Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Parted Lips: Lesbian Love Quotes Through the Ages

Simone Rich, Editor
Alyson Books

Parted Lips is a pleasant little book of quotations. Although of trade paperback quality, it is an unusual size (appx 4.5" X 5.75") with 187 pages worth of witty quotes from a broad range of individuals. Everyone from Sappho (circ 612-550 BCE Greek poet from the island of Lesbos) and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (17th Century poet) to Groucho Marx and Lucy Lawless, provides bon mots. The quotations are divided into a baker's dozen of thematic chapters such as Lovers & Relationships, Beauty, Marriage, Butch and Femme, Bisexuality, and Odds and Ends. Observations range from the Rita Mae Brown's wry, "Love is the wild card of existence." (54) to several deliciously bawdy comments from Tallulah Bankhead. Each chapter opens with a lovely black and white photograph that reflects the chapter's subject from the suggestive to the amusing.

However, Parted Lips could use a touch of lip gloss, for this reader. First there is the subtitle: Lesbian Love Quotes Through the Ages. It's not clear how some of these quotations qualify as lesbian or love quotes. For example Harper Lee's "the one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." (179), though a favorite of this reader, doesn't clearly strike one as a love quote, unless there is some context that is not provided. Then there is the general uneven quality to the credit citations. Some citations have the author's name and the title of a published source. Others have the context of the quote, such as a response to an interview question, but no source for the interview. In some cases the author's view has actually changed over time, as with Rita Mae Brown's comment about bisexuality (90) which clearly reflects her radical days with the Furies in the 1970s. Some names have simple biographic information. Other names have none. An appendix with brief biographical information would have been nice.

The lack of an introduction by the editor to explain how she came to pull this volume together, how the quotes were chosen, and how she sorted them is probably the most annoying omission. The back of the book states that Rich has been collecting lesbian quotes and trivia for some 15 years. Finally there is no index to the individuals quoted. Since several persons are cited more than once, an index would have been a simple, yet helpful addition. All in all, Parted Lips is a fun little volume and could make a nice gift book, although it is a tad expensive for its weaknesses.
-MJ Lowe

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Seeds of Fire

Laura Adams (Karin Kallmaker)
Bella Books

Seeds of Fire, the second entry of Laura Adams' magical Tunnel of Light fantasy trilogy is an enchanting gift to her readers. Opening just days after the ending of Sleight of Hand (the first book in the trilogy), Seeds further braids themes of reincarnation, loss, betrayal, and redemption through a circle of contemporary women -- Ursula, Autumn, Kelly, Taylor, Elizabeth -- who find themselves sharing dreams of earlier lives together. Intelligent and intense, these women possess strengths and skills they do not fully understand as they struggle to repair a tragedy that echoes through the ages. Sleight of Hand deals with the origin for the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins (circa 450 C.E.) and though Adams provides a great deal of background in Seeds, readers will do better to read the books in order. (Besides it's more fun!) In this second novel, readers witness the gathering of Ursula's circle in the early 12th century. The bard Hilea has made a place for herself as the Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (a remarkable, real life woman and an inspiration for the series) in Cologne. Hildegard has written a liturgy for the legend of "St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins" to "call" the other women back together.

Believing they have lost Ursula to the Darkness, the contemporary Taylor, Liz, and Kelly are devastated. Taylor takes desperate measures to try to determine how their Lammas circle went wrong. In many ways Seeds is Taylor's story, revealing her early training in the Old Religion, and that even in her childhood she was "certain of her right to meddle." (92) Taylor must confront that hubris. She seeks answers to her failings, faces the Circle of All Circles, and finds herself again. Meanwhile Kelly, feeling betrayed and hurt, turns to other sources for comfort, a power that will further Kelly down a dangerous path. Adams' examination of Kelly's corruption by Darkness in the past and the present, is insightful, thoughtful, and forthright.

Unknown to the women of Taylor's circle, the mysterious "magician and warrior" Autumn rescued Ursula from the Darkness that has haunted them for over 1500 years. Ursula survived the magical transportation at the cost of her memory, adding confusion to their plight. When Autumn begins to dream of Hildegard's time, she finds that she has gone to great lengths to attempt to save Ursula in the past. Autumn knows that the danger of the Darkness is still waiting for them, and she is determined to protect Ursula this time. In addition to the mystical complications these characters face, old-fashioned poor communication plays a role in their dilemma. Even Autumn's dog, Scylla seems aware of this. When Autumn considers telling Ursula about her dreams, and the dog thumps her tail hard on the floor as though saying, "Yes, tell her, you fool." (101)

As is often the case with middle aspects of trilogies, Seeds is a darker story than Sleight. Adams' characters complicate their entanglements via miscommunication, assumptions, doubts, and secrets. Despite the ominously growing power of the darkness, Seeds is a pleasure to read. The historical segments are well researched and authentically recreated. The story is engrossing with interesting, rich characterization. Adams provides balance to the darkness with her quiet, ironic humor, and the potential for perfect love and perfect trust to triumph. One of the finest writers of "lesbian fiction" today, Kallmaker via her Adams pen name blurs genre lines. The woman writes wonderful, lively, lush fantasy stories. That they feature lesbian characters is added fun for her readers. Her writing entices us to enter a world not far from our own; yet it's a place where magic can and must be mastered. Adams weaves together powerful imagery and themes, including leitmotifs such as the reappearing Norns -- the three wise women or "Fates" in Norse mythology who represent "Became, Becoming, and Shall Be." Indeed, Seeds of Fire appears to encompass the "Becoming" aspect of the Tunnel of Light trilogy. This reader eagerly awaits what Shall Be in the upcoming final novel, "The Forge of Virgins."

-MJ Lowe

Tuesday, October 1, 2002

The Ghost of Carmen Miranda and Other Spooky Gay and Lesbian Tales

Julie K. Trevelyan, Editor
Scott Brassart, Editor
Alyson Books

In the anthology, The Ghost of Carmen Miranda and other spooky Gay and Lesbian Tales, the editors Julie K. Trevelyan and Scott Brassart have assembled a lively, lavender corps of ghost stories. As the title implies, this Alyson publication is not strictly a horror collection, although some of the tales certainly qualify. All the stories, however, focus on lesbian or gay characters as well as elements of the supernatural with manifestations of ghosts in some form or another.

Many of the stories, like Don Sakers' title entry "The Ghost of Carmen Miranda" -- wherein a morbidly obese gay man, trapped in a dead end existence on a space station, finds help and inspiration in a different kind patron saint -- are queerly witty and delightfully amusing. Several stories address the idea of the spirit of a loved one returning or being trapped until some unfinished business can reach closure. A. J. Potter's "Taking Care of Faith" fits this theme. The peanut butter eating ghost, Brandon, returns to his apartment, to check on his "widowed," lover, Evan. When Victor, the new renter, realizes it's not really strong cockroaches raiding his peanut butter, he is taken aback, to say the least. A rather nonchalant spectral Brandon, complains about Victor's choice of low fat variety, "It's peanut butter, for chrissake. If you're going to eat peanut butter, eat the real thing." (19)

Abbe Ireland's "Case of the Sapphic Succubus" features a "ghost busting" Frances who must face another kind of "bust" when she agrees to spend the night in a historic bed and breakfast with an unusual guest service. Frances learns that facing a succubus isn't as difficult as facing what resides in the researcher's heart. "Paisley" has an archaeologist in the Appalachias of East Kentucky disinterring a casket that holds the bodies of two women. When the image of a woman in a paisley print dress begins to visit Charlotte, one of the summer's grunt workers, the story of those long dead women becomes hauntingly real.

While many of the stories are touching, arousing, and humorous; several are spooky, and some of these tales brought genuine shivers to this reader. A leather master learns what it really means to own and be owned when a neglected lover returns as illusrated in Simon Sheppard's intense, erotic, and ultimate power exchange, titled "My Possession." From the skillful storytelling of M. Christian, readers are treated to "Echoes." And are asked to question how and why a man might become haunted and what lengths he might consider to exorcise himself. The idea of possession is further explored by Hall Own Calwaugh in "amat67.jpg." Keith has just been sent an email that will change his life and prompt him to question his desires, briefly. By far the most chilling story to this reader was J.M. Beazer's "The Thing at the Bottom of the Bed." Haley returns from her father's funeral to find herself facing a horror from which she has hidden for much of her life.

