REVIEW: Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Grrls on the Side by Carrie Pack (June 8, 2017); 230 pages. Available from Duet Books/Interlude Press here.

Back when Riot Grrrls were active, I no longer qualified as a girl, except perhaps to a certain breed of older person who would probably still call me a girl at 46. Still, I remember the movement and the excitement and hope that went with it. It was a good time, with particularly good music.

Grrrls on the Side takes place in the 1990s in the US, at the height of the Riot Grrrl movement. It follows the growth from girl to grrrl of Tabitha, who finds her bisexuality, and then finds Riot Grrrl. She’s fat (as a fat woman myself, boy, howdy, do I hate the word “chubby” or other euphemisms like “of size”… I’m going to use “fat” here, because it’s what I call myself), she’s white, she’s sheltered, and she’s a teenager still in high school. Life, in other words, is a combination of tough and easy, which all changes when she finds a Riot Grrrl group—the tough stuff gets easier and the easy stuff gets tougher. She finds support, but also must figure out how to support others (along the way, confronting the implacable whiteness of much of the mainstream feminist movement). When her support system—her friends and new girlfriend—hit the road to tour as a new band, Tabitha is left to figure out how to be independent while still depending on support from others.

The novel’s focus isn’t politics, per se, though if one understands “politics” to refer to the workings of power, politics are certainly sewn in there. Instead, it focuses on the experience of Tabitha, learning to accept herself, find her own power, and work it out with others. (In other words, it’s a very apt story for a young person, since that’s what most of us spend our youth doing.)

Told in the first person present tense, Grrrls on the Side is interspersed (epistle-style) with short excerpts from the various zines the Riot Grrrls write, and as a result, there are several narrations represented here—in other words, the novel wants to bring together all these different voices and let speak everyone who usually doesn’t get to do so.

 

REVIEW: Cherry Pie Cure by M. Jane Colette

Cherry Pie Cure by M. Jane Colette (June 15, 2017); 291 pages. Available as either ebook or paperback at Amazon here.  And from Kobo books here. (See the author’s website at https://mjanecolette.com/ for more buying options.)

Susan is a mid-divorce, middle-aged woman with a petty, selfish and unfaithful estranged husband John and a couple very loving fully-grown sons, plus a small cadre of other supporters (the fiercely loyal girlfriend of one son, a local bestie, and several online supporters). At the advice of her bestie, as a kind of therapy she begins a blog about her experiences with said petty, selfish and unfaithful estranged husband and her search for self. While blogging, she picks up several followers who support her, sometimes challenge her, and form a sort of unharmonious Greek chorus to her narrative. Cherry Pie Cure is told entirely through Susan’s online essays and the resulting online comments of this chorus (actually part Greek chorus, part peanut gallery).

The story begins in Susan’s struggle to be okay and to process her husband’s actions, which include dating “Jewel of the Not-So-Spectacular Boobs” and trying to turn her adult sons against her, but quickly moves into Susan’s infatuation and courtship with Reza, a dreamy stockboy at the local grocery store who pitches woo like… well, like something that pitches amazing woo. But this story doesn’t merely revolve around whether or not the girl gets the guy: Susan also develops a deepening relationship with her son’s girlfriend, Nika; is pushed and stretched by her friend Marcella (I think of her as a door-opener here); is encouraged to love herself (in more ways than one) by her sex toy-selling online friend FemmeFataleFun (who sends care packages), and is challenged, encouraged and supported by a couple seemingly-on-the-prowl younger men online. In there, she also starts baking cherry pies as a kind of therapy, but those pies wind up garnering her loyalty, interest and love.

This is more about those friendships than the love affair—though there’s the central narrative of falling in love (tenuous flirtation, insecure interest, deepening romance) for those who want it, there’s more to be had. For me, the story is about the ways in which Susan’s friends support her, the ways in which Susan supports other people, the ways in which love is a community event as much as it is a private thing.

