Thursday, October 18, 2001

Substitute for Love

Karin Kallmaker
Naiad Press

What would you be willing to do in order to secure the health of your mother, your child, your love? Reyna Putnam has sold her soul to the proverbial devil to guarantee that her terminally ill mother has the best care that her father's money can buy. Grip Putnam, the result of generations of politically powerful men, is determined to be President of the United States. Thus he carefully controls his media image as a conservative radio pundit as well as the image of his family. His only surviving child, Reyna is part of that image; a lesbian daughter is not. Reyna walks a careful tight rope, trying to maintain her sanity, and some self identity while she continues personally abhorrent work that keeps her father paying those health bills.

Holly Markham has spent most of the 16 years since her mother's death in an accident, hiding. She hides her body in multiple layers of clothing that reflect her need for self-protection from people who should be her allies in life as well as her self-denial.

But Holly has just done something extraordinary. She quit her job in protest because a coworker has been fired for being an out lesbian. Holly quit her job because it was the right thing to do. This righteous act snowballs as Holly finds herself questioning her eight year relationship with Clay, an older, male, college instructor who is controlling and critical, and her feelings about a host of other issues. In a matter of weeks Holly's life will change completely as she discovers several surprises about her mother, her early childhood and herself.

Kallmaker's characterization, humor and story telling skills continue to develop with each novel she writes. Substitute for Love may be her best book to date. --Although part of me continues to prefer her scifi/fantasy titles written as Laura Adams, this is like the difference between Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey. Both are good. It depends on your mood and taste. -- Kallmaker gives us a glimpse at the mind of a mathematician through Holly's thought process. She points out the frustrating futility that our nation's health care system creates for people who are not independently wealthy. Yet she pokes fun at the liberal Clay's touting of "a simple life" without understanding the trade off in human labor, supplied by Holly for eight years, required to achieve it.

The Putnam Institute, located in Orange County, California, is symbolic of several extreme right-wing political groups in the area. Kallmaker uses its work to address a number of methods similar groups employ in their campaign against homosexuality, i.e., fund-raising, "ex-gay" therapy, and the hypocrisy of people who pass. Kallmaker manages to address all these issues without interrupting the romance or seeming "too busy." Kallmaker even manages to give readers hope that the socio-political wave the right has been riding may have already crested.

Kallmaker is dependable for highly erotic scenes that will leave the reader warm and dreamy. The action between Holly and Reyna is no exception to this skill. Substitute for Love is a keeper. One that I expect to read more than once.

-MJ Lowe

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Finding H. F.: a Novel

Julia Watts
Alyson Books

Life in towns like Morgan, Kentucky has never been easy for queer teens. The Appalachias of southeastern Kentucky continues to hold claim to the title "buckle of the bible belt." And children are still being named things like Pierre Beauregard --after his father's favorite CSA general-- and Heavenly Faith --her memaw was hoping her daughter's illegitimate child will grow into the name rather than following her mother's footsteps. Bo and H.F. for short, please, are struggling through their high school years in Morgan in Finding H. F.: a Novel by Julia Watts. The increased awareness of gay and lesbian issues in the new millennium increases queer teens' visibility and their vulnerability to peer punishment.

As H.F. who narrates this story of coming out and coming of age in 21st Century Appalachia, says "I guess I'm lucky, though, because I'm not the only one in school who's different. I don't have to be a lonely gazelle limping along while the lions stalk me. I've got Bo for a friend, and bless his heart, he's got it a lot rougher that I do. The sissy boys always have it harder than the tomboys." (8)

At the end of their sophomore year, H.F. decides she needs to look up the mother who abandoned her 16 years before. She convinces Bo to take a road trip to Florida. The teens, who have never been out of the state, pool their resources, pile into Bo's old Ford Escort and head south. Along the way these two young explorers find a loving gay community, role models, friends and the potential for a positive life.

Watts' novels are always a treat. (Reading Wedding Bell Blues made this reader laugh out loud. So go read her other novels too!) Her humor and characterization together with her understanding and insightful depiction of life in the Southland allow us to laugh at life's ironies. Don't let the cover of Finding H.F put you off. It's illustrative of an epiphany for H.F early in the novel and sets the tone for her coming out.


Tuesday, October 2, 2001


Marianne K. Martin
Bella Books

Opening three years after the close of Dawn of the Dance, and set in a small city in Michigan, Mirrors focuses on secondary characters introduced in Dawn: high school teacher, Jean Carson and feminist attorney, Shayna Bradley. Mirrors is well written with realistic characters and depicts important, painful issues for gays and lesbians living in the more conservative regions of the country. Especially those with careers in public education. The novel opens with the new history teacher, Dan Sanders,being fired because the high school principal decided Sanders was gay. Sanders, we're told was not "obvious" nor had he behaved inappropriately to any of the students. Indeed he actually had students liking history. But teaching performance is not the issue. The principal doesn't want queers working for him. As in most of America there is no protection for gay teachers regarding discrimination in employment.

Jean is a thirty-something, physical education teacher. She has spent the last 12 years married to Ken and devoting her time and energy to her students. The latter has helped her avoid some realities about the former. Namely Ken's desire for children and Jean's reluctance for them. It turns out that Jean's avoidance of additional commitment to Ken is rooted in her ambivalence regarding her attractions toward women. This is especially true of her feelings for her best friend, Shayna. A relatively open lesbian attorney who specializes in assisting women in legal struggles, Shayna uses her work to avoid really committing to her girlfriend. Despite their years of perfecting defense mechanisms, neither woman is quite prepared for her feelings for the other. Feelings that grow as both disentangle themselves from dying romantic relationships.

Coming out is a process, not an event, and it's rarely easy. That's one of the themes of Mirrors. Indeed the book provides three reflections on coming out via Jean, Shayna and Lindy, a student at the high school where Jean teaches. Lindy has been struggling with her own sexuality and suffers the routinely harassing attention of several of the male jocks at the school. She will ultimately be attacked because her baby butch appearance threatens some of her classmates. It is Lindy's story that will force Jean to face her own closet, accept the gift of Shayna's love, and risk her job, in the hope of saving other young students.

Martin also provides a mirror for society to consider its role in protecting our young people from bigotry and hate (not to mention rearing them to express said hatred). Mirrors is not my favorite Martin novel; --I prefer her Clan of the Doe stories with Sage Bistro, et al.-- however it is a very good story that can not be told too often. Look into Mirrors, you will no doubt find yourself reflected there as well.

-MJ Lowe