The Ghost of Carmen Miranda and Other Spooky Gay and Lesbian Tales, found its way onto this reader's bookshelf when it was published in 1998. A seasonal rereading of its stories, was no less touching, arousing, humorous, and most importantly, thought provoking. The stories mentioned here are just a few of the 23 contained in its cover. Although out of print, this title is worth tracking down. Think of it as your own little seance for the Halloween season and enjoy.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Cobb Island

Blayne Cooper
Renaissance Alliance Publishing

Olivia Hazelwood, Liv to her friends, has agreed to take her younger brother, Doug to spend a week on Cobb Island, off the coast of Virginia. Since an accident claimed their parents a decade ago, Livi has been more of a mother than sister to Doug. The 29 year old linguist and openly lesbian, Liv is recently back from a Peace Corps tour in Africa and is looking forward to catching up with the changes in Doug's life. One of the biggest being that he is very much in love with Marcy Redding. Marcy's family moved last year and the teens have been nursing their love over distance. This separation has prompted Marcy to invite Doug (and Liv) to visit Cobb Island, the colonial era, ancestral home of the Redding family. Marcy has also coaxed her older sister, Kayla to help with the chaperoning duties.

The tall redheaded Kayla seems to take an immediate dislike to Doug, and possibly, to Liv. Certainly the gorgeous 25 year old has difficulty communicating with Liv in anything other than an abrupt, rather rude, not to mention secretive, manner. Her behavior is even more odd given that the women seem almost magnetically drawn to one another. Liv is surprised, confused, and a little overwhelmed by the intensity of her feelings for Kayla. Impossibly, at times Kayla seems to read Liv's mind. Or is it impossible? The three century old Redding house itself, with its secret rooms, strange noises, and a library filled with generations of Redding enigmas has as important a role in the story as any of the characters. Several things about Kayla and the house are a little strange, yet enchanting. Liv finds herself falling under the spell of both mysteries. Meanwhile, desperate for time alone, the lovesick teens decide to visit the mainland just as a storm arises, leaving their older siblings stranded and forced to confront these powerful emotions.

Trapped by the storm, the women begin researching the early years of the house. Finding a hidden journal, Liv and Kayla discover possible answers to the Redding family legacy via a third romance. Bridget Redding, and her sister-in-law, Failynn, lived on Cobb Island in the late 1600s and struggled to find a place for their love in an unforgiving time for women, and condemning of those who dared to love. Could their story hold the secret answers to questions about the Redding family, the house on Cobb Island, and possibly even why Kayla and Liv seem destined to have found each other? Thus Cobb Island contains three love stories entwined in its pages along with a number of witty interactions, sweet moments and endearing scenes between the various couples. There is even a dreadful villain who demands being detested.

Overall, Cobb Island is a magical little romance and a charming mystery. A few of the plot threads are not neatly tied at the end and some elements of the historical period appear a bit anachronistic to this reviewer. Nevertheless, the overall effect of Cobb Island is a fun and fast-paced romantic mystery with a touch of spookiness thrown into the mix. It provides more than enough pleasure to justify its purchase. In fact there is enough pleasure to anticipate future stories from Blayne Cooper, including the continued adventures of Kayla and Liv in the forthcoming Echoes from the Mist.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Echoes from the Mist was released in 2006.

Saturday, August 31, 2002

Body Check: Erotic Lesbian Sports Stories

Nicole Foster, editor
Alyson Books

You don't have to be a jock to enjoy this book. Nicole Foster, who has edited several collections for Alyson, has filled a team roster of 20 erotic lesbian sports stories with a range of sporting women and lots of intense, sweaty moments. There are Olympic hopefuls in the bittersweet "The Art of Running" by Rosalind C. Lloyd; while M. Christian provides a mesmerizing view of an up-and-coming swimmer's relationship with water in "Naiad." Unsurprisingly, those popular lesbian team sports are represented. Volleyballs are "Spiked" by Laurel Hayworth, in a story about healing old wounds and looking for greener courts. "Legend of Teddi Jo" by Gina Ranalli has a few things to say about softball and doing what and whom one loves.

Lest one think this anthology is mostly for the fiercely athletic, there are several amusing entries that feature women who, well, never really passed the President's Council on Physical Fitness Awards in school. Like the delightfully Walter Mitty-esque, adolescent "butch in training" starring in "Black Belt Theater" by Catherine Lundoff, and finding herself along the way. There's the strangely sweet encounter with rock climbing in "Going Up" by Anne Seale as a woman frees herself from a dead-end relationship and finds her own strength. Trixi's "Mulligan on the Green" is the charming story of golf and a young fan on her 18th birthday.

Perhaps this reader's favorite -- for the narrator's sharp wit and cynical view of aerobics -- is Dawn Dougherty's "Sports Dyke." The unnamed, less fit narrator decides to take a class after chatting with a woman in the locker room. After all she muses, "I've done worse things than yoga to get a girl horizontal." (196) The class and the evening hold a few surprises and the woman discovers a "gym that satisfies all [her] needs." (205)

The stories in Body Check include a wide range of sports, athletic skill, dynamics, humor, characters, and settings. This anthology should be part of every lesbian's sports gear. As Foster urges in her introduction, readers will be inspired to get sweaty tonight.

-MJ Lowe

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Madam President

Blayne Cooper and T. Novan
Renaissance Alliance Publishing (November 2001)

The year is 2020 and the United States has, for the first time, elected as president, a woman. Blayne Cooper and T. Novan present this fascinating premise in Madam President. Yet, it seems very unlikely that the first woman president will be 38 years old, a single (actually widowed), openly lesbian, mother of three, which describes Devlyn Marlowe. Cognizant of the history making role of her administration, Devlyn has chosen a successful young historian/writer to observe her term in office and act as her biographer. Thus Lauren Strayer enters the White House and prepares to chronicle Devlyn's administration for history. The novel follows the events of the first year of her term.

Despite the premise, Madam President does not succeed as a futuristic political yarn. Novan and Cooper make reference to a number of interesting issues and incidents in Madam President, including Devlyn as a successful third party candidate, the trauma of domestic terrorism, the changes in gay and lesbian civil rights issues, and an international arms crisis; but there is little exploration of these issues. While the writers clearly researched the primary setting of the White House, the creative detail in their view of the U.S. 18 years from now is thin and it does not prompt the reader to consider possible changes in the coming years.

Instead the novel focuses primarily on the relationship between Marlowe and Strayer as it evolves from professional respect to personal friendship and romantic attraction. However, for this reader, the more than 300 pages of courting and foreplay became tedious. They are marked with cliché and repetitive incidents; such as the illness/recovery theme with three serious health problems between the two leads in less than six months. Indeed more personal and political crises occur in the first year of Devlyn's term than many Presidents ever see. And they apparently occur primarily to postpone the consummation of the couple's love, which began to feel saccharine after a while. This combination of elements feels like a caricature of the Xena uber genre, from which the story originated.

Several of the comic scenes felt too predictable. The lead characters did not come alive for this reader. The somewhat slapstick quality of the humor is belittling of the premise, given that other elements were not fleshed out to provide balance. Indeed some of the humor slips into what this reader considers dangerous territory. For example, Strayer writes a popular fictional adventure series under a pseudonym. When she considers having the lead character come out as a lesbian, her editor warns her that research shows one-third of Strayer's readers would lose interest unless there "was a sex scene every 63.4 pages." (323) Thus Strayer's readers, and potentially by extension, Novan and Cooper's readers are lampooned. For the humor it provides, this scene was annoying.

For this reader, Madam President is disappointing, both as a speculative futuristic political tale and as a lesbian love story. Certainly there are several amusing and charming moments in the novel. One of the funniest is when Devlyn, who would have been in her teens during the original run of the Xena television show, recalls her frustration and disappointment with the writers and producers failure to present the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle as an open lesbian couple. By contrast, Cooper and Novan's Road to Glory is very charming as a fantasy and an erotic, romantic love story. Cooper's Story of Me which satires a range of subjects, manages to tap into a genuine counter balancing sweetness that is not present in Madam President. As other reviews point out, many readers might feel quite differently about Madam President; however, this reader would prefer their future novels be more like Road to Glory or Story of Me.

-MJ Lowe
BN: This title has been released several times now, I don't know if any significant changes have occurred.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Above All Honor

Justice House Publishing

The Secret Service in Radclyffe's Above All Honor has their hands full. They are trying to guard Blair Powell, the daughter of the President of the United States. Blair, a prominent artist in bohemian art circles of NYC, has grown tired of the oppressive consequences of her father's political career. The polished, beautiful, and politically savvy, Blair is willing to play her role within reason -- speaking for special events, sponsoring charities and making appearances in political venues that are all accepted parts of her public persona; however, she is tired of the constant invasion into her personal life. In her private life Blair is unabashedly lesbian. That private life her father prefers she at least keep discrete. Frustration has led Blair to taunt, tease, annoy and evade the security detail whenever possible. She leads them on merry chases through a range of ... bars in the city, particularly enjoying opportunities to lose the easily spotted "straight laced" agents in one of the leather clubs. Much to the embarrassment of the agents, Blair is quite skilled at her disappearing act.

