Thursday, October 7, 2004

Dreams Found

Lyn Denison
Bella Books
1931513589, $12.95

"Wait on." Cathy held up her hand. "Maggie Easton and Jayne Easton?" She slapped the side of her head and her graying curls bounced. "Jayne's Maggie's daughter and your sister?"

"Ah, no. Jayne's Maggie's husband's daughter from his previous marriage," Riley explained.

"You mean your boss is your mother's stepdaughter?" Lisa laughed. "That makes you stepsisters."

"I think the butler did it," Brenna said dryly and they all laughed. (81)

In Dreams Found, the latest romance from Lyn Denison, an out lesbian and skilled carpenter, Riley has known she was adopted for years. However, Riley recently has taken steps to locate her birth parents. She finds Maggie living in Brisbane with a husband and three stepchildren. Imagine Riley's surprise when she also finds herself attracted to Jayne, a woman who, while not blood related, is her stepsister! The required misunderstandings abound, particularly in regard to secrets. Kept secrets are justified because Maggie wants to tell her husband first about Riley before her stepchildren learn of her. With the convolutions and secrets, the plot could have been for a bit more humorously treated without losing its serious quality. Instead Denison goes for the angst in a way that is not particularly engaging to this reader.

Dreams Found is one of Denison's shortest works and in this reader's mind something is missing. Perhaps it's the way the author deals with family issues. This is a primary issue to the story. Riley is depicted as a woman for whom family is an important support system. It is perhaps for this reason that she decides to reach out to her birth parents. The two negative, if not just dislikable characters in the book, Darren, Jayne's business partner and apparent love interest, as well as Lisa, a lesbian who is attracted to Riley, both belittle family relations. Darren could almost be tossed off as the self-centered, thoughtless male whose disrespectful treatment pushes Jayne to reevaluate her life. (Darren's stereotypically negative male qualities are acceptable in that several other male characters, family members and friends are depicted as caring, intelligent humans.)

However, the author seems to skim over the fact that neither character seems to have enjoyed the family support that Riley or Jayne do. This is particularly troubling of Lisa. Of her family, we're told that her "parents had been through a messy divorce, and Lisa and her three siblings had spent their childhood years swinging between an alcoholic father and his latest partner and their manic-depressive mother. Lisa left home as soon as she was able and she'd never gone back. She hadn't seen either of her parents for years and was happy to maintain that particular status quo." (9) The portrayal of Lisa's inability to bond with family is seen as a serious character flaw for the unsympathetically portrayed Lisa, but with a family like Lisa's, who can blame her?

Lisa's family of origin is almost implied as an excuse for some of her behavior: that of being tactless, blunt to the point of pushiness, and unwilling to accept Riley's declination that their casual relationship be explored in a more serious way. We're told, "Riley's sense of family had been a source of tension between them on a couple of occasions. Lisa couldn't or wouldn't recognize Riley's closeness to her family, the respect and love she had for her parents and older brother." (9)

This simplistic portrayal is particularly annoying when in reality many lesbians, gays and bisexuals have found their families of origin unsupportive in the face of their queerness and have as a consequence worked hard to develop support systems that are based on the love and respect of friends, i.e. "families of choice." A point that is itself personified when Riley hesitates for weeks to tell her newly found birth mother that she is a lesbian. This somehow suggests it is more difficult for Riley to risk Maggie's rejection because family is important to her. Further that Lisa, who did not enjoy that kind of relationship with her family, had it easy and shouldn't be so brusque about the importance of family to Riley. Lisa's point of view does not excuse her rudeness. However, it is Riley's inability to "get" Lisa's issues with family that made Riley, not Lisa, the one needing to work on her compassion. It is possible that Denison did not intend for this presentation. Indeed, given her other works, it is even likely that she did not. However, the impression left a bad taste with this reader.

Lesbian romances are not merely the idealized tales of love that heterosexual romances can be. Lesbian romances hold a much more complex role. They serve as a validating mirror for lesbians and our community. Hot sex is rarely enough for a lesbian romance to be a success. It can be, as it is in classics like Forrest's Curious Wine. While the erotic moments in Dreams Found will hold most reader's attention, they are not enough to be the primary focus. Denison has put the definition of "family" on the table for this novel and since she has only validated families of origin, those readers who have created families of choice may feel left out in the cold.

Dreams Found is a pleasant enough, albeit brief, read for a slow evening. However, overall the novel is predictable, and not particularly interesting, nor funny. Dreams Found does not hold up to the quality of Denison's earlier novels. Hopefully, this is not a trend. In the meantime, Dream Lover, The Wild One, and Gold Fever are all better reading in this reviewer's opinion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Caught in the Net

Jessica Thomas
Bella Books
1931513546, $12.95

A new dyke detective for the armchair mystery fan has arrived! Caught in the Net is a first novel from Jessica Thomas and introduces Alex Peres. Alex is a thirty-something dyke who lives (and grew up) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Arguably, one of the country's most famous resort towns for gays and lesbians, Provincetown is "that strange and beautiful place, where the men are pretty and the women are tough." (1) With its seasonal population tide of tourists Provincetown plays as much of a role in Caught in the Net as many of the characters and Thomas brings the town's New England quirkiness and its queer color to life for her readers.

