Saturday, November 19, 2005

Just Like That

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1594930252, $12.95

"Everybody knows that a single woman with good money is in want of a wife (1)." English Lit majors and fans of Jane Austen will recognize this paraphrase from the opening of Pride and Prejudice. Karin Kallmaker's latest romance, Just Like That -- set in the wine country of Northern California -- is a very modern, decidedly lavender, adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Syrah Ardani is 30, recently returned from years studying Oenology in France. The only daughter of the widowed Anthony Ardani, the owner of Ardani Vineyards, Syrah lives and breathes the vines like her father and is comfortably settling into life at home. Yet clearly something with the family business is… off.

Jane Lucas, Syrah's long time friend, struggling artist and former heart-breaker-butch, is about to fall hard for the new, very eligible dyke in the area, Missy Bingley. Initially Jane, who has decided to "settle down", appears to be on the calculating side about Missy with comments like, "... Definitely a dyke. And femme, so, hey, I'm thinking she needs a wife like me. I've got all the qualifications. I can fix stuff, dance, like to talk and think sex is really fun. My only strike against me is the money thing (3)."

However, Jane is thunderstruck when she meets Missy. Missy Bingley, forty-something, successful businesswoman retiring to rehabilitate her newly acquired historic Netherfield estate, appears equally smitten with Jane. Does love at first sight exist?

Before long, Syrah realizes that her gentle, intuitive, wine-knowledgeable father is the definition of naive with what has to be the antithesis of a head for business. While she was gone, he has incorporated the vineyards, over-extended his capital and been unable to cover his debt. The future of the Ardani Vineyards is in danger and the creditors have gone to court. An "axe man" is being sent to take stock of the situation.

Toni Blanchard is that "axe man." She is also very attractive. Syrah first sees a photograph of her from a Fortune magazine article and describes her thus: "Dark hair twisted at the neck and East Coast stylish, Toni Blanchard gazed out from the page with an expression Syrah could only describe as haughty. If the toes on her shoes had been any longer they'd have curled like some court jester's. Everything about her dripped wealth and superiority(12)."

An intelligent, thoughtful, skilled woman, Toni's job is to make difficult recommendations for companies that are in receivership, and she is well respected in her field. She is also the daughter of Anthony's old college friend. This connection encourages Anthony to believe that Toni will "fix" the situation. The vintner never seems to understand that Toni's role is to represent the court and creditors.

Toni arrives in the area emotionally shell-shocked. Her lover of several years, Mira, has dumped her for another woman, moved out and taken possession of funds that are not hers. Staying with her old friend Missy Bingley while reviewing the Ardani accounts, Toni begins to find some peace in the green hills of northern California.

She realizes that she had not been in love the last several years and that Mira's actions -- while unethical and unpleasant -- hurt her pride more than her heart. Still, Toni is jaded and that makes her doubt the sincerity of the woman who is courting Missy. Furthermore, falling in love is the last thing Toni needs right now; yet there is Syrah, a lovely, radiant, spirited earth goddess seeming to draw Toni to her.

Needless to say, several complications ensue. The future of the Ardani Vineyards hangs precariously. Both Toni and Syrah must deal with their preconceived notions of the other and their stubborn egos in order to have a chance at following their hearts. They must also contend with the nefarious manipulations of Mira and Caroline.

Indeed, Kallmaker has created a decidedly nasty nemesis in Lady Mira Wickham. Even after an unpleasant break up, Toni -- and this reader -- was surprised at how spiteful and meddlesome Mira could be. Missy's snarky nickname for Mira is "reech beech" and that seems mild by the end of the story. For that matter, Caroline, Missy's sister, runs a close second for the title.

Austen fans will recognize several familiar names in Just Like that. Bennett, Netherfield, Jane, and Bingley are among the names and characters borrowed from Pride and Prejudice and some of the structure of the story is similar to Austen's. However, there should be no question in readers' minds but that Kallmaker has written a contemporary novel, with complex realistic characters set in an engaging region. She also provides interesting viniculture background. This is a lively romance with hot sex. The lead characters are sometimes frustratingly stubborn, yet this reader found them compelling and was curious to discover out how Kallmaker would solve the problems they faced.

