

Sarah Waters weaves the tale of Margaret “Peggy” Prior, an upper-class woman in 1870s England who is recovering, it would seem, from a suicide attempt – something only vaguely touched on, as it would be in society back then – and her project of becoming a visitor to a women’s prison to help her spirits rise(and also to get her out from under the wings of her overly protective mother). At Millbank Prison, she meets Selina Dawes, a medium who has been imprisoned after a séance gone horribly wrong.

Sarah Waters is a wonderful writer; she begins with the night of the séance, and Selina’s backstory is woven in with the first-person narrative of Margaret’s diary entries.  My advisor is doing a research seminar this semester on Spiritualism, and in class we read selections from Susan Willis Fletcher’s Twelve Months in an English Prison – it is clear that Sarah Waters took this account as inspiration for this novel. At one point, Peggy goes to a Spiritualist reading room to check the accounts of Selina’s trial, and there are some definite parallels to the amazing occurrences that happen between Selina and Peggy. Affinity is a bittersweet novel – well-written, wonderfully crafted, but still resonating with the difficulties of the time it takes place in. It is not a novel for those who want their endings happy – once the reader realizes where the plot is headed, it is a rough ride to the finish – but it is well wrought, and well worth reading.  I appreciated the historical realism of how Spiritualism was treated, and now that I’m well into the research seminar, I can appreciate the historical realism of the prison system at the time. But perhaps “appreciate” is not quite the right word…

If you’re interested in Ms. Waters’ work, but don’t have time for her longer works(such as Tipping the Velvet  or Fingersmith), I would definitely recommend Affinity – but prepare yourself for a bit of supernatural heartbreak.

Maryam reviews Zapocalypse: The Midnight Special by D. Dye

I feel as though Lesbian Zombie Literature is the new genre to look out for. We seem to have gotten quite a few books like this to review lately! D. Dye’s Zapocalypse: The Midnight Special appealed to me the most because it is set “in some hick-ass town deep in the swamps of southern Georgia”. Sounds about two skips and a jump from where I grew up.

This was a fun, quick little read, and I do mean quick – it was 44 pages long. Our protagonists are Gina and Ginger, who moved to the town of Ewahitchka, Georgia after college. (Interesting side note: There is no actual Ewahitchka, Georgia, but the name is one letter off from Wewahitchka, Florida – wonder if the author hails from there?) Horror movie fans and diner waitresses, they are who the town turns to when their loved ones start becoming mysteriously infected. But is the mysterious infection caused by nefarious biological engineering? Or are zombies just naturally made?

I really enjoyed this novella – the characters are enjoyable, the sex scenes are wonderful and hot, and the narration had a Southern feel. The narrative is interspersed with Creedence Clearwater Revival lyrics – the characters’ favorite band – and while I was familiar with the songs, I’m not sure if the way the lyrics wove through the story was totally successful. There were a few grammatical errors – just some wayward punctuation, but let’s close parentheses and end sentences with periods, not commas!

I think that my largest caveat about Zapocalypse is that it was just too short. Our heroines’ zombie-killing only lasts for a few pages, and then suddenly the entire story is wrapped up and tied with a neat bow. There was only one scene in which I felt the characters were in danger, and I think that danger is an important element of a zombie story – one has to be careful when avoiding the undead! The story was delightful, the characters enjoyable, but the climax and denouement were entirely too swift. That being said, I would be interested in a sequel, should Dye decide that Gina and Ginger will throw the dart to the map and pick a new place to live. Let’s just hope any further installations are a little more fleshed out, story-wise.

Maryam reviews Best Lesbian Erotica 2012

After a frustrating, busy week, I decided to relax with Best Lesbian Erotica 2012.  It definitely put me in a better mood – the collection starts off strong with Amy Butcher’s ‘Touched’.  I’m a sucker for a schoolgirl, so this little vignette was a delight. As a whole, Best Lesbian Erotica offers more hits than misses, although for me personally it went downhill after D.L. King’s ‘On My Honor’, one of the sexiest, most enjoyable stories in the book.  I didn’t care for the stories that were written in second-person narrative – to be quite honest, I find it more difficult to get into the story with second-person perspective.  Of all the stories, I thought that ‘Touched’, ‘Rebel Girl’, ‘Blood Lust’, ‘Maid For You’, and ‘On My Honor’ really shone. ‘How He Likes It’ I could have done without; it seemed too far removed from lesbian erotica to actually be lesbian erotica – without the details, I could have just been reading a straight S&M story. Queer erotica, yes – lesbian erotica, not so much? All in all, I think there is something for everyone inBest Lesbian Erotica 2012 – a little romance, a little S&M, a little uniform play, and a lot of great authors and great, hot sex writing.

