Tuesday, May 22, 2001

One Summer Night

Gerri Hill
Rising Tide Press

One Summer Night is a first novel for Gerri Hill and is a promising beginning. Her romantic encounters are powerfully erotic and may prompt many readers to return to this story. However, her characterization is rather flat and the plot is thin. Some women are portrayed rather one dimensionally and Hill, however unintentionally, sometimes falls victim to using some negative stereotyping.

An educated, thirty something college instructor, Johanna Marshall suffers from the loss of her parents as a child -- despite having been raised by loving grandparents who have accepted her lesbianism without strife -- and the betrayal of (in hindsight) a clearly inappropriately matched lover. For the last several years, Jo has climbed into her ivory tower and shut the door.

Dragging herself out to watch friends play in a softball tourney, Jo is drawn to a ringer brought in to boost the team she supports. The former college ball player is the attractive, intelligent Kelly Sambino. The two women are drawn together by an almost overwhelming attraction and end up spending a tremendously charged night together. The next morning Jo awakes to find Kelly, who had a game to play in the morning, gone. Despite their backgrounds in writing and communication the two women prove to be very poor communicators. Almost annoyingly so. Jo, confused and embarrassed by the night's impulsively, does not go to the ball field. Thus adding to the miscommunication particularly since Kelly lives in another town.

After the tournament, some of Jo's friends suggest that Kelly has a reputation as a "Don Juan." Thus Jo returns to hide in her academic tower, though the memory of their passion remains. Fall semester brings a new faculty member to Jo's department and it's Kelly. Still interested in Jo, Kelly tries to court Jo as well as clarify their earlier miscommunication. Jo spends lots of energy trying to keep Kelly at arm's length but calls on her for solace when her grandfather dies suddenly. Kelly is the more likeable of this hit-and-miss couple, although her willingness to put up with Jo's passive-aggressive behavior is rather masochistic.

Perhaps more annoying is the treatment of secondary characters. One of the few short and over weight dykes (most are lean, athletic, and beautiful) is depicted as insensitive, desperate, and mean spirited with her attempts to trash Kelly to Jo in an effort to woo Jo for herself. As some of Hill's writing is quite moving, one hopes that her future novels will explore characterization and plot in a more complex manner.

-MJ Lowe

Monday, May 21, 2001

Set in Stone

Angela Brown, editor
Alyson Books

"I'm beyond queer, queerer than queer: an authentic, genuine, pasteurized, homogenized 100% perv." says an unnamed butch, in Leslea Newman's story, "A Stone's Throw" one of 19 stories in Set in Stone, the newest anthology of lesbian erotica from Alyson press. Certainly that's what a lot of folks might think of the theme of this anthology. They would be partly correct. Angela Brown, the editor has pulled together a wonderful spectrum of tough, funny, sexy, beautiful butches as well as observations about butches, stone and otherwise, and their attractions to one another.

Join the notorious (and historically real) Anne Bonney and Mary Read on a 17th century pirate ship in "On the Spanish Main." Get caught in the different kind of raid in the restroom at the Under Club in M. Christian's "The Bang Gang." Some of the stories like Newman's and Jennifer M. Collins have butches that are very aware of their added "queerness" and expose very touching encounters of respect, affection, and desire. For you aging punkers, "Tough Broad" will create a fond memory and "The Rock" will have you looking twice at heavy construction front loaders. While other stories like "The Crashing Planes" rather painfully explore the competitive nature between some butches, particularly in regards to keeping a femme. The writers are as diverse as their stories and many are well known for their erotica like Newman and Califia.

Not all of the butches in these pages are likable; they are, however, memorable, thought provoking, and hot. Regardless of your personal view of the butch/femme dance, you'll find Set in Stone and arousing collection.

-MJ Lowe

Monday, May 14, 2001

Frosting on the Cake

Karin Kallmaker
Naiad Press

If like myself, you are a long time Kallmaker fan, you will enjoy Frosting on the Cake, an anthology of short stories based on her novels.

Kallmaker's characters are the main reason her stories are so enjoyable. She explores a diverse range of women and portrays them as human. These women get colds, have periods, disagree with their parents and spouses, have jobs, have children, renovate homes, and so on. Not just super human beauties, they reflect the lesbians we know, are, and with whom we interact. Not surprisingly, Kallmaker uses this opportunity to examine new aspects of these familiar characters.

After ten novels, Kallmaker has lots of characters to revisit and there's a wide range of topics to consider as well. For example Cat and Jessie, of In Every Port, have been together 23 years now and as many long time couples do, they have developed a communication all their own in "Conversations."

Life has been difficult for the cross dressing conductor Nicola Frost since the ending of Paperback Romance nine years ago. Two years prior to "Key of Sea," Oscar, her much loved and charming mentor, died; and ever since Nick has been building walls to protect herself from the world. Walls that also keep her from the things she loves. Alone on an all woman cruise for an over due vacation, Nick rediscovers her love of music and, perhaps, Patricia.

We get an extra peek at favorite women like Jackie and Leah of Painted Moon, (probably my second favorite of Kallmaker's titles). In "Smudges" the artist, Leah Beck immortalizes "what it's like between women" with a very special canvas. Rayann of Touchwood (my favorite Kallmaker novel) furthers her understanding of the butch/femme dance she shares with Lou in "Satisfaction."

