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