Plus, you know, the story is funny, too. Ha-ha funny, I mean. Susan’s clever, and hearing the tale through her voice makes it all the more fun. She’s wry and smart and afraid-but-brave. The story itself hooks you in—a good narrative, told in pieces like this (we don’t see the action directly, but only hear what Susan will tell us about after the fact), can be (and is here) so addictive.

 

REVIEW: And It Came to Pass by Laura Stone

And It Came to Pass by Laura Stone (May 18, 2017); 222 pages. Available from Interlude Press here:

The title of this novel, And It Came to Pass, occurs frequently in the Bible, and is usually understood to mean “it happened.” But we American-English-speakers also use “pass” in the sense that it came and went (like a storm), and “it came to” to mean that was the intent all along—it appeared in order to rise up, make trouble, and then go away.

That little language musing (from someone who generally can’t help herself on such things) is my way of getting to the point that, in the case of this novel, both meanings work: the novel is about a stormy situation that happens, but also the point of the novel is that the storm happens and then there’s life on the other side. What goes up must come down, They say. It’s a story full of hope, I say.

And It Came to Pass is the story of Adam and Brendan, two young Mormon men who meet each other when they are paired as missionaries during a 2-year assignment in Spain. They fall in love, but this is especially bad for contemporary LDS folk, who are not generally accepted by the LDS church for being gay (or acting on SSA, “same sex attraction”). As missionaries, if they are discovered in their love, Adam and Brendan run the risk of being dishonorably discharged from their service, sent home early in shame and excommunicated from the LDS Church. This is complicated by the fact that Adam’s father and mother practice an unyielding, dour form of their faith which compels them to cut off contact with their own son if they discover he is gay. So Adam and Brendan, as so many of us queer folk tend to be, are strung between faith/family and love/personal fulfillment, and must figure out a way to live.

What’s really gratifying here is that this is a loving, generous portrait of the struggle—this does not present the easy situation (evil LDS folk who hate the Innocent Gay Victims nor Selfish Hedonistic Gays and Innocent Well-Meaning LDS folk), but a complex portrait of two deeply faithful men who must struggle between two poles (love and faith). It’s also gratifying that the LDS followers are not shown as universally dour and unyielding as Adam’s parents—it’s not a bloc, one comes to understand; there are many ways of practicing and believing.

At its heart, this is a true romance—two folks meet, fall in love, are faced with a seemingly-insurmountable challenge and must figure out a way to surmount it or go their separate ways.

Due to time constraints, I read this novel in little bursts over the course of more than a week, but between bursts, my mind kept wandering back to the characters and wanting to return. It grips, in other words, but subtly, a kind grip; friendly, but no less compelling for its friendliness. In part, I think this is because of its evenness, its kindness, its resistance to easy villains and black-white divisions.

No solution is without sacrifice here, but no sacrifice is total—loss comes to feel, as it so often does, inevitable, even a relief, a gentle winnowing. The implicit criticism here is of stasis, of clinging to what is wrong or cruel just because someone tells you to do so. At the heart of this love story is the idea that one can know truth and right—some people call that God—for oneself better than anyone else can.

Like I said, it’s a true romance.

 

 

REVIEW: Of Cats and Men by Sam Kalda

Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History’s Great Cat-loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statemen by Sam Kalda (Ten Speed Press, April 18, 2017); 112 pages.

This is a smart, quirky, feminist and fun collection of brief biographies of famous men who’ve bucked gender constraints and loved them some cats. Right up this queer girl’s alley.

First, the writing is great. The biographies are smart and just telling enough to sate the uncurious and whet the appetites of more interested folks. But most importantly, the illustrations here are gorgeous–distinctly styled but not gimmicky, clever but not MERELY clever. As a cat-lover (who is, however, not a “crazy cat lady”… this is my only book about cats) and a lover of redemptive history, this is one of my new favorite books. I show it to everyone. What, perhaps, I love most about its aim is that it cares about and redeems the cat-loving man. With the possible exception of that grisly sea-captain Hemmingway with his famous 6-toed cats, cat affection has been cast as distinctly feminine and, thus, in men, a sign of queerness. It makes me happy that this book doesn’t address that with homophobic denials (“no, no, real men can like cats, too!”), but simply presses forward with profiles of men—all kinds of men—who love cats.  It’s a quietly-great answer to the requirements for gender conformity: one can legitimately be a femme man or a butch man (or any kind of man, really), and all kinds of men can do things we used to think of as too femme (as the kids used to say, “so gay”).