Senior Agent Cameron Roberts has just been given a clean bill of health after a near fatal shooting during an undercover operation that went badly. Displeased with her new assignment in charge of a security duty for the President's daughter, Roberts quickly realizes that her own lesbian identity is one of the reasons for it. Roberts is determined to treat Blair with as much respect and professionalism as possible without being stymied by her little games. Despite her handsome, butch lesbian, appearance, Roberts seems immune to Blair's charms. This impression is not entirely true of Roberts, but Blair is quite willing to rise to the challenge of the enigmatic agent. Both women carry painful secrets in their past making the possibility of a romance professional inappropriate and personally difficult. No light romantic comedy, the courtship dance in Above All Honor has an edgy, tense quality, although at times it is predictable. Meanwhile, Roberts' charge to protect Blair becomes more challenging when she begins to receive "gifts" from a stalker.

A fast-paced read, Above All Honor has some entertaining and erotic elements. It does not, however, entirely succeed as an "action and suspense thriller" reinterpreted through a lavender lens. The novel is too short in that it leaves too many questions unanswered and too many allusions unexplained. Blair and Robert's pasts are hinted at, but not explored enough for this reader. Blair's behavior almost goes too far for her to be "redeemable" without more background. And one storyline is left hanging in an un-fulfilling, even annoying, manner. Because of the weak character development and the incomplete plot, Above All Honor does not hold up to the promise of Love's Melody Lost, Radclyffe's lavender, tongue-in-cheek tribute to gothic romances. Hopefully, Radclyffe will find better ways to express these elements in future stories.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Above All Honor was re-release in an all new, expanded edition by Bookends Press in 2002 and again by Bold Strokes Books in 2004.

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Unexpected Sparks

Gina L. Dartt
Justice House Publishing

Forty years old and a prominent businesswoman in her town, Kate Shannon is about to change her life. The owner and manager of Novel Companions, an independent bookshop in downtown, Truro, Nova Scotia, Kate has spent much of the last year becoming friends with a regular customer, Nikki Harris.

The 26 years old Nikki is a shy, intelligent, beautiful and openly lesbian woman struggling to survive small town life in the economically depressed Canadian Maritimes. A book lover, Nikki enjoys the cozy atmosphere of Novel Companions, especially since Kate started carrying gay and lesbian fiction. She also enjoys the detailed discussions with Kate of novel plots, characters, favorite authors and related political themes. In fact, Nikki has become painfully aware that she is quite attracted to Kate and has recently cut down on her time at the bookstore, in hopes of weaning her affections away from the charming, presumably straight, owner. A bleak February is looming long and lonely for Nikki.

When the insurance office across the street from the bookshop burns down one night, Nikki rushes to the scene to make certain it's not Novel Companions. A perplexed Kate had noticed the new distance from Nikki. Seeing Nikki standing out in the cold, Kate invites the young woman into her apartment above Novel Companions. The two women watch the fire and begin to speculate about its origin.

Nikki's natural curiosity is piqued when the body of Sam Madison, the owner of the insurance office, is found in the ashes. She convinces Kate to help her investigate the fire. Kate, willing to go along with an opportunity to spend more time with Nikki, agrees to help. Unexpected Sparks is a classic armchair mystery with old fashioned, timeless clues and important character revelations leading Nikki and Kate to answer the questions of why and how Sam ended up in the burning office.

Via their amateur sleuthing project, Kate and Nikki find themselves drawing closer together. Their attraction and developing romance is another theme of Unexpected Sparks. Dartt illustrates falling in love and coming out in a charming and touching manner with respect and humor for her characters. Indeed, her characterization is realistic and perceptive. The elegant and composed Kate is surprised and delighted by the depth and range of the emotions she feels for Nikki. She is also startled by the attention, positive and negative, from customers, friends and neighbors as they begin to hear about her new lavender relationship. Dartt's Truro setting is nicely detailed and provides insight into Canadian small town life, particularly for lesbians.

Unexpected Sparks is Dartt's first novel and there are some elements that could be explored more. Several aspects of Nikki's past are still a mystery and readers who know Dartt's Star Trek fan fiction stories might be surprised at the slightly reticent quality of her love scenes. However, these details are minor and take nothing away from one's pleasure in the story. In fact, the possibilities for just such future revelations have this reader looking forward to the next two Kate and Nikki mysteries. In the meanwhile, if you enjoy armchair mysteries with a lovely lavender flair, pick up a copy of Unexpected Sparks. This book is a perfect cozy evening read.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Unexpected Sparks was re-released by Bold Strokes Books in 2006 and has been followed by Unexpected Ties.

Death, Sweet Suitor Mine

Chris Anne Wolfe
Windstorm Creative

Windstorm Creative has released another short story in it's Delimit Nonpareil series. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine examines the "relationship" between Death and a woman struggling with a life threatening illness. As Chris Newport mentions in her introduction, "This isn't a light read." (5) She is quite correct. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine is a first person and intimate exploration of how the narrator views death. A touching, even haunting story, it lingers in the reader's mind. This is especially true given that this story was written by the late Chris Anne Wolfe, who died in 1997 after several years of struggling with cancer. Wolfe saw four fantasy adventure novels published in her life. Each of them is wonderful and it appears that her skill with short stories was equally impressive.

Windstorm Creative has taken some effort in creating this book, described as handmade, 50 pages, and full color. However, this reader was disappointed with the aesthetics of the project. The book is actually 24 pages with a large font, unusual margins -- very wide on top and bottom, yet very narrow on the sides -- and the pages of this copy are not cut square to the print. Much of this formatting appears to be to make more of an approximately 3000 word, at the most, short story. Perhaps least forgivable in a book of this nature and length are the typographical errors. The cover is quite attractive -- a recognizable portrait of Wolfe with a shadowed profile of an African American woman -- yet somewhat disturbing in its implication, which to this reader was not defined by the author's work.

The handmade and environmentally friendly elements not withstanding, Death, Sweet Suitor Mine does not justify the price. It is not a pleasing gift book format. Nor is it long enough -- regardless of the quality of the writing -- for the price. And the repeated color photograph on each page does not compensate, regardless of publisher expense. There are a number of possible formats that could have been used to create a more enjoyable tribute to Wolfe's legacy. Newport's introduction also mentions that Wolfe gifted several unpublished short stories, novellas, and novels to Windstorm Creative in her will. Hopefully, the press will not attempt to dole out each of Wolfe's stories in this manner.

Finally, Windstorm Creative has the annoying habit of requesting in a front peice that readers buy their books, rather than borrowing them, bemoaning the difficulties faced by small presses. This reader is very sympathetic toward small, independent publishers and values their struggles to provide access to non-mainstream books, especially titles with positive lesbian characters. Having said that, the best way to increase book sales, is to release more good books. Lecturing the reader tends to create the opposite effect. Death, Sweet Suitor Mine is disappointing in everything except for Wolfe's writing. If you have the opportunity to read it, do so. . . . Perhaps you'd like to borrow my copy?

-MJ Lowe

Monday, July 1, 2002

The Road to Glory

The Road To Glory
T. Novan and Blayne Cooper
Renaissance Alliance Publishing,
1930928270, 264 pages

The Road To Glory is a charming romantic comedy from two of Xenaverse's better known bards, Blayne Cooper, AKA Advocate and T. Novan. The lead characters, RJ Fitzgerald, a tall auburn haired handywoman, and Leigh Matthews, a petite chatty blonde trucker have a familiar feel to uber fanfiction readers. Cooper and Novan even point this out via a dialog between a very animated couple of squirrels. Yes, the squirrels from Cooper's Story of Me make a reappearance and observe:

The female followed her mate's line of vision. "The humans we spy on back home!"
"Not quite."
"The hair ..."
She squinted. "The eyes ..."
"Just a little different. But not much. Same builds. Same wonderful screen presence no matter the location or genre." She rolled her eyes. "We all know what they're going to look like.""Genetic mutations because of the inherent weakness of their race?"
"Or lazy writers." (41)

Leigh finds herself diverted to Glory, South Dakota, by a highway construction detour. At Fitz's, a diner just outside of the small town, Leigh falls in lust at first sight with RJ. She happily returns each week during her circular truck route. After several fast and furiously erotic encounters, Leigh invites RJ to join her on her week off in Seattle.