A thoughtful, self-sufficient, and independent woman, Alex Peres is a wry observer of nature (human and otherwise) who uses that skill to support herself. On the creative side her perceptive eye is expressed by her photography. She creates artistic impressions of the Cape and Provincetown area that are sold at local galleries. Alex's more analytical observation skills go into her work as a private detective. A job, which she explains, is filled with interesting but sometimes tedious work like following a wayward husband.

Fargo, the detective's 90-pound, black lab is as much a star of Caught in the Net as Alex. The details of Alex and Fargo's relationship will bring smiles, chuckles, tail wags, and warm fuzzy feelings, especially to readers with a canine love. Indeed Fargo's companionship is primary to Alex who has had rather bad luck in the love department.

That bad luck has held until a new woman appears in town. Janet Meacham, a beautiful, intelligent, young woman has moved to P'town to start a new chapter in her life. Alex finds herself quite taken with Janet and the attraction appears to be mutual. Alex thinks that this is a relationship that could build in a more positive direction.

Meanwhile the severed human foot that Alex, or rather Fargo, found on the beach during a daily walk is the foundation (as it were) of a series of crimes in the area. Alex's brother, a local cop is looking for a young man who may have known the owner of the foot.

This first novel from Thomas is filled with witty insights regarding human foibles with Alex personifying several endearing qualities. Of herself, Alex claims, "Frankly, I am not a great admirer of children as a species -- the younger ones smell funny and the older ones look as if they know something you don't-- but even I didn't want two young kids stumbling on this piece of flotsam or jetsam or whatever you called a lost/discarded body part". (10) Or regarding her personal habits, "I sat behind the wheel and took a pack of cigarettes off the dashboard and lit one of the five I allow myself each day. I allow myself five. The other eight or ten I smoke are not allowed." (11)

Although an engaging character, Alex does not quite ring true as a typical Gen-Xer, which might annoy some readers. The mystery is a little thin with a plot that is probably predictable for most fans of the genre and a tad irritating in that Alex did not seem to see it coming. However, the lovely writing, quirky characters, charming setting, and wry observations provide a great deal of promise for future Alex Peres mysteries. Many readers will find themselves caught in this net for pleasant evening's reading.


Friday, September 24, 2004

That's Why They're in Cages, People!

Joel Perry
Alyson Books

Joel Perry's laugh-out-loud-funny book, That's Why They're In Cages, People! is a thought-provoking collection of essays that should go on people's gift lists this year. The 58, three-to-nine page, essays address a broad range of topics concerning the gay (and straight) world with a sharp wit, a glittering tongue, and importantly, a great heart. Divided into eight themed parts, Perry begins with topics on "Living the Life" including observations on just what Pride is in these early years of the 21st century in "Bring Your Own Pride." A native of North Carolina, Perry dishes out some amusing thoughts about the Southland regarding food, religion, and homophobia.

Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition of topics is found in "Holy Cowhide!" This portion juggles issues of Christian churches, Perry's own rediscovery of faith, and the leather community. One of the most amusing of these entries is "Things your Mother never told you about leather," which details several outrageously funny observations any neophyte exploring the leather scene, including how to pull on a pair of leather pants. On this topic, Perry concludes that "I guess what no one told me is that along with all the cowhide and attendant paraphernalia, I'd need a sense of humor. But what else did I expect from a fetish that requires so much role playing, production, drama, and drag? In saying that, it's not my intention to offend anyone in the leather community. But then again, if I have, well, I need to be punished, don't I?"(80)

Perry tweaks the entertainment industry several times. For example, in the "Debbie Allen Dance Number," Perry is in mourning because of the loss of that most outrageous of Oscar Award night elements. And in "Queer as HGTV Folks" Perry suggests that the most realistic and grounded images of GLBTQ people can be found on the Home and Garden network shows. "Gay people shown as intelligent, contributing, successful, resourceful, caring, creative, but otherwise unremarkable people. What a concept." (140)

An appropriate recompense for celebrities and other "people of privilege" provides the title for the book. It was inspired by an incident wherein Sharon Stone's ex-husband, Phil Bronstein was bitten by a Komodo dragon during a "behind the scene" tour of the LA Zoo in return for a hefty donation from Ms. Stone. Perry suggests that some celebrities, particularly those who are suffering from the weight of their own egos might benefit from a bit of time in the "dragon cage." (Readers may find themselves tallying a list of candidates for the cage as well.)

