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