But that’s a quiet benefit of this book, not its outward aim. What it does, quite simply, is present interesting portraits of interesting men who were famous and to whom cats were important.

Finally, I’m not a qualified art critic, though I’ve written my share of criticism anyway, but I will say that I absolutely LOVE the illustrations here. They remind my uneducated eye a bit of a 1950s style of illustration, as does the color palette, which, coupled with the subject matter, only adds to the redemptive and smart feeling of this collection. I’d say that the illustrations are the point—that’s how wonderful they are—but I’d be shortchanging the biographies, which also feel like the point.

As I said, I show everyone this book. I love this book. Sam Kalda, your next book should be profiles of fat old ladies who read books and write reviews of them and live in New York and have two dogs and a cane and wear glasses. Go!

Review: THE SEAFARER’S KISS by Julia Ember

The Seafarer’s Kiss by Julia Ember (May 4, 2017); 224 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Now, I don’t know any of the versions of the story known to most Americans as “The Little Mermaid” (neither Hans Christian Andersen nor Disney nor subsequent K-Mart bedspread mythos), but I believe The Seafarer’s Kiss is a retelling of the tale, but à la Wicked, retold empathetically from a different point of view (than, at least, the Disney version). As with all good retellings, this is a new story, not simply a recast rehashing of something already said.

I won’t waste your time with comparisons, since I’m not very familiar with any of the other versions of this story; this novel stands on its own, anyway. I’m living proof that you don’t need to have any connection to the Disney or Andersen stories to understand and like this book. The only thing I will say, based on admittedly brief internet-based research into the other versions, is that this one seems more feminist, featuring female characters prominently as more than victim or villain (those roles get really complex here), constructing a kind of Handmaid’s Tale empathy for the conditions under which the female mermaids must function, and coloring every character’s actions with real motivations that extend further than simply stating that someone is an Evil Witch.

I’m trying not to reveal the actual story here, the discovery of which is part of the fun of reading, so forgive the verbal gymnastics.

This is, at its heart, a really strong character study. Don’t mistake me: I mean this in the best of ways, as all good stories, in my opinion, are character studies. Too many novels rely too strongly on plot and forego character development at all, but in my opinion, good insight into character should be what drives the plot at every turn. The plot of a good story should feel like a surprise as it happens, but inevitable once it does, because the characters are so well drawn that things could unfold no other way than the way they do. This is assuredly the case.

The titular seafarer, and the titular kiss she gives Ersel, the main character (is this the original form of Ursula, who is the sea witch in Disney’s version?), is what drives the plot, though not in the mooney-eyed-weak-princess way most Disney films seem to require. The chain of events that becomes Ersel’s adventure (and eventually the impetus for her growing up and finding her strength and her moral drive) starts with this girl, this kiss, but it’s merely the catalyst, and not the only driving force. Too often, female heroes are depicted as being solely motivated by love in their heroism. Not so here, and thanks for that. (Nor, for that matter, is Ersel’s “coming out” as being in love with a human girl much of a horror to anyone—and when there is discomfort, it’s with the “human” thing and the going-against-decree thing, not the “girl” thing. That’s refreshing.)

Basically, this is the story of a young mermaid who’s expected to be betrothed to her childhood bestie merman in a society in which reproductive heterosexual pairings are required due to a waning population (and in which, as a result, a girl’s worth is based on her potential fertility), but who bucks—and eventually upturns–the system, has her own adventures and her own ideas. She makes grave (I’m talking Shakespeare’s Mercutio-pun-grave) mistakes along the way, strives to address those mistakes, and becomes a better person, all without losing her fierceness. In fact, her fierceness becomes her great strength (no eternally slumbering and helpless princess, no mice to dress her, no unreal femininity clouds this up).