Austen has been called the mother of the romance novel and there is a nice symmetry to Kallmaker, today's best-selling writer of lesbian romances, paying tribute to the roots of the genre with Just Like That. She has given us a new look at prejudice and a different view of pride all painted with the dark purple of a fruity Shiraz. Kallmaker has bottled a wonderful year for her readers, Just Like That. Decant it and enjoy.

-MJ Lowe

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Call of the Dark: Erotic Lesbian Tales of the Supernatural

Therese Szymanski (Editor)
Bella Books
1594930406, $14.95

Just in time for your spooky autumn reading, the latest Bella Books anthology, Call of the Dark, has arrived. The 23 stories represent the work of well-known authors as well as new writers. Selected and arranged by Therese Szymanski, this collection is thoughtful and entertaining, sometimes witty and touching, often creepy and always arousing. The focus of the collection is "erotic" and it is not surprising that most of the stories fall into two categories: possession by or seduction at the hands of a vampire or a spirit. Nevertheless the stories are neither repetitive nor entirely predictable.

The vampires range from the dashing, charismatic Daron in Szymanski's "Dream Lover" to the horrific entity in Patty G. Henderson's "In the Blood." Henderson's tale questions the price of life, the cost of loyalty and the pain of survival. Victoria A. Brownworth's "The Feast of St. Lucy" is an aching little tale of loneliness and survival filled with vivid images of the ancient and ageless New Orlean's French Quarter and the scent of bergamot. Perhaps one of the most interesting twists is Ariel Graham's "Games of Love" wherein she illustrates how a really long-term couple keeps the relationship … fresh, and answers that nagging question of what is the appropriate gift for your 500+ anniversary.

The spirits (formerly human, and now ghosts or demon) who haunt these pages are equally varied. An ultimate surrender overwhelms the lead in Radclyffe's "By the Light of the Moon." In Heather Osborne's "That which Alters," the succubus finds herself falling in love with her victim in a fascinating role reversal. "Specter of Sin" allows Kristina Wright to provide a new variation on a traditional kind of ghost story set in the lonely despair of the Texas desert. The switch in perspective is explored by several writers, as when Rachel Kramer Bussel (a contributing editor at Penthouse) opens the door to "The Haunted, Haunted House." There, a ghost provides a heated coming out for a lovely young visitor.

Without question, the most amusing entry of the collection is "Lilith" by Karin Kallmaker. In this wry tale of a queer succubus who outlives her creator and is left to drift through the dreams and fantasies of humans without intent to consume them, Kallmaker opens the anthology and a discussion of the nature of fantasy, focus, and consent.

Szymanski's skillful selection and arrangement of the stories provides valuable contrasts and flow for the reader. Thus, Julia Watt's charming "Visitation" is followed by Barbara Johnson's "Loving Ophelia." The former provides the reader with a satisfying "all is right" even in the "other world" with a psychic who helps a wronged spirit, and has several of her own questions answered in the process. In the latter, Johnson pens a creepy little story worthy of the Twilight Zone.

This placing and pacing of stories allows the reader to read several stories in a row, moving between the touching, humorous, and thoughtful, to the downright creepy, then back again. The lighter entries, like those sunny days or well-lit rooms in a horror movie, serve to lure the readers into letting down their guard for that unexpected twist or nerve-jolting revelation of the next story. And while readers might not find all the stories entirely to their taste, it is not from lack of imagination or skill of writing. None of the stories failed to elicit a response in this reader.

Kallmaker's Lilith laments at one point, "I gathered ever more fantasies and yet had no witch with whom to share them. Truly, to have tales and no one to tell -- is there anything sadder?" (7)

Thankfully, Kallmaker and the other writers in this collection have lots of readers with whom to share their fantasies and we are all the richer for the experience. Pick up a copy of Call of the Dark, light a candle, pour yourself a glass of rich, red wine, and enjoy.
-MJ Lowe

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Unknown Mile

Jamie Clevenger
Bella Books
1931513570, $12.95

Life is in turmoil for Kelly Haldon, the protagonist of Jamie Clevenger's The Unknown Mile. A college student who plans to spend the summer earning her senior year tuition, she returns to her home town of Ashton, less than an hour from San Francisco, and experiences that odd "out of place" quality of a young adult in the midst of transitions. Traveling that "unknown mile" without a map, Kelly isn't sure what she wants to do after she graduates college. She can't decide on graduate schools or a profession. Compounding this confusion, within days of her arrival Kelly finds herself involved in love affairs with two women: Shannon has recently finished her Army enlistment and is in the Reserves, while Gina is an SFPD rookie officer. Neither woman has been able to let go of their last relationship and thus both are sending Kelly mixed messages.