As these two women continue explore their feelings and each other, it becomes increasingly clear that nothing is quite what it seems in Glory or with RJ. The vacation week in Seattle is full of humor, romance, and revelations. There are amusing trips to shop, to dance at a popular lesbian club, to play the arcade at a carnival and even to visit a retirement community. Strangely at the latter RJ spends time with an old friend named Ruth and gives us insight into the varied roles of women in the military during World War II.

Wry and witty observations of American culture in general and particularly of scifi/fantasy fandoms are sprinkled throughout the story. For example, upon discovering that RJ still lives with her mother, Leigh asks:

"You don't attend Star Trek and Xena conventions wearing silly costumes and stalking the actors, do you?" RJ looked totally confused. "I have no idea what on this earth you're talking about." "Good." Leigh nodded. A girl couldn't be too careful. Serial killers were one thing. But those weirdo convention goers were something else. (89)

The Road To Glory is an enchanting story dealing with issues of love, death and finding the hearts desire. Readers familiar with the Xena fandom, particularly uber fanfiction, might have a greater appreciation of some of the humor. However, that familiarity is by no means needed to enjoy this story. All that is required is the time to indulge and a willingness to go for the long haul.
-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Fires of Aggar

Chris Anne Wolfe
Windstorm Creative

Originally published in 1994, Fires of Aggar is a re-release of the second "Aggar" planet sci fi/fantasy novel by Chris Anne Wolfe. Occurring some 500 years after the events of Shadows of Aggar, Wolfe took this opportunity to explore the impact of the relationship between the Amazon Diana N'Athena and her "shadow" and life partner, the blue-eyed, Aggar woman, Elana, two characters from Shadows. In the intervening years, Aggar's ruling Council and the women of "dey Sorormin " (a planet populated by lesbians, known as the sisterhood) forged an alliance that led a colony of "dey Sorormin" women to settle on Aggar in the Valley Bay.

The war that was postponed in Shadows eventually consumed the Terran Empire. In the last five centuries, the descendants of those Terrans stranded on Aggar continue to clutch at their former, and now decaying, technology. They struggle with Aggar's natural habitat and against the native population.

Fires opens with a request for Gwen'l N'Athena, Royal Marshal to the council, to go to the aide of the Dracoon, the heir apparent of the city state of Khirla located to the South. Gwen is a "Niachero" or "daughter of the stars." This is the name given to those "dey Sorormin" that carry the appearance of the women of the N'Athena House or "Amazons." The Dracoon, Llinolae is a very gifted Blue Sight, a skill she has been carefully hiding. Fires is an espionage thriller with government intrigues and spies between various factions. Gwen is assisted by Ty and Ril, a pair of sentient sandwolves, and two shadow bound Amazons, Sparrowhawk and Brit.

Wolfe creates a refreshingly non-homophobic society on Aggar that values the strengths of "dey Sorormin" and respects their integrity. This is illustrated by the farmer who Gwen assists on her trip south, as well as the acceptance by the general population of same sex romantic relationships.

Finally, Fires of Aggar is a love story. Gwen and Llinolae, faced with a political knot, must balance their respective duties with their personal desire and the possibility of a future together. Fires draws the reader into their struggles to root for their success on personal and professional levels. Thankfully, the publishers have re-released this enchanting fantasy. Regretfully, they've changed the cover from the original illustration. The new image is not an improvement. Ignore the cover; enjoy the book.

-MJ Lowe

Friday, May 3, 2002

Staying in the Game

Nann Dunne
Quest Books

Several young women, students from nearby colleges in semi-rural Pennsylvania, have been found murdered in Nann Dunne's Staying in the Game. The various police departments have yet to find the killer who favors tall, dark- haired victims and butchers them with relish.

Shelley Brinton is a new student at Spofford College and on the women's softball team. Tall, dark-haired, and beautiful, she is a skilled and powerful player who seems to harbor many secrets as well as a fierce temper. Angela Wedgewood and her teammates are curious about the enigmatic Shelley who will be competing with Angela to play first base. An equally skilled athlete, Angie, who has been nursing a broken heart for months, is actually more than curious. She is very attracted to Shelley. Is there some connection between Shelley and the murders? Some of the teammates find her secrecy suspicious. Could Shelley actually be the killer?

Dunne's mystery seems to go in two directions at the same time. The youthfulness of Angie and her teammates creates an almost comic quality of a Nancy Drew parody as the gang sets out to track down the killer! However, it was sometimes difficult to keep track of who all the ball players are. And some of the information that they discover seems unlikely. The severity of Shelley's situation is unnecessarily complicated. So much so that it makes her chances of returning to Spofford seem slim.

Dunne's descriptions of the softball games as well as the practice sessions are detailed and engrossing. The development of the romantic relationship between Angie and Shelley is
pleasantly paced. And the depiction of players willing to help one another improve their skills for the betterment of the team, is positive and makes an encouraging role model. It seems unnecessary to include the grudge carrying Hurtz who resents loosing her position because of Shelley. These elements maybe typical of women's collegiate athletics but they don't seem to fit with the high suspense and deadly threat of the grisly murders.

From the first page of Staying in the Game, the reader knows that the killer is female and lesbian. This reader understands the point of this choice as a plot device. However, it is both tremendously improbable and feeds into unfortunate, homophobic stereotypes to use such a ploy. Neither the killer's apparent mental illness nor the prominence of other "positive" lesbian characters justifies or compensates for the killer's lesbian identity.

Overall Staying in the Game is not a bad story and as Dunne's first novel, it does show promise. It will be interesting to see what future stories she pens. Hopefully she will continue to explore the craft.

Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Gun Shy

Lori L. Lake
Renaissance Alliance Publishing, Inc.
1930928432, $18.95

Lake's Gun Shy is the story of two somewhat reluctant women who finally learn to believe in themselves and each other enough to commit to love. Covering just over a year in the lives of these women, the novel reads like a season's worth of episodes from a television show that lesbians might wish was on TV. The story opens with Desiree Reilly, a formidable cop over six feet tall with dark hair and startling blue eyes, capturing a pair of serial rapists and in the process saving two young women, Sara and JayLynn. It is a meeting that electrifies both JayLynn and Desiree. JayLynn Savage, a lesbian in her mid-20s, decides to become a police officer in order to get to know Desiree, the hero of her dreams, literally. Lake follows Savage through the academy and most of her rookie year on the St. Paul Police Department.

Gun Shy is also the story of Desiree who is struggling with the loss of her partner and good friend, Ryan. Early in her career Dez was a conquest for a rather superficial older female cop who apparently made a hobby of bedding young dyke officers. Hurt and embarrassed, Dez has made a rule not to date cops. Presumed by many of the other cops to be lesbian, Dez has rarely dated at all, let alone been seriously involved with a woman for almost eight years. Already known as the "Ice Queen" the tall and intimidating Dez has withdrawn even more since Ryan's death.

Reilly becomes Field Training Officer for Savage and the two women begin a long complicated dance toward friendship and love. Along the way, the bright and innovative, if diminutive Jay becomes a good police officer. She learns to develop her own attributes in her work, deals with the trauma her first shooting and the pries the elusive Dez out of her shell. Meanwhile Dez comes to grips with Ryan's death. Over the course of the year the partners learn a great deal about each other and themselves. And the reader learns about life as a patrol officer in St. Paul as well as being treated to an inside view of the world of amateur bodybuilding.

Gun Shy is an engaging, readable book. This second edition includes some editorial clean up that improves the flow of the novel and features new cover art. The characters are interesting and the action drew this reader into the story. Amusingly, Lake seems to have created two lesbians that are the antithesis of the standard u-haul joke. This reviewer was relieved when Jay and Dez finally got together! Overcoming the barriers to expressing their love is the theme of Gun Shy. The sequel, "Under the Gun" is due out this fall. It will be interesting to see how she depicts Jay and Dez as a couple. In the meantime, treat yourself to a copy of Gun Shy.

-MJ Lowe

BN: There is now a third in Lake's Gun Series, read them in order, they're more fun that way.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Deaths of Jocasta

J.M. Redmann
Bella Books

The thirty years old, Barnard educated and underemployed, out lesbian, private investigator, Micky Knight has accepted a job overseeing security for a very exclusive and "festive" annual party hosted by Emma Auerbach. Of an old money New Orleans family, Emma has been a friend and mentor to Mickey for years. Sober and celibate for over six weeks, Micky is beginning to face the demons from which the liquor and sex allowed her to hide for over a decade. Although determined to remain sober, Micky does hope the weekend party brings an end to her loneliness, especially when the good doctor, Cordelia James arrives. Micky lost her heart to Cordelia months ago, during the events of Death by the Riverside. But Emma's annual gay-la ends abruptly when the body of a young woman is found in the woods on her estate and everyone returns to the city.

