REVIEW: Beulah Land

Beulah Land by Nancy Stewart (November 16,. 2017); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/beulah-land-by-nancy-stewart

There is something about a tough, smart girl in fiction or film that just melts me. Perhaps it’s because I always felt scrappy inside, but was never that brave. Perhaps it’s because every young lesbian girl like me grows up knowing she will have to fight just to keep herself intact–this feeling is acute and transforming, whether or not that fight ever comes. One feels oneself always endangered. For that matter, most “normal” girls do, too. Whatever it is, Violette Sinclair feels like my better self.

Violette is the voice of Beulah Land, and it’s her story. She’s too smart and too gay to be growing up in the small Ozarks enclave she is in is a place where the ruling clan of nasty, dog-fighting, gun-toting jerks is related to the sheriff and there’s little hope of a girl like her surviving. Beulah Land might be a young adult novel, but like the best of those, it makes for good adult reading as well.

Violette has not only her own toughness but the backup of a popular, football-star best friend to help her out. Not only is she bent on rescuing the dogs abused and discarded by the semi-secret dog-fighting ring, but she needs to discover and fix her own family: her father was murdered when she was younger (and she needs to know what), her mother has a secret past (Vi wants to learn what it is), and her sister is resentful and sometimes cruel to her (one wants a tearful apology and reunion).

The story is told in the voice of Vi, who is determined, tough, take-no-crap and smart. Hers is a great voice to guide us through her own story, and it’s satisfying that she gets to have that control. There’s a comfort, too, through all that awfulness, to know she comes out well enough to tell us the tale.

This is a coming-of-age story in which the coming-of-age is rougher than the one most people experience. All the elements familiar to most of us–secrecy, trauma, helplessness and fight–are there, just writ larger and more dangerous for Vi. It’s about a girl coming to own herself–she’s a lesbian and an animal lover with a strong sense of justice, and all of that gets her in trouble in her small neck of the swamp. One gets the sense that she’s loved despite these things instead of because of them. But she fights on to find happiness and peace, not only for herself but for those she loves. This is no small thing for us queers, and we need narratives that give us this.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t narratives like this available to me. As a young girl, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was, because nobody spoke of it… ever, anywhere. There were no lesbians on TV, or in the movies outside of porn (and porn didn’t really present a real picture, I knew), or in novels available to me as a kid. In college, I found The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues and Mrs. Danvers, none of which gave me very much hope. As a result, it took me longer than it might have otherwise to recognize myself and come out as queer. I knew I was different, and I figured there was something wrong with me because I could not feel complete, deep love for my boyfriends. I have a feeling this story is not uncommon. I felt fight in me, and wildness, and passion, but had no way to express it in the real world. I wish there’d been a Violette Sinclair for me to find. I’m glad there is now.

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Funds Raised! Cookies Eaten!

Friends, I’m pretty happy to report that

a) the book party is over and I am under no obligation to appear in public again for quite a while (I am like a groundhog in this way)

and

b) from the donations of super wonderful book party guests, we raised a total of $200 for the queer, social justice-oriented circus/performance troupe Circus Amok (thanks, Jennifer Miller, for juggling knives) and the Ali Forney Center for homeless queer youth.

Since the bookstore space could only fit a limited number of people (about 25), this total makes me happy. Thanks to everyone who was able to give something!

 

Interview with Illustrator CB Messer

CB Messer is the art director at Interlude Press, and is the designer who created the cover and interior look of both of my own novels. She has designed many other books, and is an illustrator whose work I absolutely love. Her works are whimsical and odd, but realistically lifelike, the combination of which has a certain beautiful and strange tension, a real thing which cannot be real. I feel lucky to have had CB design my first book, and asked that she design the second (which she probably would have done anyway, but I didn’t want to take any chances there).

I’ve wanted to pick her brain for a long time, and I finally got myself organized and courageous enough to ask her to let me get a glimpse of what goes on in her head.

 

ALYSIA CONSTANTINE: First off, I’d like to say how much I love your work. In particular, the graphite drawings you do are beautifully detailed and spot on. I still remember the first illustration of yours I ever saw, before I knew you—you’d illustrated someone’s story about a cartoonist/illustrator who slowly reveals himself to his love interest through a series of drawings (and, of course, all those drawings were actually yours). When I found out you would be the one to design my first novel, I thought your name sounded familiar, and I went back to look at the story, and sure enough, it was you! I almost jumped out of my socks with excitement. One of my favorite book covers you’ve done aside from mine distinctly maintains the weirdness and humor I associate with your work, despite its deceptive simplicity: the cover to The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens. It’s all illustrated in silhouette, just the title and a guy being chased by a charging unicorn. Usually, if I see a unicorn or a dragon or some such thing, I run the other way. But this totally drew me in and made me want to read it. I think the silhouette helped—took all the fantasy romance out of it and made it humorous.