Realizing that her job as an instructor at the local karate dojo will not provide enough money, Kelly begins looking for additional work. Very soon, however, the work comes to her. Rick, the enigmatic silent investor in the dojo, offers her to pay her to deliver mysterious packages late at night. Retired from the FBI, Rick runs his own investigative service and, strangely, he seems to be aware of Kelly's involvement with Shannon.

The coincidences compound when Kelly literally runs into a woman in the BART station who has a photo of Shannon's ex-girlfriend, apparently as part of a report of some kind. How can this woman be connected to Shannon? Before long Kelly's Don't Tell" policy for lesbians serving in the military comes to the forefront as it appears that Shannon and some of her friends are being investigated. Somehow Rick seems to be involved as well. Kelly finds herself trying to sort out everyone's secrets while she juggles a few of her own.

The Unknown Mile is Clevenger's first novel. She manages to capture the feel of that unsettled time of one's early 20s and her characters are intelligently drawn and interesting. This is particularly true of Kelly; even when (or perhaps because) she can be annoying in her indecision, she is also often quite endearing. There are insightful and touching little side stories with Kelly's students at the dojo, engaging sparring matches in Kelly's own study of the martial art, and some fast moving, suspenseful scenes in Kelly's "jobs" for Rick. Meanwhile, the sexual energy between Kelly and her girlfriends is electric.

In many ways, The Unknown Mile raises more questions than it answers. And indeed, the next book in what looks to be a promising new series has already been announced. However, the novel is not just a "series teaser" as Kelly does seem to have a little more direction for her drive through life and her growth is satisfying for readers. Like the sporty fun of a little ride in Kelly's Volkswagen Bug (chapter titles are actually the odometer readings from Kelly's car), The Unknown Mile is worth the purchase price of that tank of gasoline. This reviewer will be looking to catch Clevenger's next vehicle as well.

-MJ Lowe

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Walls of Westernfort

Jane Fletcher
Bold Strokes Books
1933110244, $15.95

For Natasha Ionadis, the rules of life are as clear as her reflection on the breast plate of her Temple Guard uniform. For the last few of her 22 years, her mantra has been the Guard maxim, "when in doubt, polish it." In Walls of Westernfort, this devout young woman is offered an opportunity by the Temple hierarchy to be part of a covert mission and she leaps at the chance to offer her life to her goddess, Celaeno. She is to be part of a team of three women who are to infiltrate a group of evil heretics, journey to their stronghold known as Westernfort, and assassinate their leaders.

Natasha's commanders doubt any of the women will survive their mission. Posing as a family interested in joining the heretics, the intelligence agents' journey will challenge the beliefs that Natasha has sworn herself to defend, force her to face her own internal crisis, and define the nature of loyalty and faith. Along the way, she also struggles with her definition of family, and finally, love.

Walls of Westernfort is a recent release from Jane Fletcher and part of her growing Celaeno fantasy series. Celaeno is an all-female society in a pre-industrial, pre-Enlightenment setting ruled by a strict theocracy. The idea of a female-centric, goddess-worshipping world is often symbolic of a utopian culture in lesbian-feminist founded speculative fantasy and science fiction. And a new reader to the Celaeno series might be tempted to adopt this view initially, especially as she travels with the naive and earnest Natasha on her coming-of-age quest.

However, it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it may appear in Natasha's world. The Temple authorities who oversee the worship of Celaeno, with its complex undercurrents of science cloaked in religion, will tolerate no deviance from its established policies and will stop at nothing to ensure compliance with temple law. Thus issues involving the nature of religion, particularly that of a fundamentalist view, and the dangers it can impose in politics is a primary theme of Fletcher's Celaeno world.

As a result, Walls of Westernfort, is not only a highly engaging and fast-paced adventure novel, it provides the reader with an interesting framework for examining the same questions of loyalty, faith, family and love that Natasha must face.

Refreshing in its original twists on old themes, the Walls of Westernfort is well conceived and Fletcher's characters are multifaceted and interesting. Through Natasha's eyes the reader is treated to layered discoveries of the complexities of these women. Indeed, it is through familiarity that the "evil heretics" are revealed to be intelligent, equally determined women struggling to survive within their own conscience. This humanization of the evil enemy creates increasingly difficult internal conflicts for Natasha, forcing her to think for herself rather than accept established doctrine.