Not surprisingly, Perry makes several observations about the queer community, revels in the power and humor of our stereotypes, and suggests that the GLBTQ community own its issues and strive for more. Perry is more than blunt in his assessment of some trends. One could even consider him an "equal opportunity offender." He is bound to make most readers at least a bit uncomfortable at some point in the book. Indeed, Perry seems determined to challenge readers and, hopefully, to prompt them to think in the process. The saving grace of these well-aimed barbs is that Perry is neither mean nor bitter in his humor. Outlandish, yes! His "Urban Legends" makes fun of the phenomena and stereotypes in a fairly over the top manner. And in "Aunt Christmas" we find that Perry is not beyond sharing a touch of revenge.

Meanwhile, "Glitter on my Heart" and "Birth Day" will tug the heart strings of the most cynical queer. The former details a partner's decision regarding how to dispose of the ashes of his dead lover. The story is touching, funny, and appropriately festive. The latter essay is a wonderful, roller-coaster, over-the-top, coming out story complete with marching band, men in grass skirts, and New Year's kiss in a leather bar.

The bite-size format of the essays makes this a fun book for those times when you have just a few moments to read. Pick up a copy for yourself and give one to your friends this year. We all need a laugh and this anthology is filled with them!
-MJ Lowe

Friday, June 25, 2004

Once upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians

Barbara Johnson
Karin Kallmaker
Therese Szymanski
Julia Watts

Bella Books
1931513716, $12.95

Once upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians is an amusing and arousing quartet of novellas from four well-known lesbian writers. Culturally speaking, fairy tales were created for several reasons; community identity, teaching morality, and of course, as entertainment. Thus it is fitting for a group of lesbian authors to reconsider fairy tales and ask in their introduction, "Why were the heroines always pretty, pure, passive little things who needed rescuing? .... What was so charming about Prince Charming anyway?"(viii)

Julia Watts pens an interesting retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in the rural South roughly 100 years ago. "La Belle Rose" questions the nature and quality of "otherness." Everyone sees Rosie as "normal" and yet this "pretty" young woman has always felt the different-ness of her internal self. Rosie escapes the expectations of others by joining a carnival show, and finds that her views of what is proper and normal resonate with the show's company more than with her family. When Rosie finds love with a "beast" many expect that it is only a temporary amusement because Rosie is "normal" and could return to the "normal world."

Watts challenges readers to look beyond the surface and our assumptions. "La Belle Rose" is a parable for many gender issues, including the ability for more traditionally "feminine" lesbians or bisexual women to "pass" in the "normal" world. She points out that these women who have a "choice" about their role and place in society suffer pressure from both the "normal" and "other" world. Rosie's solution to this quandary is a very touching one. For fans of Watts' novels, the tone of "La Belle Rose" is recognizably hers with its engaging characters, empathetic presentation of heartache, the rural southern setting, and the touching, unexpected, resolution.

Therese Szymanski takes her readers on a witty little romp in "A Butch in Fairy Tale Land." This trip through several fairy tales is a kind of "Queer Eye meets Quantum Leap." Cody is a sweet (but don't call her that), sexy, well-meaning, romantic butch who likes to rescue fair maidens, or meddle in the lives of friends, depending upon one's point of view. Thus, when she stumbles into an enchanted forest and runs into Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and a range of princesses, Cody finds she HAS to solve their problems. (This, despite the fact that the characters are rescued in the stories that come down to us.) The action grows erotic as Cody discovers Rapunzel in her tower, not to mention a totally new slant on Snow White and the seven ... dwarves. Cody's wry observations prompt several laughs. For example in this little bit when she evaluates her decision to kill the witch that Hansel and Gretel have met in the forest:

"The point I was struggling with was, what if this was a misunderstood good witch, a victim of patriarchal mistrust of feminine nature and oppression of old womyn and their unusual abodes? What if I chopped up a good Crone? How would I ever go [to the Michigan Music festival] topless and share tofu again? Well, now that I thought about it ... maybe the key was to just get it over quickly. Trust the fairy tale. Next time I was passing the talking stick around the bonfire, I just wouldn't mention this little episode." (820 Most contemporary fairy tale reinterpretations attempt to flesh out the stereotype or symbolic characters of the story. However, in this satirical survey of fairy tales, Cody is the opposite. She becomes "The Butch" a new queer fairy tale persona for the 21st century. Overall this characterization works as a way to keep the humors, as it were, flowing.

Barbara Johnson's "Charlotte of Hessen" is a sweet retelling of Cinderella with a sprinkle of "fairy dust." An orphaned Charlotte finds herself at the mercy of an unpleasant step-mother and two step-sisters. Charlotte takes solace in the animals of her woodland retreat and in Mina, a striking young woman sporting men's clothing. Mina's love makes her life worth living. Little does Charlotte know how true that will be! This charming story is after a fashion the most "traditional" retelling of the four. However, the erotic moments and amusing double lavender twist ending will please readers.