Some basic questions to start: first, what does an art director do? It sounds like a dumb question, but I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?).

CBM: This is far from a dumb question! The role of an art director caters a bit to the size and purpose of the studio or company one works for, but for the most part, we’re responsible for what I like to call “visual congruence,” or ensuring the visual components of a project make sense with regard to each other while also serving to achieve the campaign’s overall goals and objectives. At IP, I manage cover development and book design for contracted titles, artist commissions, and the visual side of company-tier promotional branding.

AC: When you’re acting as an illustrator/book designer, what do you do? Again, I mean this both literally (what are the things you must do?) and in a broader sense (what are the things you need to accomplish?). And because I can never leave ex-professor-me totally behind, I cannot resist going to the lexicographical authorities here to point out that “illustration” is about making something clear, bringing something to light. Is that an accurate way to see what you do?

CBM: You betcha! I’m happy to report the lexicographical authorities have not let us down here. Or rather, we haven’t let them down. Illustration, at least in the world of visual arts, is the process by which one visually represents a cognitive idea. In the case of IP, these ideas are stories (manuscripts), and their visual representations take shape by way of cover art and typesetting. Apart from the technical/manual aspects of creating cover-bound artwork (proper layout, rendering, etc.) and at the risk of sounding terribly maudlin, a good illustrator will concern themselves with making certain that the “heart” of a design matches/complements the “soul” of the story it’s representing.

AC: That sounds like it should go on a coffee cup or inspirational poster. I like that you think of the novel (or whatever you’re illustrating) as something alive, something with a heart and soul.

I don’t want to ask the question that everybody asks of artists and writers: where do you get your ideas? Instead, I’d like to know: how do you choose what detail or moment from a story to illustrate (or use for the cover illustration of a novel)? What criteria do you use? Or do you just somehow know? (I had a poetry professor once who said she could hold her hands over a poem and feel where the “heat” was in it—is it that woo-woo for you?)

CBM: Haha, I love that! But no, no superpowers for me. My approach is rather pragmatic. I look for things that characterize the book as a whole—repeating themes and motifs, symbols, and, you bet, when it makes sense and doesn’t give too much away, a specific moment or “scene.” There’s a limit to how much stuff we can cram onto a cover before it gets too convoluted, so what we choose to put there is methodical. I ask myself things like: Does this tease the story in a manner that makes sense, even out of context? Is it interesting? Is it unique? Is it congruent with the title? Are the characters and/or setting represented in ways that really matter? If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then I feel pretty good about moving forward with the idea at hand.

AC: What is your favorite illustration (or book cover) you’ve done? What about it do you love?

CBM: I do have favorite covers, but don’t tell the others! One is Sweet. Another is Rules and Regs. From the very beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to pursue, felt so strongly about the efficacy of the designs I wanted to pitch, that I charged into those staff meetings ready to battle/bribe my way to green lights. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Sweet—a charming, don’t-let-the-details-pass-you-by quality that I was determined to capture on its cover. In the case of Rules and Regs, the story and concept just made me laugh. Literally, it was me, sitting alone in my office, pondering potential, laughing.

cbmesserRulesRegs

AC: Well, I could be biased a bit, but I love what you did with Sweet. Tonally, it’s so light and clear, and that sticky note (which is a reference to a moment in the novel) is an absolutely perfect detail on which to seize, though I didn’t realize it until I saw your work. Thank you for such an awesome cover, by the way.  

sweet cover

 

Now I’m going to artlessly jump topics and ask: I know you’ve been in the military, which is not an environment in which one imagines an artist thriving. Did you thrive as an artist there? 

CBM: I like to think that I thrived, but probably not as an artist. There’s an organized discipline to the military that suits me; I like knowing what I have to do, how long I have to do it, and why it’s important. It’s not the best environment for ambiguous free-thinking, but I was honestly fine with that. My mind was on other things, other tasks, and despite having used art as a mode of escapism for most of my life, I didn’t miss it all that much. It wasn’t until my commitment was coming to an end, and I had to decide what to do next, that I realized, oh wait, yes I do miss it. So, I can’t really claim my time in service was an intensive exercise in visual creativity, but it did expose me to things—people, places, perspectives—that, to this day, influence the way I perceive the world around me. And that bleeds into my work, for sure.

AC: Speaking of influences, who is the artist/illustrator you most admire? Would anyone guess your artistic heroes from looking at your work?