At loose ends back in New Orleans, Micky goes to the library to check out some Dorothy Sayers books. "Some of her Lord Peter Wimsey books, not so much for detective ideas, but for dating tips." About which Micky concludes, "via Lord Peter, the method for making a woman fall in love with an offbeat detective was to save her from the gallows by proving her innocent. Somehow that didn't seem to have much bearing on Cordelia and myself." (55). Of course, Lord Peter is right!

Life is complicated for Micky and company. More bodies show up near Cordelia's clinic. When they turn out to be young women who were patients at the clinic, the police see Cordelia as the prime suspect. Cordelia decides to hire Micky to investigate. Meanwhile an uncharacteristically restless, NOPD Detective Sgt., Joanne, increasingly angered by these events, is spending more time with Micky. Joanne senses Micky has similar ghosts in her past.

With the same tough, first-person voice of the first Micky Knight novel, Death by the Riverside, Redmann directs the fast paced action of Deaths of Jocasta. Micky tracks down leads connecting the pasts of several characters with the current events. And the truth turns out to involve a dangerous combination of extremists --who justify murder in the name of life-- and people who crave old-fashioned, hateful revenge. Will Micky be able to take Lord Peter's advice?

Redmann presents serious and painful issues without hiding the pain, becoming pedantic, or losing her sense of humor. Her characters are well rounded, interesting women who deal authentically with their problems. One of the most impressive examples of this is Redmann's handling of child sexual abuse. Accurate and realistic, the depictions of the abuse and its ramifications run a spectrum of forms, parental reactions, and consequences from Micky to Joanne to Cordelia. This thread actually evolves throughout the Micky Knight novels as Micky has the opportunity to grow and heal.

This re-release of Deaths of Jocasta by Bella Books is a must for mystery lovers and in this reader's opinion, the covers of Jocasta and Riverside are the best Bella has produced to date. Ten years have passed since Jocasta was originally published. It is pinned to the early 1990s by technology --the lack of cell phones and email via the world wide web-- and Joanne's early adolescence (and rest of the crowd's ages in relation to her) is set prior to the Roe v. Wade decision (1973). However, the issues of the novel are very relevant today and Redmann treats the women struggling to survive them with respect and dignity. Deaths of Jocasta does not answer all the mysteries hovering in Micky's background. For that, readers should look for The Intersection of Law and Desire and Lost Daughters, in order.

Take Micky Knight home with you and laissez les bons temp rouler!

-MJ Lowe

Monday, April 15, 2002

Love's Melody Lost

Shady Ladies Press

Divorced and in the process of redefining her life, Anna Reid, an early 30-something woman in a graduate program for Landscape Design, needs a place to live and, at least, a part time job. She finds both when she answers a classified ad for a housekeeper. She's surprised to find that she will be more of an administrative assistant to the enigmatic Graham Yardley.

The famed master pianist and composer, Graham has locked herself away at Yardley Manor for more than a decade, since a tragic accident took her sight. She bears her blindness as a kind of penance and uses it to keep anyone from coming too close. Graham is not prepared for the energy of life and love of nature that Anna brings to Yardley. Love's Melody Lost is the story of these two women on their path to love each other.

An old fashioned gothic romance of the kind written by the late Victoria Holt, Love's Melody Lost is almost so cliché as to be amusing. -- The beautiful, vibrant, young woman brings life to a fading, historic estate by the sea and sparks the possibility of salvation through love for the mysterious, reclusive, heartbroken estate owner. -- However, Radclyffe gives the cliché a new life. She depicts two interesting and well drawn female leads with unapologetically lesbian content. Her plot is fast paced with several touching moments. And the romantic encounters, when they finally occur are explicit and, to this reader, powerfully erotic.

Radclyffe uses sight and the lack thereof, in an interesting manner. Previously heterosexually experienced, Anna is aware of Graham's physical attractiveness from their first encounter. She describes the appearance of the tall, dark haired, musician with increasing detail as she falls in love with Graham. Yet, the reader is not given a description of Anna until Graham, in a very touching scene, asks the housekeeper, Helen what Anna looks like.

There are a few mildly annoying inconsistencies in the story. The setting's time frame and age for both lead characters seems to change. Anna's height also appears to fluctuate. Radclyffe glosses over Anna's coming out process as well as the question of Graham's being out professionally. And finally the angst is almost too much. "Pig-headed" is one of the nicest ways to describe Graham, exceptional talent notwithstanding. Having said this, Love's Melody Lost is a charming gothic lavender romance.

Other readers have compared this novel to those of the wonderful romance writer, Karin Kallmaker. This reader feels a comparison to Chris Anne Wolfe's romantic fantasies is more accurate. Or perhaps, specifically, it is more like early Kallmaker novels. Love's Melody Lost provides more than enough promise for this reader to look for other Radclyffe titles and will be curious to see how Radclyffe continues to develop her craft.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Love's Melody Lost was re-released by Bold Strokes Books in 2004, ISBN 978-1933110004, $14.95

Friday, April 12, 2002

Slay Me Tender: a mystery

Jenny Scholten
New Victoria Publishers
1892281155, $ 11.95

Twenty five years old, Aubrey is worried about how much longer she can work as an exotic dancer. Her knees are aching and her breasts are sagging. Actually, Aubrey claims they've always sagged. Nevertheless, this awareness of the vulnerability of her likelihood to her physique and the extreme measures other dancers go to, particularly in regard to breast enhancements, are central themes to Slay Me Tender. The novel opens with Naughtylands weekly feature dancer (usually porn stars from out of town), Plushious Velvett, complaining to Aubrey about the hardening the stars very large breast implants. When Plushious disappears, leaving part of her wardrobe and fails to appear at her next scheduled club, Aubrey's natural curiosity gets peaked. Then she finds a gun, dark poems written by Plushious and what appears to be a bloody breast implant in the building where Plushious was staying, Aubrey can't help but start looking into the disappearance.

Scholten portrays the colorful and seamy aspects of the housing shortage in San Francisco and the gentrification of the infamous Tenderloin district with amusing detail. Her strengths are her characters and sense of humor, particularly irony. Aubrey shares a flat with four other people. Its a wonderful, motley group. There's Vivian who is working on her thesis and exploring non-monogamy much to the strain of her relationship with the quiet Zan. There's the beautiful and vibrant artist, Geoffrey who is "tri-sexual" (as in he'll try anything sexual) as well as his current, and frequently present, boyfriend, Gregor-with-the-red-Renault-convertible. And finally, there is shy, neurotic and modest Hugh. With his photographic memory Hugh provides most of the roommates with some fashion accessories from thrift store where he works and looks after everyone including Aubrey's cat, Hodge. Added to Aubrey's regular roommates are the feature dancers who are temporarily staying at Aubrey's place (along with their manager or body guard or girlfriend, etc.). These are just a few of the amusing, yet realistic and compassionately drawn characters in Slay Me Tender.

A fiercely independent young woman of Southern white trash ancestry, Aubrey continues to be ambivalent about her job. She defends the choice of employment. "With what other job could a history major without computer skills make three hundred dollars a day?" (26) When a roommate makes disparaging comments about "those women," she points out that she is a worker in the sex industry. Yet Aubrey is realistic about the potential problems of the job. She worries about how long much longer her body will be "profitable" as a dancer, and the possible dangers of overly friendly customers. She carefully avoids being in debt to the older police officer who is a regular at Naughtyland. Yet she is a constant witness to the victims of the industry's "victimless crimes."

At one point, Aubrey is surprised at her own stereotyping of customers' wives. She realizes that her assumptions are a "buying into the systems" view of these women. Aubreys willingness to self examine, makes her character more attractive. Scholten's sardonic humor takes the bitter edge off the futility of the situation for the residents and workers of the Tenderloin. Despite a range of offers, Aubrey, ironically continues her life of celibacy, futher disrupting those annoying stereotypes of exotic dancers.

This second Aubrey Lyle mystery is better than the first, Day Stripper. The plot flows more smoothly. Scholten creates an interesting hybrid mystery. Her characters and plots have a very traditional amateur sleuth mystery quality. However, her focus on the sex industry and related organized crime are subject matter that is far more typical of "hard boiled" noir detective mysteries. She even manages to incorporate an almost slapstick car chase scene. This combination works for Scholten and makes for often amusing and occasionally provocative reading. I will be looking forward to further developments in Aubrey's world.