Karin Kallmaker's "A Fish Out of Water" turns "The Little Mermaid" on her tail and creates a "Mer" culture that is complex, magical, sensual and perhaps not as superior as it first appears. Ariel is the seventy-seventh daughter -- Not the most advantageous of birth order -- of the Queen of the Mer. When Ariel and some of her Mer friends go "hunting" for "human song" one night, Ariel accidentally breaks an edict from the queen and is punished for it. In a complicated twist, her sentence holds the possibility of a "cure" which is heavily laced with its own punishment.

Kallmaker reflects the original story's themes of love, redemption and self-sacrifice; poses questions about the nature of desire and obsession; and tweaks the reader's point of view in what is considered "perverted." As a tale about magic and fantastic beings, "Fish Out of Water" is more typical of her Laura Adams' fantasy novels than Kallmaker's contemporary romances. The story also carries Adam's lyrical writing voice with the Mer "song" imagery, dark mystic elements, and use of symbolism. This thoughtful, bittersweet story is a vast improvement over Andersen's original. Yes, it is definitely a fairy tale for this century.

Finally, Once upon a Dyke is a title in Bella Books, "Bella After Dark" imprint or as the editors say in their introduction, "Fairy Tales are about sex, and we're not shy."(viii) The sex gets steamy and sometimes may challenge readers. The novella formats make for a nice change of pace in reading. Once upon a Dyke is romantic, funny, thoughtful, and hot. Buy a copy and live happily ever after, for a while.
-MJ Lowe

Monday, June 14, 2004

Packing Mrs. Phipps: A Jo Jacuzzo Mystery

Anne Seale
Alyson Books
1555838375, $13.95

This first novel from Anne Seale introduces readers to a new lesbian mystery series. Jo Jacuzzo, a 27-year-old, shy, intelligent (if not the most educated), softhearted butch finds herself thrown into a series of unexpected, complicated, and even life-threatening events. Jo's first person narrative is often amusing and her view of the world has a sweet, almost childlike innocence that is charming without being saccharine. While touchingly neurotic and somewhat naive, Jo is also loyal and a bit stubborn with a definite moral core.
Until the last few weeks, Jo has worked as a homecare-nursing aide. However, an accusation and complaint from the family of one of her clients has resulted in unemployment for Jo.

Although she still lives with her mother and her mother's partner, Rose, Jo has been paying her part of the household expenses for years and her unemployment is a hardship for all. Soon her mother pushes Jo to accept a temporary job. That "errand" is to go to Tampa, Florida, and help pack up the snowbird mother of a friend for her summer return to Buffalo.

Of this mother-daughter talk, Jo comments, "I knew I was in for a deep discussion. [Mom]'d said, "So, Jo" when explaining what Kotex was for and before telling me that Daddy had left us, among other depressing things. (Having Daddy leave was depressing only because we didn't leave him first.)" (9)

The road trip begins safely enough. Jo stops to visit her Uncle Dom in Cincinnati to help him with some chores. She gets the low-down on him from the neighborhood kids including, "The best bit, however, was that he pushed an evangelist off his porch last year and had to do community service. That's my family, heathenish to a fault." (15)

When Jo's beloved Toyota truck has a break down in rural Georgia, she finds herself accepting a detour to Arizona to help the beautiful if enigmatic heiress, Charity Redmun, drive a motor home across country. The complications from here on are exponential.

Packing Mrs. Phipps is a very funny novel and Jo's observations are wonderfully droll at times. For example, this exchange with a woman who befriends Jo: "I guess people name their kids Faith and Hope, so why not [Charity]? Sonny and Cher even named their daughter Chastity. How'd you like to go though life with a name like that? What guy would want to have sex with a girl called Chastity?" [Jo's response] "I'm guessing that doesn't bother her too much." (184)

The mystery's plot has several unexpected twists, not the least of which is Jo deciding to go undercover to try to find a killer, and dressing as a high femme named "Sheridan" to infiltrate a right-wing militia group near the Mexican Border. Few things are quite as they appear to be in this suspenseful little tale. There are one or two incongruencies uncaught in the editing process -- like the change of a meeting time from afternoon to morning within three pages and without the implied change of that time. -- Nevertheless, Jo Jacuzzo is one of most charming reluctant detectives since Sarah Dreher's Stoner McTavish series. This entertaining and promising first novel will have this reader looking for Jo's future adventures.
-MJ Lowe

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Wizard of Isis

Jean Stewart
Bella Books
1931513724, $12.95

Wizard of Isis, opens moments after the close of Winged Isis, and this fifth title in Jean Stewart's Isis novels is possibly the best of the series. As with other Isis books, Wizard is fast-paced and action-packed reading. Tomyris "Whit" Whitaker and Danu Sullivan ended the dogfight that culminated Winged Isis by chasing two jets (one carrying a nuclear weapon) back across the barrier between Freeland and Elysium. In their enthusiasm to defeat the invaders, Whit and Danu find themselves trapped in the racist, patriarchal, theocratic country. Occupying the eastern portion of what was the United States, Elysium arose some nine decades prior to the book's setting in a panicked response to a population-devastating pandemic.