Maryam reviews Sugar & Spice edited by Mira Paul

Winter break is over and it is back to school for me! And what better to distract me from the winter cold and an endlessly busy schedule than some BDSM fiction? Well, it beats dong homework(no pun intended).

Sugar & Spice is an S&M anthology edited by Mira Paul. I took Danika’s advice and saved the first story, Elizabeth Thorne’s ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, for last. I’m glad I did; it is clearly the most well-written vignette in the whole book. The other stories are entertaining, but don’t hold up to the caliber of ‘Nothing Like the Sun’; my other favorite was ‘Für Elise’ by Maggie Morton, about a first-time sub – there was the great dichotomy of being the top throughout other aspects of the relationship but subbing to a femme girlfriend, and the characters were very tender and real. There were some stories where I could just not suspend my disbelief – San Francisco Sex University?!?! – and while I loved the D.E.B.S-esque ‘Enforcement’ by Dorla Moorehouse, I caught a continuity error(You can’t spank a satin-covered ass when you JUST explained she got her THONG pushed out of the way, come on!) Not the greatest set of stories, but an entertaining read for sure, especially if you have a weird sense of humor like I do and can’t help laughing at dialogue like “Would you kindly prep the anal beads?”

Maryam reviews Scandal in the Wind by KT Grant

I had the recent pleasure of seeing the musical Wicked, and though I enjoyed it, I complained about the ridiculously short development of Elphaba and Fiero’s romance. When I would do this, I would inevitably get a response of “OMG, have you read the book?”

“No,” I would say, thinking to myself: I don’t read fanfiction.

I feel as if I have broken my non-fanfiction rule with Scandal in the Wind – though I will admit I picked it up because of the title. I do love Gone With the Wind (but I have not read Scarlett, nor Rhett Butler’s People, because I don’t read fanfiction! Not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you are familiar with Gone With the Wind, you will recognize a few personalities. Imagine, if you will, that Scarlett — I mean, Lily — did not fall for Ashley, but Melanie! Er, that is, not Wyatt, but Mary! Now Rh–Beau wants a divorce. (I will say that I do enjoy the name Beauregard. Good planning on Ms. Grant’s part, that.) So Lily takes up with none other than Rose Ware, owner of Rose’s Delights, Charleston’s most beloved brothel. Rose becomes Lily’s friend, business partner, and lover, in that order.

I got a little more involved in this book past the halfway point, when the author began to take the plot more onto her own terms. There is this basic sort of structure that the reader has should she be familiar with Ms. Mitchell’s novel, but I have to say that the interactions between original characters Jo and Clinton were the most genuine to me. Perhaps when the characters are ‘new’ rather than ‘familiar’, there is a little more work involved on the author’s part to make them come alive. I think that is why their side-romance had that little bit of extra oomph to it. Don’t get me wrong – the relationship that blossoms between Lily and Rose is delightful and sexy, but I didn’t feel that as much craft was involved because the reader knows the character archetype. The climax (no pun intended) of the novel felt a little forced to me – the ending of Chapter 11 was a great cliffhanger, but that excitement fell short when the realization dawns that there really could be only one person to blame, and I didn’t fear for Lily’s life towards the end of the novel because, frankly, there were too few pages left for me to be concerned about an unhappy ending. And romance novels don’t have unhappy endings, anyway, and that is why we read them, is it not? Still, I think that should one decide to put one’s character in mortal peril, at least give us a bit more peril, a little more time to show some concern, maybe even a few more characters to suspect. And, my goodness – is there an editor at this publishing house? Sometimes the book needed commas, sometimes I found those commas roving around in sentences where they shouldn’t be, and I saw “you’re” in the place of “your” three times. I simply cannot say fiddle-dee-dee to grammar!

All that aside, I will say that Scandal in the Wind was a fun, quick, delightful read, and should Ms. Grant decide to give us an extended version one day so that she could take more time with the characters, I would be happy to break my unspoken rule to read it again.

Maryam reviewed Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa edited by Allyn Diesel

I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.

Maryam reviews Black Girl Love by Anondra Williams

I started to review another book for this month, but I put that book down and picked up Black Girl Love instead, and I’m glad that I did. Black Girl Love is a series of fictional vignettes punctuated by the occasional poem. The poetry sets the tone for the author’s style, and the short stories are so vibrant in their imagery that I had to double-check for the ‘this is a work of fiction’ disclaimer. From running into the exgirlfriend at the club to having your wife twist your locs, from being the obsessed stalker to being the woman caught in an abusive relationship, Ms. Williams tells it all with poetic grace and a strong voice. Even the stories that may be triggering to read were still wonderfully rendered.