-MJ Lowe
BN: New Vic titles are currently available via

Saturday, March 30, 2002

Hot & Bothered 3: Short Fiction of Lesbian Desire

Karen X. Tulchinsky, editor
Arsenal Pulp Press

From the skillful editing of Karen X. Tulchinsky comes Hot and Bothered 3: short short fiction of lesbian desire. Think of this collection of over 69 stories as a table spread with delicious finger foods. The limitation of length (1000 words or less) requires the writers to select their words carefully and results in an almost poetic quality to many stories. Although some of these stories are definitely arousing, please note this is not a volume of erotica, but of desire in its many flavors. Tulschisky has assembled a buffet of writers. Some writers are well known and others are new "chefs," offering their first sales.

Savor the imagery of that perfect autumn afternoon in Leslea Newman's "One Fine Day" which brought a smile to this reader and had her humming a tune for hours. Or nibble at the poignant stories like "Sunsets." Written by Denise Seibert, from the view point of a paraplegic, it is a very touching example of a couple connecting despite barriers to communication. While "Holding Hands" from Jean Taylor expands the definitions of making love. Or Michelle Rait's "Dinner with Jane," which evokes tempting a dieter with a decadent dessert as Regina considers the consequences of time spent with Jane.

There are a number of bittersweet tastes to sample such as "The Phase" where Susan Lee reflects on returning to the city of her youth and first lesbian love; or K. Lee's "Don't Tell" which is a letter written by a teen to her "best friend;" or the passing-for-straight coworker in Stephanie Schroeder's "Goodbye Joanna."

A porta-potty setting does nothing for this reader's palate, yet "Porta-Potty Passion" by Sarah Wiseman does have the quirky, amusing quality of forbidden, preservative and sugar laden junk food. While Cara Bruce's adult encounter with Barbie puts a whole new spin on the idea of playing with your . . . uh, food. These are just a few of the tasty treats for readers to enjoy.

Sometimes one is tempted to read short stories in quick secession, like popcorn. This reader found greater pleasure in reading only one or two of these stories at a time and suggests you do the same. Let them melt on the tongue of your mind a bit. Savor the images these writers create before you wander back to the table. There's something here to whet a range of lesbian appetites.

-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Coming Home

Lois Cloarec Hart
Renaissance Alliance Publishing, 2001
1930928505, $20.99

Almost 25 years old and just finished with her Masters in English, Terry has taken a job with Canada Post delivering the mail. A job that she hopes will give her the time to think about and write her first novel. One day on her route, Terry is asked to help a woman lift her quadriplegic husband who has fallen. Terry is quite taken by Rob and Jan, and their respective attitudes toward dealing with Rob's advanced MS.

When Terry sees Jan at a local park a few days later, she strikes up a conversation with her. This is the beginning of a special friendship between Terry and Jan as well as Rob. For some 15 years, Terry learns, Jan has been taking care of Rob as his health increasingly declines. Jan's escape and comfort, during these years as a caregiver, are her books. She has a voracious appetite for reading a range of fiction genres. A mutual love of books becomes an important common ground for the two women.

Once an athletic hotshot pilot for the Canadian Air Force, Rob continues to maintain a deceptively lively attitude. A charming extrovert he enjoys the opportunities to socialize with Terry and her family. Rob's point of view is rarely known, although his personal history and tales of his exploits are often provided. This creates an interesting impression of Rob that reflects some of his distancing with life.

Intelligent, kind and generous, Terry can also have a quick temper that sometimes prompts her to speak without thinking. She is perhaps the most rounded character in a well depicted cast. Her point of view is prominent and her interactions with her two roommates and extensive family are followed over the course of almost a year. During that time, Terry comes to realize that her feelings for Jan are not entirely platonic. Meanwhile, Jan begins to acknowledge feelings that she's long ignored regarding her own orientation. Honorable, neither woman will betray their obligations or Rob's trust.

There's a popular saying that experience is what you get when you don't get what you want. Suffice it to say that Terry gets a great deal of experience over the course of Coming Home. Ordinarily, titles that deal with such a "lovers' triangle" do not appeal to this reviewer because of the amount of angst involved. Unsurprisingly, Coming Home has a great deal of that angst. However, it is also a very touching and well-told story. Hart has populated Coming Home with realistic, interesting characters and she provides a loving tribute to persons like Rob who struggle against diseases like MS and the caregivers that give them love, care and a dignified life. Furthermore there are some charming insights to living in Calgary, particularly its lesbian community. If you're in the mood for a good tear jerker, Coming Home is worth your while.

-MJ Lowe

Tuesday, March 26, 2002


Angie Vicars
Harrington Park Press

A blonde, blue eyed, wealthy sorority girl, engaged to a classmate and future attorney, Gertrude MacKenzie is the picture-perfect, blue-blood Virginia daughter. Her life is laid out before her: finish her B.S., get married, go on to get her MBA, have children with Richard, and be wife and mother to the next generation of a picture-perfect family. Yet for years Gerd, as she's known, has harbored a secret. She is attracted to women. Her feelings for women have never seemed important enough to defy the assumed structure and security of her life. Then she met Max.

Tall and striking with dark hair and green eyes, Maxine Ivers is a talented theater major who sings, writes her own songs, and acts. Max has plans to go to Yale School of Drama for a Masters. Originally from Kingsport, Tennessee, Max knows what it's like to grow up in a conservative, "company town" community and to struggle for her identity. Aware of being lesbian since she was in sixth grade, the self-confident and popular Max has dated several women during her college years, but her feelings for Gerd are different.

These two young women face several obstacles on their way to one another. Gerd has to begin the process of recreating her life as a lesbian, including an unexpected and early outing to parents, to be with Max. While Max must consider whether her feelings for Gerd mean more than her earlier relationships. These obstacles are both typical and traumatic. Can the possibility of their love withstand the strain?

The setting of Knoxville, especially the area around the University of Tennessee campus, will particularly appeal to alumnae and residents of the area. Vicars captures the beauty of the Smokies and hints at some of the charms and trials of "community" life in a small college city in the Southern Appalachias. The lead characters are bright and charming, yet well-rounded with their insecurities and fears. This reader could hear the slight lilt in characters' dialog, but is unsure if readers not familiar with the region would appreciate some of those nuances. The novel might have benefited from more development of the regional character.

Overall, however, Treat, as a story of coming out and first love is a charming debut novel for Vicars. Hopefully, it will not be her last. In the meanwhile, find yourself a front porch swing and "Treat" yourself to read this novel some summer Sunday afternoon.

-MJ Lowe

Sunday, March 17, 2002

The Comfort of Strangers

Peggy Herring
Bella Books

Long ago in an Intergalactic Corridor far, far . . . well you get the idea. This futuristic, science fiction story is a different kind of novel for Peggy Herring, typically a romance writer. The Comfort of Strangers involves a coalition of cultures, including a few female-only ones, that are struggling against the neighboring "evil empire" of Corlon, under the leadership of a heinous and destructive man named Exidor.

The novel focuses on Lela, a young healer turned scientific researcher and her mother's partner, Kricorian who is a sort of administrative leader for the "K Sector," an agricultural planet that also trains healers. The borders between the coalition and Corlon are decaying. Corlon star fighters are launching raids on these peaceful inhabitants. Their primary defense is provided by the warrior-focused, all female culture of Amtec. Their warrior women have an impressive reputation as skilled and lethal fighters as well as phenomenal lovers.

Members of the coalition have decided to hold a summit to sort out differences and decide what to do about the increasing raids. A delegate to the summit, Lela has the royal attention of the beautiful young Tavia, the Amtec princess. Yet Lela is drawn to the enigmatic commander of the Amtec warriors, Alaric. Tall, blonde and beautiful, Alaric has risen through the military ranks by her impressive intellect, strength and self-discipline. This highly respected leader carefully hides her feelings and seems to be sending mixed messages to Lela. Is she just following orders?

Although Lela is the lead character and the focus of amorous speculation and attention; Lela's other mother, Kricorian is more sympathetically drawn. Widowed for 15 years, Kricorian finds herself drawn to another Amtec warrior, Jaret. Will Kricorian be able to let go of the survivor's guilt and the grief she feels for the death of Lela's mother? Can she risk her heart again? Can she relinquish control?