Having established her futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that divided what is now the United States into two extremely divergent cultures, Stewart explores the possibilities of pockets of resistance inside the oppressive Elysium, where women who are not willing to subjugate themselves to men are literally enslaved or killed. She sets this resistance in the difficult terrain of the Appalachias. Dubbed "Amazons Outlaws" by the Elysium authorities, Stewart suggests that these women banding together for survival in mountain enclaves might easily carry the archetypal characteristics of the independent woman, the fighting "Amazon."

While the women warriors of Freeland were lucky enough to preserve and further develop their technology, these Amazon communities have been struggling to maintain what has reverted to a pre-renaissance trade culture in the last three generations. For several years, they have received an added boost in the form of a very psychically powerful Witch. Whit is concerned that the witch might be a nemesis from her past. Certainly, the witch's motivations and control over the community do have a dark side.

One of the interesting points about Stewart's Freeland democracy is that it is not some mystic tofu utopia. The political struggles and factions are a lively, complex element of the society. While these women are not afraid to defend neither their homeland nor their loved ones, the method of rescue for Whit and Danu is subject to debate by the ruling council. During these council negotiations, Kali, Whit's life partner, and Tor, Danu's girlfriend, decide to circumvent the time-consuming political haggling by launching their own rescue mission. Needless to say, this impulsive venture compounds the problem.

As non-mainstream, speculative fiction, Stewart's Isis series raises some frightening questions about our political system, health care, and our environmental responsibility. These issues ring even truer today than when the series first appeared in 1992. Indeed, Stewart's Isis has long been a warning parable for our times. She furthers this exhortation in regard to the controversial issues of freedom, independence, diversity, safety and community; issues with which the United States has been struggling with since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

An exemplifying moment is a scene of Danu reciting the Preamble to the Freeland Declaration of Independence concluding, "We are the summit, the democratic ideal that mankind has been aspiring to throughout the ages. It is our duty to protect liberty and freedom in order to ensure it for those who come after us."(111) Despite the ironically sexist and unlikely use of "mankind," the ideals stated so eloquently sent shivers through this reviewer.

The point becomes more blatant near the book's climax when Kali tells a crowd of Elysians "A long time ago, your ancestors exchanged freedom for promises of safety, and you're doing it still. You stopped being Americans." (210) (Kali was doing great until those last four words since the Elysians present at this moment were not likely to remember or have knowledge of "America" given the repressive cultivation of illiteracy some 90 years after the fall of America.)

Despite the heavy political topics, bleak circumstances, and explicit violence, Wizard of Isis has some charming to downright funny moments. When an imprisoned Kali faces the local Elysian warlord, her strength of will and defiant nature prompt her to use what weapons she has left, namely her wit and voice (and perhaps a touch of her psychic abilities) to strike out at her captors. For this reviewer, the humorous pay-off of this scene is practically worth the book's purchase.

Wizard of Isis has all of the qualities that readers have come to expect from Stewart. The story is thoughtful and intelligent, action-filled and exciting. Her characters are interesting, complex women (and men). While she deals with archetypal elements, not all of her women are noble and heroic and not all men are evil. Indeed, one of the themes of Wizard is the idea that most Elysians are trapped themselves rather than actively supporting the regime. With a signature high-energy climax, Wizard of Isis adds a few surprises to the Isis Saga and it will be interesting to see where Stewart takes readers next.

-MJ Lowe

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Painted Moon

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1931513538 $12.95 214 pages

Bella Books has re-released Painted Moon, one of this reader's favorite Karin Kallmaker romances. The novel deals with issues of grief and healing, self-discovery and coming out, falling in love and loving again. Leah Beck is an artist who lost her lover and partner in a freak accident two years ago. Jackie Frakes is a young architect who is struggling with her dissatisfaction with life.

An unexpected snowstorm throws the two women together in a small cabin in the Sierras Nevadas for Thanksgiving. For Leah, the meeting will shock her into realizing that while her beloved Sharla is dead, she is still alive and still an artist. Kallmaker provides interesting illustrations regarding how an artist might see the world. Leah expresses her emotions and even tastes as colors. She speaks about where she grew up as " beautiful, full of life. The greens in the spring would actually hurt my eyes ..." (p48) and watching Jackie's " face flicker with emotions. She would paint it gray uncertainty, purple determination, chartreuse fear. "

The pleasing addition to this re-release is the new cover art. Bella Books is to be commended for their graphic designs in general. This cover is one of their best to date. The photograph is reflective of a pivotal scene over Thanksgiving when the snowstorm breaks and Jackie, Butch --Leah's husky, named because, "she acts really tough, but when you get her on her back, she's a pussycat."(p19). -- and Leah venture out into the snow under a full moon. In an epiphany for Leah, for the first time since Sharla's death, she finds that she HAS to draw, to paint, to create what she sees. "Leah stood frozen, her fingers itching. The top of her head felt as though it was burning. The moon hung low in the sky, casting a faint blue over the snow, across the ground, on the tips of the dark pines. Jackie was etched in cerulean. Her braid spun in the light, the face reflected the moon's glow. Her cheekbones were dusted in blue celeste, and her chin was a blur as she threw herself into another drift of the silver-blue snow." (p37) The resulting series of paintings is titled "Painted Moon."