And K-Mart, as a result, probably won’t sell the bedspread. But, seriously, bedspreads are for sleeping princesses anyway.

REVIEW: Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood

Huntsmen by Michelle Osgood (April 13, 2017); 218 pages. Available from Interlude Press here:

Hunstmen is the sequel to Osgood’s 2016 novel The Better to Kiss You With. Still here are Deanna and Jaime (the stars of the first novel) and all the orbital characters that came with them, but focus has shifted to tell the story of Kiara, who must find a way to come into her own power as pack leader, keep everyone safe and figure out how to be around her former love, Ryn. You might say it’s a novel about figuring out how(l) to fix a problem.

(I guess you’d only say that if you were a pun-loving doofus like me.)

So, in case you’ve not read the first book in the series, let me catch you up right quick: there are werewolves among us, and they even have their own governing organization (GNAAW, which makes me chuckle every time). Most people don’t even know, and werewolves themselves tend to lie low so word doesn’t get out; however, there are some people—they call themselves the Huntsmen—who think werewolves are a threat to non-werewolf people, especially those werewolves without a pack and thus without allegiance to GNAAW, and so feel no compunction about hunting those werewolves down and taking them out. Kiara is a werewolf, as are some—but not all—of her friends. She lives on the DL usually, but her father’s the leader of the large, successful pack to which she belongs, and she’s been tapped to be next. All she has to do is lie low, tow the line (I know some people say “toe,” but that makes no sense to me), and she’ll eventually be promoted to lead the big pack. But when she chances to see her former love Ryn starring in a local drag show (yes, drag isn’t limited to men impersonating women, despite what RuPaul’s Drag Race would have most of America believe… and here is where my long years as a professor force me to recommend the 2002 documentary Venus Boyz) and finds out Ryn’s the target of the Huntsmen because she’s a “lone wolf,” that plan goes to pot. Kiara steps up to protect her friends (and herself) and upsets the intended order.

Like the first book in the series, Huntsmen is a fun thriller with interesting characters and smart pacing. Also like the first book in the series, Huntsmen features an intelligent, powerful woman at its center. (It’s so rare, as a woman reader/viewer, to get main characters one would like to emulate, at least ones who aren’t punished at the end of the book/movie.) And this thriller delivers: so often, books and films are able to mount the tension, but aren’t able to resolve it in a believable and satisfying way. Not so here—there’s family drama, identity drama, love angst, and the general fear of being stalked, and the novel winds all this tighter and tighter, but, in the end, gives one a really good ending. You might say there’s as much bite as bark.

You know, if you were a pun-loving doofus like me.

 

 

 

 

What Happened? What Happened:

Those who know me as a professor may be surprised to hear that crowds of people, especially when I have to do something in front of those crowds, really shake me to my core. I am not very good at being in front of people, nor am I great in a crowd, nor do I do social stuff comfortably (many teachers are like this, apparently). So Book Con (the crazytown 2-day book fair of the Book Expo America (BEA) conference), which took place at a ridiculously-big venue (the Javits Center) in a ridiculously-big city (New York) was, for someone like me, daunting to say the least.

Still, I went, signed copies of SWEET, met some excellent people, browsed books and bookseller displays, drank my share of caffeinated diet colas that cost waaaaaay too much money at the convention center vendor stands, listened to some really great writers and editors give talks and did my fair share of hiding with a book in bathroom stalls and hallways with spare chairs. (I missed most of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket’s talk, but caught the tail end and at least got to hear his deadpan voice… my book signing time conflicted with Lemony Snicket AND Bill Nye, and I messed up the days and missed hearing Janet Mock, but still… I was in the same room as all of them at one point. I’m a reader and fan first, writer second–in fact, I remember this lesson from my college writing program days perhaps more than any other: you cannot be a good writer unless you are reading voraciously–it’s dangerous hubris and also sort of gross-narcissistic-ignorant not to participate in the literary community as a reader if you’re contributing to it as a writer.)

signing

I will say it was really fun to meet so many people, almost all of whom were readers–and some of those were writers–who love books. I felt myself to be among my own kind.