"Wild Things are Free" is a novella that examines the complications of miscommunication and insecurity that can still arise some five years after Sydney and Faith began their relationship in Wild Things. While "Come Here" features Judy and Dedric, Rayann's friends from Touchwood, in a classic Kallmaker romantic encounter. This is a particularly interesting story because it provides the reader with an intimate view of characters who were not primary to the novel.

Perhaps the most interesting example of Kallmaker's exploration of secondary characters appears in "Unforgettable, That's What You Are." Natalie's role in Unforgettable was rather limited. However, Kallmaker appears to know a great deal about even relatively minor characters in her books. Her understanding of the people that populate her novels adds to the richness of all her characters. Thus in this story, we learn more of Natalie, a retired Army encryption specialist who still bears the psychological scars of battle earned during her service overseas. - Kallmaker's depiction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very powerful. -- Natalie has returned home to court and build a future with a woman she loves.

An additional, interesting treat is included at the end of the anthology. Kallmaker takes a few pages to discuss her novels and their related stories as well as answering a few of the "frequently asked questions" about her writing.

If you've never read any of Kallmaker's novels -- which probably means you either just came out, on principle you refuse to read any "romance" novel, or have been living under a rock for much of the last decade -- pick up this anthology. It will give you a very good idea of what her stories are like. Perhaps it will help you decide which of her books you'd like to read next. And you will want to read them.

As for you non-romance readers, I urge you to reconsider. Remember that these are not the straight, traditional romance stories you're bombarded with everyday. Kallmaker's stories are well written and non-formula. They depict realistic, contemporary lesbians dealing with everyday issues, including how to love and maintain that love in a homophobic society. Kallmaker's characters are in many ways ordinary women. Ordinary women made extraordinary through their love of each other. That is the magic of Kallmaker's writing.

-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, May 2, 2001

It Takes One to Know One

Kate Allen
New Victoria Publishers


The third installment in Kate Allen's Allison Kaine mystery series, It Takes One to Know One, continues to be my favorite. Allison, a Denver police officer and her best friend, Michelle, travel south to spend a peaceful, long, working retreat weekend on womyn's land near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The weekend takes several unexpected turns as Stacy, Allison's girlfriend and a professional dominatrix, shows up to make peace after a recent argument. Uninformed of the commune's strict rules, Stacy and her best friend, Liz set up "Fun Camp" outside the Land. Well provisioned with caffeine and alcohol, they become the local entertainment and outlet for the less pure retreat members. Predictably, arguments concerning feminism and the leather community flare up in the desert heat.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, Stacy and Allison still manage to find time for a heated power exchange. Allison and company do a wonderful job of humanizing that feminist taboo- s/m. In depicting intelligent, caring women with ordinary jobs (except for Stacy . . .), bills, and pets, Allen creates cognitive dissidence for people who demonize the leather community.

Allison and Stacy aren't the only ones indulging their erotic affections. Away from the strain of domestic life with her girlfriend and their colicky baby, Michelle is expressing more than a professional interest in Persimmon, a fellow glass artist, and one of the commune sponsors.

Soon, Sarah Embraces-All-Things, the commune spiritual leader, a bully, and possibly a fraud, is discovered dead in the sweat lodge. Allison, suffering from a recently diagnosed chronic illness, struggles to sort out her professional responsibility as a police officer and her role as a supportive lesbian. Several members of the retreat appear happy to call Sarah's death an accident. Are they protecting a murderer?

Allen succeeds in poking fun at all the complexities and contradictions of the lesbian, gay, and feminist community without being malicious -- a great temptation, particularly over some of the issues -- and conveys intelligent ambivalence over controversial issues. As the characters struggle with their interactions, political views, and the question of Sarah's death, Allen points out how very funny lesbians can be while she consistently displays compassion for the women that make up our community. All of Allen's novels are intelligent, humorous, and worth buying but Takes One to Know One is still my favorite to date.


BN: All of Kate Allen's titles are still available via www.bellabooks.com

Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Murder for Beltene: A Beltene Family Mystery

Sandra L. Brewer
Write Way Publishing

On her way to the store for her nightly soft ice cream cone fix, Rhiannon Beltene finds a dead body on the path that cuts through her family's woods. Thus opens Murder for Beltene: A Beltene Family Mystery, a new novel by Sandra L. Brewer. The victim's anonymity alone is strange in the quiet town of Sevyrn, located in Brennan County in Michigan's Upper peninsula. However, the circumstances of his death -- Drained of blood with puncture wounds in the neck, the body appears to have been killed by a vampire. -- make it clear that Rhi, a successful writer of vampire fiction, has acquired a rather dangerous admirer.

As the start to bodies appear regularly Rhi finds herself forced to deal with Brennan County's new Sheriff who has serious reservations about one of Rhi's cousins. Trysan sleeps in a coffin and enjoys vampire fantasies. Despite a pressing deadline for her next novel, Rhi is forced to set her writing aside to assist the investigation and comes to accept her responsibilities as "The Beltene" or head of Clan Beltene, a family of Welsh descent that has been in Brennan County since the 1780s.

The mystery itself takes a back seat to the mystery of the Beltene family and as the reader meets an interesting assortment of clan members -- from mercenaries to lawyers to Catholic priests to long practicing (definately not "neo") Druids -- it quickly becomes clear that nothing is quite as it appears. Brewer's characters are funny, intelligent, and more than a little odd . . .. Murder for Beltene is Brewer's first novel featuring the Beltene clan, and with any luck, it won't be the last such book that we get from Brewer.

-MJ Lowe