Creative juices are not the only kind that Jackie inspires for Leah. Jackie's epiphany arrives a few hours later when she admits that she finds herself sexually attracted to the enigmatic Leah just as her aunt and uncle arrive to carry her home. There are complications and misunderstandings in the course of the romance. When the two women come together, the energy is electric. And it shows in Leah's work. The artist finds herself creating a highly senuous series of paintings that feature Jackie. Someone observes, "Would anyone but another woman know that the small of a woman's back is slightly darker, slightly hotter than her shoulders? That her hips are cooler, her thighs smoother?" (p179)

Painted Moon has what this reader considers classic Kallmaker elements with interesting characters, wry wit and steamy love scenes. (Some of the images of Jackie and Leah have lingered in my mind for years.) If you missed this title the first time around, or if you are new to Kallmaker's novels, pick up a copy of Painted Moon and bask its glow.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

One Degree of Separation

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1931513309 $12.95

"Life is twisted" is a favored exclamation from Liddy, a twenty-something dyke from Berkeley, California. Newly graduated from Cal with her Masters degree, Liddy has taken a contract to conduct research for a nationally known writer and finds herself trapped in the Iowa corn-belt for the summer. Her goal was to get away from the West Coast and an affair that ended very badly. She has no intention of getting romantically involved with anyone this summer. The women of Iowa City which boasts, arguably, the highest concentration of dykes living in any town in the Midwest, have other plans for "fresh meat." Even Liddy finds herself reconsidering her goals when she meets "Marian the Librarian. "

If you are a librarian living in the "River City," Iowa and your name is Marian, you might as well surrender and embrace the humor of the musical. Marian Pardoo, on the Reference staff at the Iowa City Public Library, has done just that. Her dog answers to "Professor Hill" while her cat is dubbed "Trombone." Marian enjoys her work and is pleased with life in semi-rural Iowa. However, she is nursing some major heartache. That pain sometimes makes her life very difficult.

Neither Liddy nor Marian is prepared for the chemistry that strikes when they meet. Their conflagration is wonderful, frightening, and more than a little confusing. Or as Liddy wonders, "Was she in a foreign movie with no subtitles? Or was this just the way the dykes dated in Iowa City? Yes, no, yes, no, talk, talk, and more talk?" p112

The two women struggle to overcome their fears of getting hurt by love again and find that sometimes communication is difficult. When Marian looks for a greeting card to express her feelings for Liddy, she finds, "There weren't any cards that said, 'Can we do it like rabbits and still be friends?' Not one read, 'Ignore what I'm saying and jump me, now!'" p122

Having a crush on a gym teacher is a fairly common element in the school years of most future dykes. In One Degree, Kallmaker pays tribute to what has to be a close second for many of the "nerdier" lesbians, that of the crush on a librarian. Or as she has Marian reflect of her decision, years ago to become a librarian, "It always seemed like whatever I could dream I could find at the library. And ever since I was a girl I thought librarians were the guardians of all the mysteries of time. It never occurred to me . That I could be one of the guardians." p43

Kallmaker's romp through the lesbian community in a Midwestern College town is entertaining, sexy and touching. While One Degree is one of her most lighthearted novels, Kallmaker taps readers on the shoulder with a few well-placed political observations. She illustrates the realities of public library employment and points out a frightening aspect of our post-9/11 world, i.e., the Patriot Act and its assault on privacy and the free access to information.

One Degree is a delightful romantic comedy, filled with humor, lust, and lots of intelligent, interesting dykes. Kallmaker's characters have a familiar feel and it's easy to identify with them. They are individuals, yet likely to remind readers of women they know. As the novel opens, Marian is having a bad PMS day and she writes in her journal, "Someone will die if my period doesn't start tomorrow." p1 When Marian self medicates with chocolate, it's a sentiment with which most women can empathize.

The "square dance" of lesbians working together and loving each other in a small community will be a familiar theme in the lives of many readers. Kallmaker calls these dances with compassionate understanding, a taste for irony, and a deliciously wicked wit. Interestingly, she continues a dialog that has threaded its way through some of her other romances, as Liddy and Marian discuss definitions and nuances of the butch and femme "do-si-do." One Degree of Separation is just plain fun to read. So get out your dance cards and enjoy the music.
-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Talk of the Town

Saxon Bennett
Bella Books

"Lesbians need a patron saint. We could call her Saint Vulva." (100.) This musing from one of the women in Saxon Bennett's novel, Talk of the Town sets the tone for much of the humor and antics.