It is unnecessary to have read any other Celaeno novels to follow the action and the unfolding culture. While some of the characters in Walls will be familiar to readers of other Celaeno titles, the series is not designed to be strictly chronological. Rather, it appears to be theme-based on the institutions of that world, with stories focusing on the ruling Sisters of the Temple, the Temple Guard, the Rangers, the Militia, the psychically skilled healers known as Imprinters and, perhaps most importantly, the heretics.

In Walls of Westernfort, we see the Temple Guard, inside and out. We learn of their strict code of discipline and life, including abstinence from alcohol and sex, and with Natasha we learn of the harsh, cruel methods the Guard employs to deal with heretics in the name of Celaeno. Natasha finds herself struggling with age-old conflicts faced by military personnel. Is it lawful to complete a mission that is morally wrong? Is it insubordination to refuse? Who gets to decide?

Related to Natasha's self-questioning is her growing attraction to Dani, one of the heretics assigned to guide the "family" to Westernfort. A potter by trade, Dani's short life is marked by scars from a great deal of loss and pain, courtesy of the Guards. And as the attraction and affection between the two women grows, it will become apparent that before Dani can allow herself the hope of loving Natasha, she will have to deal with those scars.

In Walls, Fletcher brings this chapter of Natasha's life to a satisfying conclusion. However, it is clear that many stories of Celaeno remain to be explored. This reviewer will be looking for other titles set in Celaeno and hopes that Fletcher continues with her storytelling.

Friday, April 15, 2005


Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1594930015, $12.95

"She'd read a romantic book and thought maybe someday life would be like that, but it never seemed like women in books had jobs and families and worries -- things that made it hard to look around for somebody who might be fun, might want to see if where they were headed in life was the same destination." (79)

This passage defines a theme in Karin Kallmaker's newest romance, Sugar. Kallmaker, arguably the best-selling writer of lesbian romances, contrasts images of a "traditional romance" (if such a thing can be said to be portrayed in lesbian writing) with the realities of love as it exists in everyday life. The lead character, Sugar Sorenson, is a talented, intelligent woman in her thirties struggling to establish her own specialty bakery business in Seattle's post-Dotcom-boom. The action opens when Sugar's home is destroyed by fire and her plans for competing in a city-wide "Cook Off" contest, with its related monetary prize and boost in notoriety, are seriously threatened.

After months of no social life, Sugar suddenly finds herself under the romantic notice of not one, but three attractive, dynamic women. There is a gentle but strong social worker named "Tree," a tall, dark and handsome firefighter named "Charlie" Bronson, and the elegant and vivacious television producer named Emily. Their combined energy is almost more than Sugar can juggle after her long, self-imposed solitude, not to mention the stress of the fire. For a time, Sugar is confused because her apartment is not the only fire she is feeling. The sexual tension is palpable and Kallmaker serves readers a few deliciously hot scenes. Sugar tries to decide which woman really attracts her -- and, more importantly she realizes -- which woman's life is headed in the same direction as Sugar's.

With nowhere to go Sugar finds herself returning to her maternal grandmother's house and braces for the onslaught of judging, preaching and meddling that characterized her grandmother while she was growing up. But something has changed dramatically and Sugar discovers that she perhaps didn't know her grandmother as well as she thought. There are assorted complications and mis-communications to occur in the weeks following the fire and Sugar's life does not turn out as she'd expected.

Food and baking flow through the novel in many ways. Descriptions of complex baking projects occur through much of Sugar's day as well as the steady, comfort baking of Sugar's grandmother. Further, Sugar's world view is often cooking related with Emily's eyes being "the blue of four drops of food coloring into a quarter-cup of sugar" (p7) and a woman is "hotter than Tabasco." (132)

Sugar is a kind of "every lesbian" and the issues she and her friends deal with are those that most of us face in our day-to-day lives. Kallmaker's Sugar does not follow the "story book romance" formula; however, she plays with its themes. Even the cover art, which is reminiscent of a 1950s "happy home maker" image, tweaks at this "ideal."