I will also say it was very exciting to see the cover of the new book, OLYMPIA KNIFE, on a poster–this was the official revelation (I cannot say “reveal,” even though that’s the lingo… “reveal” is a verb, friends) of the cover for the book that comes out November 2, and, though I’d seen earlier versions, this was also MY first look at the official, final cover, and I really quite love it. (I had no doubt I would, because I am a huge fan of the art director/cover designer C. B. Messer, who also did the cover and book design for SWEET, my first novel, the one that’s stacked next to me that I’m signing in the picture… that sticky note cover design will forever have my heart. She read the book and totally got what I was trying to make it, which is a satirical take on being romance while still kind of being a love story, a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too situation (please all hail that joke, because the novel largely takes place in a bakery) and the cover just exactly captures that blend of Romance Novel Trope and Not That At All.) Here is the cover for OLYMPIA KNIFE, due out Nov 2:

OK cover poster

At the bottom there, that’s a teaser quotation from the first chapter. But seriously, how beautiful is that cover? (The book takes place at the start of the 20th century in a rather janky travelling circus, and over the course of the novel all the acts wind up disappearing, hence the slightly dangerous-looking tents…)

So, I left the 2-day book-oriented fiasco with mixed feelings: on the one hand, my head was swimming from SO much (people, noise, books, things to do, money spent, long days) and I my body actually hurt, and I was exhausted for a full day afterward (I consider myself a tough dame, but sometimes my disability reminds me I may be tough but I’m still at its whim). On the other hand, I felt buoyed by meeting so many really superb people, and especially buoyed the ones that asked me to sign a copy of a thing I wrote, about which I had never even dared to dream when I was a fourth grader and decided I would be a writer when I grew up. Hard not to be red-faced and flattered when someone not only reads something you wrote, but BUYS it and then ASKS YOU TO DEFACE IT WITH YOUR TAG. One fellow asked that I sign a copy of Sweet for his wife, and requested to take a picture of himself next to me as I did so in order to prove to her that he didn’t just fake it (are you out there, sir or sir’s wife? you totally made my YEAR).

I also got to (re)meet some of the other writers at the press who were there: Jude Sierra, Lilah Suzanne and C. B. Lee, all of whom are writers I admire (check out their books at http://www.interludepress.com, or in my reviews on this site. I love all the books–each has several–but can particularly suggest What It Takes by Sierra, Broken Records by Suzanne, and Not Your Sidekick by Lee as favorites.)

Now that BEA is over and the flurry of book conferences has died down a bit (for me) for a while, I can go back to my hidey-hole (thanks, Mr. Bush) and read and write in solitude for a bit.

On my lap right now are two books, so expect reviews soon, of Huntsmen by Michele Osgood and Of Cats and Men by Sam Kalda. Now, please excuse me while I go make up a pot of chamomile-lavender tea and find a cat or dog to warm up my legs as I read in peace.

 

Lollipops & bookmarks! Tag, you’re it.

TODAY: I’m at BookCon in NYC today all day. I’ll be signing copies of SWEET (11a-12p, officially, but seriously, I’m there all day). Plus, my upcoming (Nov 2017) second book’s cover is revealed today (spoiler alert: it is beautiful!).

Plus, if you stop by and are nice, I’ll give you a rainbow lollipop and bookmarks or something.

Come find me, plus 1 trillion great books at the Javits Center, NYC, booth 2780 with Interlude Press.

No tag backs!

REVIEW: Consequences (of Defensive Adultery) by M. Jane Colette

Consequences (of Defensive Adultery) by M. Jane Colette (May 2, 2017); 232 pages. Available as either ebook or paperback at Amazon here. And from Kobo books here. (See the author’s website at mjanecolette.com for more buying options.)