Mallory, an attractive, intelligent lesbian who runs the successful Kokopelli-was-an-Alien vending machine company in Phoenix, Arizona is seeing a psychotherapist to deal with the trauma of her broken heart. Three years ago Caroline left. Since then, Mallory has worn nothing but pajamas and spends a great deal of time lost in her imaginary world aka the "Republic of Mallory." That is until she meets a new physician in town, a woman named Del.

Mallory's best friend Gigi is an artist who struggles with her ambivalence over artistic success while she works at the local sex toy shop. Although in a relationship with Alex, Gigi loves to flirt and she has flirted with Mallory for years. Still she has been true to Alex. Or has she? Kim is a nurse who works with Del and is getting over her relationship with Ollie. Meanwhile, Alex realizes that her happenstance relationship with Gigi might not equal love.

If you're starting to feel like you'd like to have a score card to keep track of some of the antics of these women, you're not alone. Bennett's cast of characters is sometimes confusing to the reader. This is particularly true in the book's early pages. However, this weakness is mild in comparison to the story's pleasure factor. There are lots of witty and touching moments in Talk of the Town as well as a few surprises.

Bennett's women are intelligent, delightful entertainment that is reminiscent of early Rita Mae Brown novels, including her use of fiction to depict and detail contemporary political issues. A favorite example for this reader are the antics of Gigi's Aunt Lil with her partner and other crones who live in a trailer park in the desert. These women have been known to receive a misdemeanor or two for their political actions. "They sent Anita Bryant a rainbow colored set of dildoes, the President a box of cigars with pubic hair attached, [and] Jerry Falwell a leatherman Billy doll" in their mailing campaign alone. (101)

Bennett's clear affection and appreciation of lesbians allows for her to poke fun at some of the community's foibles without becoming pedantic. As with life, not everyone is wonderful but most have redeeming qualities. And Bennett's optimistic approach to life makes for amusing, often charming moments. A fast paced, entertaining read, Bennett has introduced an interesting ensemble cast of lesbians. Apparently the first of several books featuring these women, Talk of the Town is primarily Mallory's story. There are clearly threads left to explore in this crowd. This reviewer will be looking forward to future installments.

-MJ Lowe

Saturday, March 6, 2004

Back to Basics: A Butch/Femme Anthology

Therese Szymanski
Bella Books

Back to Basics is Bella Books' first collection of short stories and this anthology sizzles with hot exchanges of long time couples as well as new found lust. Several of the 23 writers will be familiar to readers, yet over half are relatively new to published works. These stories are well written and delicious. Therese Szymanski has assembled a wonderful collection of erotica in this book. Back to Basics is also the first book from the publisher's new "Bella After Dark" imprint, a series of erotic romance titles that promise not to be your great aunt's Naiad stories. And more impressively, she has succeeded in leading the reader through a dialog on butch-femme issues with the story selections and their placement in the anthology. For example:

The collection opens with Karin Kallmaker's "The Butch Across the Hall," the highly charged story of Ronnie, a femme who is finally admitting -- and asking for -- what she wants. This very explicit tale marks a new aspect to Kallmaker's writing. However it still contains her signature wry wit and intelligent characters. Next is Barbara Johnson's "On the Road Again," a story that introduces Taylor Donovan (a butch Maryland state trooper who earns the book a place on my "books with lesbian characters named Taylor" list) and a truck driving femme named Rose. These woman are quite comfortable with their gender identity, yet they push one another to explore new dynamics in their first sexual encounter.

Jean Stewart (author of the Isis series) presents "Scoring" and addresses issues of appearance with a tough soccer playing butch who confuses some people with her "femme hair." However, an equally strong player from another team is not mistaken in her attraction. Amusingly, there are two entries that deal with lesbian writers at book readings. The editor's story, "The Fan" presents a femme author of main stream romances who pens lesbian love stories on the side and draws on her rich fantasy life for her writing. Or does she? And is contrasted with Jesi O'Connell's "Butch Between the Sheets," which is a delightful little scene that deals with a femme's response to a book reading by butch sexpert and author, Syl Salesberg.

Perhaps one of the most thoughtful "couplings" of stories is Kallmaker's "The Curve of Her" which features Louisa and Rayann from her novel Touchwood. For the first time, Kallmaker gives us a first person look at the world from the older butch, Lou's eyes. Set some two years after the novel, the couple are not only still very much in love and sexual with one another, they are growing together. Here, Lou discovers the power of surrender. This very sweetly romantic and erotic story is juxtaposed to Joy Parks' "Touching Stone."