Herring does not suffer from any restrictions to political correctness. When Lela prepares to open a cylinder that she believes contains a live human being, she gives Kricorian a laser gun and tells her, "if it's ugly, zap it. Don't be afraid to use that thing. It's the capsule I want to study." (63) This attitude is a far cry from most scientific investigative standards today, never mind the ethical obligations of a healer! This is not the only example of a poor moral code among individual characters or cultures other than the dreaded Exidor and his star fighters. Tavia's treatment of Alaric is case in point.

At its best, scifi/fantasy not only entertains but provokes the imagination and prompts readers to question current cultural practices and trends in scientific research or other technological developments. The Comfort of Strangers did not strike any such cords in this reader. It's a bit like watching an old "B" grade sci fi movie. The plot and characters are thin. The dialog has a campy sort of quality that makes for some amusing reading. However, it doesn't seem certain that was the writer's goal. In conclusion, The Comfort of Strangers is not a bad story. However, it does not stand up to many far more interesting, complex, action packed scifi/fantasy stories that have been released in recent years from lesbian writers.

-MJ Lowe

Tales of Emoria: Future Dreams

Silver Dragon Books

Tales of Emoria: Future Dreams is the first in the Tigh & Jame chronology, although not the first Emoria tale published, and the reader may benefit from reading the stories by the characters' timeline. C.A. Casey AKA Mindancer creates an interesting complex fantasy world in her Tales of Emoria series. This pre-industrial and non-gun powder world is a semi-feudal, loose confederation of city state cultures. Refreshingly non-homophobic societies where pairs seem to run as commonly same sex as not, with amusing little twists to gender roles. Future Dreams is the story of how a young arbiter and a former warrior meet, fall in love, save each other and themselves.

Tigh is the eldest daughter of a successful merchant family from Ingor. The Ingorian culture is based on commerce, thus getting the best deal is the important goal. A few years ago, when war threatened Ignor and the surrounding city states, a plea went out for volunteers to for a new special unit, the Elite Guard. Tigh's family negotiated a very good deal for the then 13 year old's service. Using a cross between "magic" and medical techniques the Elite Guard was a marginally controlled, extremely aggressive, ultra strong, "berzerker" type warrior group.

Tigh, who was known as "the Terrible" during the war, rose to a position of leadership and authority during her years in the Guard. After the war, the government is faced with rounding up and "cleansing" the soldiers of their violent tendencies. This rehabilitation process includes a legal evaluation of the soldier's potential danger to society. The question is who will provide legal counsel to Tigh the Terrible?

Emoria is a women-only city-state hidden in the mountains. This isolated culture of warrior women is ruled by a queen and council and known for producing the best knives and swords in the land. In the last several decades Emoria has been increasingly isolationist and the ruling council is not entirely pleased that their heir apparent, Jame, has sought an education, and even worse, is considering a career outside of Emoria. The petite Jame has never entirely fit into Emoria's warrior culture. Emoria's mores, education, attitudes and values have marked Jame. Yet, she is also struggling to define herself and it is increasingly clear that being an arbiter is part of that self definition.

Jame is the only student Arbiter who is not afraid of Tigh. From a warrior culture herself, she understands Tigh and begins a process to defend and befriend the young woman. Can these two women help one another find a new place in the world?

Casey is another writer whose work could technically be considered Xena Uber, with the symbolic (and symbiotic) characters as well as the theme of redemption. These similarities have more to do with their archetypal quality than any real connection to the TV show. Casey provides an engaging beginning for her Tales of Emoria. She also asks some interesting questions in regard to society's responsiblity toward the dangerous soldiers that it creates, then attempts to discard after their usefulness. If you enjoy fantasy quests, consider a trip to Emoria, and begin with this volume.

-MJ Lowe

BN: Future Dreams was re-released by Mindancer Press ISBN 0-9759555-5-1

Monday, March 11, 2002

Glass Houses

Ciaran Llachlan Leavitt
Renaissance Alliance Publishing

Glass Houses had the potential to create a new level of Xena uber. It's "uber uber," if you will, depicting the making of a motion picture adaptation of the novel, Tropical Storm by the fictionalized Holly Wulfenden. -- Tropical Storm really is a Xena uber novel by Melissa Good, arguably the best known and most successful of the Xena Fan fiction writers. Along with her uber novels, Good wrote scripts for some of the XWP TV show's episodes. -- Taking the uber element one more step removed from its reflection of the show, provided Leavitt the opportunity to explore the archetypal elements these characters represent in a slightly different way. It's six degrees removed, if you will. Regretfully, Leavitt does not entirely succeed.

The artistically acclaimed, hard working young director, J.A.E. Cavanaugh (known to most as Jae) is facing a career making opportunity. The chance to turn the novel, Tropical Storm into a well made, Hollywood motion picture. The first third of Glass Houses, focuses primarily on Jae and her struggle to balance her love of and drive for the creative work of film making against her relationships with people. Leavitt's characterization of the honorable and ethical workaholic Jae is nicely developed. All of this young bard's energy goes into her work, yet her life is missing love with its potential redemption for Jae and possibly for others. This portion of the story is engrossing, amusing and engaging. Jae's character is vivacious and witty and this reader often found herself rooting for Jae's success.

However, the further along into the story Leavitt takes us, the more references to Tropical Storm require the reader to know Good's book to understand the scenes being filmed and the changes being made to the script. This becomes distracting to the reader. Leavitt's understanding of the motion picture creative process is quite interesting although some elements could be better explained.

The enigmatic actor Reed Lewis is set to play the cutthroat corporate executive, Dar in the movie. Despite being more than a little homophobic, Reed is bound by contract to portray this strong confident lesbian character. Nicknamed the "Amazon Ice Queen" Reed is hoping that she can make this film and "get out of Dodge" as she has more than a few secrets and personal demons that she must shoulder.

The last third of the book focuses more on Reed. Leavitt does not seem to have decided exactly what issues Reed must face. The supposedly Xena-esque Reed does not really fulfill the uber requirement. No vengeful warlord, corporate or otherwise, she does not need redemption so much as a few years with a good therapist! Despite Reed's reputation as a cold-hearted, spiteful prima donna, she is actually hiding her own victimization with her abrasive demeanor. The layers of "secrets" turn out to be more traumatic than necessary.

Reed was misused as a young actress by a manipulative director and continues to struggle with the consequences of those years. Furthermore, she lives with the loss of her parents at 14 and survivor's guilt for having escaped the fatal fire. Yet there are still more tragic secrets hiding in Reed's poor damaged psyche! Too much for Reed to be able to deal reasonably without some professional assistance.

Glass Houses is fast, easy reading and contains many charming moments in it's 481 pages. The plot, however, seems to wander. Poor handling of the issue of child sexual abuse is very annoying and allows for the perpetuation of negative homophobic stereotypes. Glass Houses has a good premise with some well developed characters, however, it is badly in need of editing. Also troublesome is the extensive use of many contemporary song lyrics, apparently without permission, at least according to the copyright page. Glass Houses is Leavitt's first novel and shows many promising qualities. This reader sincerely hopes that she will write more and that Leavitt finds better editorial assistance in future efforts.

-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Shadows of Aggar

Chris Anne Wolfe
Pride Productions

Diana n'Athena is ready to go home. An "Amazon" from the all female planet of "dey Sorormin" (which Wolfe translates as the Sisterhood), Diana is a sociologist employed by the Terran Intergalactic Empire for the last 20 years as a Cultural Liaison and Feild Operative. Approaching forty, Diana has served the last five years on Aggar, a patriarchal, pre-industrial, semi-feudal planet located on the Empire's border. Over six foot tall, lean, strong and brown-eyed, Diana must pass as male to work effective on Aggar. Such a charade is not uncommon for Amazons serving on "primitive" planets, but it does wear on their spirits. Facing her last mission before she can return to her home world, Diana must locate and rescue a Terran pilot. He carries information that may mean the salvation of the Empire which is on the brink of war.

After years of working alone, Diana is not pleased when Aggar's ruling Council of Ten assigns her a native "Shadowmate." Shadows are individuals trained for years to act as guides, protectors, linguists, trackers, companions and whatever else is needed to aide the individual whom the Council has determined is important to the future of Aggar. Such assignments are one of the ways the Council "tips the balance" of fate for pivotal individuals and gently guides the planet's future.

Diana's Shadow, Elana is particularly special. In addition to her training and expertise, she bears the rare "Blue Sight." This extrasensory gift (genetically linked with blue eyes) allows her to read people's intent via their aura and create illusions. For years Elana has been training to become a Shadow. For the last five years she's been experiencing dreamlike visions of the Amazon that she is to Shadow.