Kallmaker's writing is charming entertainment. Her wry wit and gentle humor prompt smiles and quiet chuckles, as when Sugar dresses for her first date in months to discover "Good God in heaven, how long had that enormous black hair been growing out of her chin?" (p63) Or when Sugar mentions that she'd heard Charlie and Tree had dated for a time, and is told "We did not. We met at agreed upon places and argued." (p182)

In many ways, Sugar is a return to some of Kallmaker's earlier romances, like Painted Moon or Making up for Lost Time. However, if it is a return, it is not without the maturity that her writing continues to develop. Peopled with real women who are grounded in the realities of life and willing to accept the risk of love, Kallmaker's "romance" provides readers with simple, touching moments. As Sugar reflects, "The world seemed peacefully asleep. It was just her and the moon and the scent of Emily on her fingertips." (111) Sugar is a lovely dessert of a book made with real eggs, butter, and no doubt, chocolate. Light and fun it is, yet it's not an artificial confection. Readers of the lesbian romance genre will want to lick the spoon.

Friday, January 14, 2005

All the Wrong Places

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1931513767, $12.95

At 26, Brandy Monsoon is about to "grow up." In one week she will: face the ghost of her father and the pain of her childhood; realize that while she might not "know" that she can have "forever after" with one woman, she wants to try; and discover that a family of choice and community are options even for a dyke on an isolated resort island in the Southland.

Employed as a fitness instructor and staff member for Club Sandzibel, Brandy finds a ready supply of casual lovers among the resort's female guests but none of them are interested in more than their holiday fling. Meanwhile, her best friend Tess, though willing to share a more-han-friendly-night occasionally, is supposed to be straight ... a point that confuses both women.

Brandy is the wholesome, girl-next-door, phys-ed major. She clearly enjoys working at the resort, including her shifts teaching children tumbling and various team sports. In a charming scene from the end-of-the-week, Brandy observes, "I was set upon by the toddlers again, and this time I gave chase. We'd had a running battle all week and it was time to show these desperadoes who was the law. That would be me, Sheriff Monsoon.

I hadn't quite proven my superiority when their parents came to claim them for a last good-bye. One protested it wasn't Saturday yet, while the other said I was the best playmate ever. ... I have to say that part of the job is pretty cool. Kids give great hugs." (33-34)

When an all-lesbian tour group arrives for the week, Brandy finds the acceptance and validation that she has rarely enjoyed. Furthermore, the famous lesbian entertainer, Celine Griffin shows clear interest in some after-dinner Brandy. Meanwhile Tess' behavior is becoming less and less straight.

All the Wrong Places is the first erotic novel-length title released by the "Bella After Dark" imprint and there is truth in advertising here. Brandy's sexual encounters are explicit. Kallmaker does not shy away from earthy language during sweaty encounters and she opens the "toy chest" and lets her characters explore "accessories." There is a forthright and evocative negotiation of adult consent as well as a subtle but highly charged power exchange between Brandy and Celine.

Some Kallmaker fans may find themselves challenged by this bolder approach. Hopefully they will also find the story to be arousing entertainment. They can be reassured that All the Wrong Places is also one of the sweetest little romances that Kallmaker has written. For example: "Our bodies were suffused with the golden light that seemed to radiate from her eyes and smile. We were falling together, mouths feathering kisses on any skin we could reach. Touching her anywhere felt like touching sunshine. Her shoulders were as warm as her mouth and we were in danger of losing our edges, our form, as we melted together." p 139

Given the length and focus of the story, Kallmaker's characters show depth, humor, and heart with a willingness to grow. Thus All the Wrong Places has a number of elements readers have come to expect from Kallmaker; in addition to hot sex and sweet romance, there are touching side stories and delightful wit. Indeed the humor is bubbles throughout the story. And in a laugh-out-loud moment for this reviewer, Kallmaker tosses in what has to be the funniest variation on the classic "U-Haul joke" in years.

Brandy is the youngest lead character that Kallmaker has explored in her novels since Reese in
Watermark. Hopefully a new generation of readers will find Brandy's voice familiar to their own experience and will consider Kallmaker's other novels as a result. Long time fans can enjoy All the Wrong Places as another example of Kallmaker's willingness to explore new elements in her classic story telling style. All readers can enjoy the affection, validation and respect that she gives her characters and by extension her readers. This erotic romance is a like a lovely slice of the chocolate bread that appears on the resort dessert menu; and like that confection, you'll want to savor it slowly and very likely go back for more.
-MJ Lowe