Parks' story is a heartrending introspective monologue by a femme who thought she had fallen in love with a lesbian. She details the increasing grief of her life with a Stone Butch who is moving toward FtoM trans-ing. Discovering surrender is the last thing on this butch's agenda. And the story offers up wonderful observations from the femme that echo Kallmaker's first story. Written with an aching empathy this femme speaks of the women that will come into her life with these words, "I will know how to make a woman feel as butch on her back as she does in her boots. I will learn that it is my gentleness, not my weakness, that can make another woman feel strong. And I will touch them with everything I could never give to you." (175)

Julia Watts' "Found in an Antique Trunk" allows us to glimpse a relationship between two women in late Victorian America, via four letters. It is a wonderfully touching story that seems to remind us that there is very little "new" under the sun. Leslea Newman gifts readers with a charming entry from her Girls Will Be Girls anthology, called "A Femme in the Hand." I'd say more about this story except I don't want to spoil any of its fun. And there is a great deal of fun in these stories. Many of them have the kind of "got ya" twist that is a strong element in good short stories for this reader. The anthology's final entry, "requiem" by Elizabeth Dunn, suggests a poignant twist to the "personal is political" as a couple discover one another anew in the face of death.

One could almost wish that Szymanski included an introduction to discuss her selection and arrangement of the stories in Back to Basics. It is clear that she put great effort into both aspects of the editing process. However, the stories do speak for themselves. The editor has succeeded in creating an arousingly readable as well as interestingly thought provoking anthology. Furthermore, Bella Books is to be commended for the steadily improving quality of their cover art. This cover is sexy and pleasing as well. All in all, Back to Basics is a fine anthology of erotic stories that may be read on many levels. The collection is as thought provoking as it is arousing, and for a reader with little shelf space, this book is a keeper.

-MJ Lowe

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Maybe Next Time

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books

Scientists who map the human brain have discovered that when most people hear music, their pleasure centers are stimulated in the brain. When musicians hear music, their language centers are stimulated. For violin virtuoso Sabrina Starling, the protagonist of Karin Kallmaker's novel, Maybe Next Time, music is not only a language, it is the language she depends upon to express her emotions. Bree, as she is known from childhood, first began to play the violin when she was four years old. And it is music that allows her to survive the death of her mother and her father before she is six. Music is the only way she can breech the wall that grief and loss have built around her childhood. With her music she can adapt to living in rural Hawaii with her mother's best friend, Lani, and Lani's daughter, Jorie. Through her music, Bree will be blessed time and again as her life crosses other great musicians who guide or encourage her.

However, there are things that Bree doesn't seem able to understand. She struggles to understand her feelings for her Jorie. Her love for Jorie is exciting and frightening. Jorie, Bree believes could be "music for a lifetime." (108) Despite the teens' explorations, Jorie doesn't seem to reciprocate Bree's love. This rejection is just one more section in the wall that stands between Bree and the rest of the world. Identifying as lesbian when she goes off to study music at the Conservatory, Bree discovers other women who are very attracted to her. For several years she takes a "living in the moment" approach to romance, indulging in the groupies of the classical music world. While her professional life was successful beyond imagining, her personal life was lonely. Bree's love for Jorie is an ache that she hasn't been able to fill.

Recuperating from an injury and floundering without her music, Bree finds herself drawn to Diana. Diana and Pam have been together for years. They have a kind of happiness that Bree has been missing. Without her music, a confused Bree decides that having Diana will fill her life with the love she has missed. And she will risk everything to have that happiness.

Told in a series of flashbacks; Maybe Next Time is not a light read. The journey of Bree's redemption is a painful one. She must face her own arrogance and mistakes. However, it is a rich story with complex characters struggling with their faults and weaknesses as well as several charming moments. Kallmaker reminds readers what it was like to be a sixteen-year old girl in 1976 and realize that you're in love with another girl. It was a time and place far away from the Pride Parades of San Francisco, let alone the relative freedom of the 21st century.

Kallmaker depicts respectful insights into Polynesian culture. Perhaps one of the most touching moments in Bree's childhood is when Lani takes her to a native Hawaiian celebration. Young Bree is blessed by a gentle singer and finds the voice of music again. From this moment it becomes clear to Lani that her newly adopted daughter must have music in her life. Lani will make certain that Bree gets musical training.

Even with the angst there are signature Kallmaker elements. The erotic energy between Bree and Jorie is electric and evolves throughout the novel. Kallmaker's wit enlivens the book. There are delightful moments such as Bree's first opportunity to play an 18th century Guarneri violin. Or the poker night when Diana and company create new group terms including, "A clench of clits" and "a lick of lesbians!" (186)

No "formula" romance, Maybe Next Time is an engrossing, compelling story of redemption, healing and surviving. Kallmaker has explored complicated themes and done so with heart and a touch of humor. In this reader's opinion, it is one of her best novels.

-MJ Lowe