Shadows of Aggar is a classic heroic quest. As such, the journey itself, what happens to both women during the trek and what they learn from the various encounters, is as important as the result of the quest. -- Although having the end of the empire as it is known hang in the balance does build the suspense! -- There are some similarities between Aggar and some other fantasy realms. Yet these parallels reflect cultural archetypes and Wolfe, who died in 1997, created some interesting, unique details and characteristics for three cultures: Aggar, Amazon and Terran. For example, imagine a race of humans whose skin color changes with excitement or exertion, thus making the racial differences we know, moot. Furthermore, Wolfe created the basics of a language for the "dey Sorormin" and provided a glossary of words from Aggar and the Sisterhood in the back for reference.

"Shadows" was originally released in 1991, and this reader has returned to it at least twice in the last decade. The story and characters hold up to re-reading. The same is true of Wolfe's second Aggar novel, Fires of Aggar. Happily, the publisher has made a commitment to keep Wolfe's titles in print. The new covers of both titles are disappointing and distracting. Yet, to coin a phrase, don't judge the book by it's current cover. If you like fantasy stories with strong female leads that explore complex issues of gender roles, societal pressures to conform and their impacts on the individual -- not to mention a good old fashioned adventure with a touch of lavender romance -- you'll enjoy Shadows of Aggar. Pick up a copy of it and its companion book, Fires of Aggar.

-MJ Lowe

Friday, February 15, 2002

Tumbleweed Fever

L.J. Maas
Yellow Rose Books

In Tumbleweed Fever, a debut novel by L. J. Maas, it's the late 1800s and cowhands in the Oklahoma territory have been finding notes tied to blowing tumbleweed. The notes, apparently written by a woman, ring with a romantic longing and loneliness. Trying to figure out who is the author of these missives, has become a popular passtime at the local saloons and ranch hands who are enamored with the mystery are said to suffer from "Tumbleweed Fever." One of those ranch hands, or "riders," who has fallen under the spell of these notes is Devlin Brown. Tall, dark and deadly, Devlin is a reformed outlaw who is struggling to leave her past behind.

Much to her surprise, Devlin finds herself coming to the aid of Sarah Tolliver, the recently widowed mother of two children, who is trying to continue on the ranch she and her late husband homesteaded. Intelligent and capable, not to mention stubborn and articulate, the small, blond widow is not what Devlin expects her to be. Indeed, over the year the two women spend working the Double Deuce Ranch together, Devlin finds the attraction she held for the mystery writer of the tumbleweed notes being displaced by her growing respect, attraction, and love for Sarah. Readers of Tumbleweed Fever might notice from the characters and the redemption theme plot, that it is a "traditional uber-Xena" story. In addition to characters, there are a few direct references to the Xena TV show that fans will recognize, including the "soulmate" concept. Interestingly the American West locale is apparently a fairly popular uber setting. This reader knows of at least two other published uber novels set in the 19th century American West.

Of Maas' current three novels, this first effort is not her best work. The plotting is not as tight; there are some odd incongrencies; a few story lines are not as fleshed out as one might wish; and the uber references are sometimes detracting. However, with each novel since Tumbleweed Fever, Maas' storytelling improves. None So Blind and Meridio's Daughter, Maas' second and third novels have much fewer of these faults and are much better entertainment.
Even with these mild annoyances, Tumbleweed Fever is a very engaging novel. One can't help but enjoy the charm of Sarah and her family, to root for the triumph of Devlin over her past, and finally relish the couple's realization that their love is mutual. The plot is fast moving and interesting, including depictions of a band of Choctaws (who remind us that condemnation of women who love women is a Judeo-Christian concept that did not enjoy sway in most Native American cultures). This reader is looking forward to Maas' soon to be released sequel, "Prairie Fire" -- Maas' first unposted novel -- to find out what happens with Sarah and Devlin as they continue their life together.
-MJ Lowe

Friday, February 8, 2002

Love Shook My Heart 2

Jess Wells, Editor
Alyson Books

Despite the sensual and somewhat provocative, cover, Love Shook My Heart 2, like it's predecessor, is not an anthology of erotica. Rather it's a touching sampler of stories with lesbian characters from a range of writers. The stories cover a spectrum of eras and are peopled with women of all ages.

The settings range from the very contemporary, urban America as in the cyberworld of "Reply" to a thoughtful, if saddening interpretation of wise women in Medieval Europe in Jess Wells' "Jacqueline." With characters who span adolescence -- as Devvie in Deborah J. Archer's "At Fourteen"-- to a widowed octogenarian -- who discovers new feelings for a woman in her nursing home in Karen X. Tulchinsky's touching story, "Penny a Point."

Amusingly, Barbie dolls have cameos in several of the stories with childhood and adolescent characters subjecting Barbie to everything from kidnapping and hostage situations in Barth's "Lovingkindness," to being photographed while being devoured by a poodle in "My Dead Aunt's Vodka." Several of the stories have a delightful sense of humor as in Anderson's "Kiss of Death, Inc.," where a rather jaded photographer specializes in capturing those celebratory moments in the lives of lesbian couples, all of whom she tells us will split up eventually. "Her Clear Voice Undid Me" will have anyone who has worked in retail, particularly in lower socio/economic areas, chuckling at the absurdity of the system and encouraged by Cooper's sense of fair play and justice as the Low-Cost's "slowest shopper."

Ta'Shia Asanti brings Bessie Smith to life for her first trip to Europe and first lesbian relationship in "Bessie and Sweet Colleen." M.Christian reminds us that we need to be true to ourselves in "The One I Left Behind;" while a cancer survivor is reminded that she needs to respect herself in Bellerose's "The GirlsClub." Kristin Steele's "Recycled" is a sweet little story where Morgan finds herself struggling with the death of her father, and, more stressfully, the survival of her mother. Morgan also finds herself charmed by Kate, an artist driving a very big truck.

Not all of the 28 stories in Love Shook My Heart 2, touched this reader. However, the range of style and settings is broad enough to provide some interest and pleasure for most readers. For those who like short stories, certainly there are more than enough satisfying stories to justify the purchase.

-MJ Lowe

Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Back to Salem

Alex Marcoux
Harrington Park Press

For better and worse, Back to Salem reads like a Hollywood action suspense movie. The "better" part is that Back to Salem is fast paced and engaging reading with several plot twists that keep the reader guessing. The "worse" part that is that some of the themes are poorly presented; some plot lines are unnecessarily complicated (not to mention, a bit far fetched); and some character elements are annoying.

Jessie Mercer is an openly lesbian, best selling author and screen writer living near Los Angeles whose latest best selling book is to be made into a movie. This film interpretation is important to Jessie because this novel is different from her other books. The story practically wrote itself and for the first time she's written a novel with a lesbian as the leading character. In the novel's plot, a lesbian falls in love with a prominent actress whose husband is killed. The lesbian is framed and imprisoned for the murder. Jessie is pleased that she has been asked to help consult with the film's production.

Taylor Andrews, a popular singer, is auditioning for one of the lead roles in the movie. Taylor finds herself drawn to Jessie in a strangely intense attraction. Jessie has similar feelings and she believes she knows why. The two women become friends. Taylor will draw on that friendship after the sudden and suspicious death of her husband. Eventually Taylor surrenders to her "mystical" attraction to Jessie and the two become lovers. Meanwhile Jessie is a suspect in the death of Taylor's husband.

Annoyingly, Taylor repeatedly assures herself and others that she's not gay and isn't attracted to other women, just to Jessie. Loving Jessie is okay because Taylor comes to believe that she is her "soul mate." However unintentionally, this justification felt unnecessary and homophobic. If Taylor really isn't lesbian (or at least bi), surely she wouldn't consummate her feelings for Jessie in a sexual manner. Since she did (although the reader is only treated to oblique references and "PG rated kisses") doesn't that at least make Taylor bisexual in practice?

There are a number of interesting twists and the action moves quickly with several very dramatic revelations at the end. This reader is willing to suspend her disbelieve for a well spun story. Yet I can think of several examples of the reincarnation theme, some with lesbian characters, that have been done better --- with more plausible history and folklore, more humor, better romance, less homophobia, and more enchanting magic.-- Don't try to make all of the themes and threads make sense, because some are just too unlikely, like the Egyptian mythology and Colonial Salem connection. Some of these flaws are disappointing because they are the same ones made in Montegue's last novel. Having said that, Back to Salem is enjoyable if you think of it as a summer released action movie. It's fast paced and it makes a good book to take on vacation or read on the treadmill.

-MJ Lowe