Consequences proposes, in a roundabout way, the concept of “defensive adultery”—adultery, in other words, committed in response to one’s partner’s wrongs (be they emotional abandonment or sexual affairs), a way of salving oneself after a lover’s cruelty, or of creating enough emotional distance that the lover’s wrongdoings can’t hurt you. In the novel, the narrator Elizabeth relates the story of such adultery to her current lover as they… do lover things.

In her story, which occurs before she takes up with her current lover, she begins an affair with a professor whose marriage to another woman, Zia, has crumbled. Into the empty space steps Elizabeth, only to discover that, once she is the wife and no longer the lover, she is put in Zia’s place as her husband takes newer, younger lovers on the side. Zia angrily haunts their relationship—in no small part because she has a daughter with the professor, a daughter who is shuttled between Zia’s and her father’s homes; also in the mix is the angry, pansexual, pierced and tattooed daughter-in-rebellion Sasha, the narrator’s blood daughter Alexandra, and Sasha’s godmother, Zia’s and Elizabeth’s friend Annie.

It’s a tenuous trembling thing, this web of people pulled together into a knot of relationships, all painful, all vital, but all the push-pull kind of hate-love. Elizabeth is strung between them all, hero and aggressor and victim in one, more naturally reactive, struggling to become active on her own. She is, in other words, extremely human.

The story is told through Elizabeth’s voice, cut through with conversations between Elizabeth and her current lover, who controls and tortures her (only as much as she agrees to and enjoys) as she recounts. The frame tale (the story of Elizabeth telling the story to her lover, his statements of interest and whim, and his tormenting of her) gives tension to the story Elizabeth is telling, positions it differently for the reader than one might be inclined to understand it otherwise. The lover becomes, through the telling, a needling voice, disbelieving the point of view or recasting the events through a different eye, calling into question the sole authority–or even primacy–of the narrator.

The author herself (whom I recently met at a book conference) hands out business cards that read “I write erotica for smart people,” which translates to this novel being gentler, more emotionally complex, more subtle and less flatly pornographic than what passes for “erotica” in most fiction/film (there’s no, “Pizza? I didn’t order any pizza“-level doing-it here). It is more about who feels what because of whom than it is about who puts what where. (It is, perhaps, more in keeping with the root of that word, “eros,” which refers either to the god of love, according to the ancient Greeks (Eros, who is like the Roman god Cupid), or to, in Freud’s terms, the “life instinct.” In those terms, yes, it’s erotica for sure.)

In fact, I’d call this “feminist erotica” (and here I can’t remember if Colette refers to her work as such, but I certainly would), in that it does not rely on dehumanizing the participants for its effects. In fact, the narrator and the women with whom she deals are allowed to be relentlessly human: confused, inarticulate about their feelings at times, proud, sometimes in the wrong, sometimes behaving badly, but still stubbornly doing it, complex, sympathetic, smart-and-stupid, real women. Plus, they’re too old and their bodies too lived-in to be porn vixens. Zia, the ex-wife who comes closest to being a villain in this story, is given the same attention and intelligence in her portrayal: the reader understands her more as a complex, angry, hurt, relatively powerless woman trying the only avenues she knows to get what she needs, rather than as a villain. I think of her more as the narrator’s antagonist; she’s the fly in the ointment, sure, but a sympathetic fly.

In fact, the only characters here who even skirt—excuse the pun—the edges of being stock are the story’s two most relevant men (the narrator’s ex-husband and her current lover), a turnabout kind of condition that could feel quite Ha-Ha-Now-YOU-be-a-substanceless-trope-for-a-change-satisfying though not necessarily right (in the way that audiences are supposed to cheer when the Scooby-Doo villain gets a bucket of paint dumped on his head), but the novel avoids this trap, stays feminist, and fleshes these guys out, too. They’re not the simple villains we’re inclined to make of them, there’s no just desserts here, or grand ironies, or, for that matter, paint buckets; there’s just real, complex people getting by in the ways they know how.

These characters, in other words, are not paper dolls—one always has the feeling, when reading, of having stumbled on a secret, of being let in to spy on something real and fraught and difficult that will go on whether or not one’s watching.

But you can’t, in the end, help but watch anyway.