The version of Black Girl Love that I read still needed to be heavily re-edited. Had Ms. Williams been any less skilled as an author, I may have stopped reading due to the amount of spelling errors. However, I was so interested in the stories she wove that I read on and overlooked them. It does need some editing love, complete with a liberal sprinkling of commas – I saw another Lesbrarian recently lament the lack of the Oxford comma in one of her reviews, and I share in that lament – but after an editor goes over it with a fine-tooth comb, Black Girl Love will be a really powerful, wonderful piece of work. I look forward to seeing more from Anondra Williams in the future.

Maryam reviews Ghosts of Winter by Rebecca S. Buck

Full disclosure: I did not read anything about Ghosts of Winter before I downloaded it for review. I was coming down off a marathon of Japanese horror comics and the second season of The X-Files when Danika’s suggestion hit my inbox. Ghosts? In winter? Sign me up!

Unfortunately for me, there are no actual ghosts in Ghosts of Winter; the tale is that of Ros, a young history teacher who has broken up with her long-term girlfriend and her teaching career in the wake of her mother’s death. However, a family friend from Ros’s childhood has bequeathed Ros a dilapidated manor in her will, stipulating that Ros restore it as a condition of acceptance. Of course, one woman cannot restore an entire crumbling 18th century manor house by herself – enter Anna, the sexy architect who will help Ros rebuild Winter Manor AND her broken heart!

I have to admit I am not familiar with romance novels at all. I am wondering, then, if a standard romance novel is as – dare I say it – plotless as Ghosts of Winter. Most of the action revolves around the interaction between Ros and Anna – which is not to say that their budding relationship is unimportant; it is just not as interesting against this sort of mundane backdrop of fixing up an old house. There are occasional passages that reveal the hidden passions of the previous inhabitants of Winter Manor, and I wished that the author had given us more of these flashbacks. When I read the first of them, I was hoping for there to be two stories that would eventually merge, but they are just tiny glimpses that do not relate directly to Ros and Anna’s storyline – and frankly, the lives of Winter Manor’s previous inhabitants are much more captivating. They are chapter-long peeks into the secrecy and danger of same-sex romance, and there is far more potential in these stories.

That being said, the sex scenes are well-written and hot, and the author does know her perfumes – can a girl even buy a bottle of Tabac Blond, these days? If romance and house renovation are your idea of a good time, I’d say give Ghosts of Winter a try – but I hope that future efforts by Ms. Buck will be a little more captivating.

Maryam reviews The Door at the Top of the Stairs by Alison Naomi Holt

While I’m not sure that Alison Naomi Holt would welcome me comparing her writing style to that of a young adult novel, writing in that style does have its advantages. Everything is done at a slightly faster pace than an average novel, and it helps keep the reader engaged. There are no dull parts to wait through, no chapter-long descriptions of the characters’ surroundings: characters are introduced, the plot takes off running, and from there it is the reader’s job to keep up.

The Door at the Top of the Stairs is the story of Jesse Shaunessy, a twenty-six-year-old retired police officer who comes to work at the farm of Morgan Davis and her partner, Dr. Ryland Caldwell. Morgan runs the farm and rides as Master of the Myrina Foxhunting Club; Ryland is a retired psychotherapist. Jesse has a temper more foul than Morgan, and the two clash as employee and boss, but Ryland insists that Morgan keep Jesse on. Jesse, though antisocial, rude, and foul-mouthed, is a natural with the horses, and Morgan has a reputation for going through employees quickly.

One morning, Jesse panics at the sight of Morgan’s hunting whip as the club prepares for cubbing. Ryland and Morgan attempt to comfort her, but Jesse passes out; it is then that Ryland notices that Jesse’s back is covered with burn marks and scars. What follows is the story and struggles of Jesse, Morgan, and Ryland, as Ryland tries to help Jesse work through her traumatizing past, with Morgan enlisted as an anchoring element throughout Jesse’s therapy. Jesse’s ordeal is horrifying – the author is also a retired police officer, and one can only hope that none of the situations in this novel were pulled from reality.

All in all, this book was a quick, enjoyable read, with its fair share of laugh-out-loud moments as well as suspense. It was refreshing to read a book with three lesbian main characters and no love triangle! Jesse’s dalliances are always light and funny – a great escape from the heavier themes of the novel. The characters are engaging, and although there are some dark themes, they don’t weigh the rest of the book down. The Door at the Top of the Stairs is probably not light enough for the beach, but it should do just fine on a dark summer night.