CBM: Oh, man. Ask me this again tomorrow, and you might get a different answer. But I think I can safely say, on any given day, that I have a minor obsession with Pascal Campion. There’s a candidness and near-multisensory quality to his composition and style that many within the visual arts community strive to emulate, myself included. But no, the odds of someone contemplating my work and saying, “What ho! This brings to mind Pascal Campion!” are extremely low. If you did, I’d thank you profusely for lying.

AC: And yet enough people think your work is wonderful that you’re now an art director! How did you wind up being a part of Interlude Press?

CBM: I first came aboard as an illustrator, but I’d been familiar with IP [Interlude Press]and the work of several of its authors (yours included) for quite some time. The art director at the time kindly approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working with her on some cover projects. Of course I said yes!

AC: Do you choose which books you want to “cover,” or are they assigned to you?

CBM: When a manuscript we’ve acquired enters our production pipeline, my desk is one of its very first stops. So I guess you could say that no one really escapes me. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing probably depends on who you ask.

AC: You’re one of the few art directors I have ever heard of who reads the book you’re designing (instead of just reading a summary). Why do you read the whole book? Does reading the book change what you decide to do as an art director?

CBM: I think maybe this is just because I’m odd. I don’t know. I can’t really say that it’s necessary, because full access to manuscripts as an art director/designer isn’t always guaranteed. But I’m given the opportunity to read them at IP, and so I do. I like knowing the story firsthand; it makes my job more comprehensive, which I appreciate, and having such familiarity means I can explore nuance in ways I might not otherwise attempt. In this sense, it probably does affect my design choices, hopefully in ways that make the resulting composition stronger.

AC: When I think of my favorite designs of yours, that really rings true. So many of the interesting covers you’ve done–for Sweet and Rules and Regs, as examples, highlight a detail from the book that would probably not be in a summary, and yet capture the flavor of the book so completely.

OK_front (online only)

So, What’s the book you wish you could design or illustrate, if you could have a go at any book (written or not)?

CBM: I’d love to illustrate a children’s book. A clever little tale, probably by way of anthropomorphic animals or some such surrealistic silliness, because that’s what I drew all the time as a kid. (This is mostly because I found them easier to draw than actual people, but my affinity for the exercise has since stuck around.)

AC: I can’t tell if you’re teasing the project I’d proposed to you, or if I somehow hit the nail exactly on the head with my proposal! Either way, for those who don’t know (which is everybody except CB and me), I’ve asked CB to work with me on a book. With clever little tales featuring anthropomorphized animals. I’m so excited to get this rolling.

Do you write?

CBM: It’s in deference to public safety that I don’t.

AC: You’re a public nuisance. 

I know I’ve told you before, but I think you’ve got a brilliant instinct for knowing exactly how a book should look, inside and out. The range of your designs—even the range of styles—is amazing to me. They’re all so individual and look nothing alike (though I can usually peg your illustration style if you draw something, which is the mark of… something wonderful… in an artist, I think). The covers of my own novels, both of which you’ve done, for instance, don’t look alike at all—they’re not even the same style. Sweet was clean and open and a little quirky, almost humorous, while Olympia Knife is darkly beautiful, complex, almost baroque. Both illustrations seem intimately tied to the novel with which they correspond. What’s the process that gets you there? In other words, how do you keep everything unique and intimate and specific like you do?

CBM: Mostly, I try to keep things as unique and specific as the story itself. Every book has a personality, and I do my best to honor that. The psychology behind cover art, when approached correctly, is to embody the story in such a way that attracts the author’s intended audience. I want potential readers to know what they’re getting, no surprises. These are the folks who’ll enjoy the story most! So, I suppose I approach the task from two separate angles: composition and style. A proper composition should, at the very least, impart subject: who or what the book’s about. Style, then, is an effective means to convey more subliminal messages like genre and “tone,” the latter of which is largely derived from writer’s voice. In the end, a young adult title should visually speak to those who are young (or at least young at heart), a comedy should appear funny, and so on and so forth. Visual processing is a weird and fascinating affair, and, lucky for me, something we can sometimes nudge/influence via simple techniques, e.g. stroke and color.

AC: What’s the most difficult part of this kind of work for you?

CBM: It would be really, really nice if there were 57 hours in a day.

AC: It strikes me that you must be really good at listening—both listening to the author and publishers, and listening to the story itself—to know what’s needed from any illustration. (And, maybe, this includes listening to readers, too?) Has there ever been a time when you’ve had to go in a direction you didn’t want, or design in a way you thought was wrong? 

CBM: Those closest to me may need to corroborate these ostensible “listening skills.” But I do try! I do my best to communicate on what, exactly, I’m doing and why, so I don’t know that I’ve ever been forced to execute on a design I’ve been staunchly opposed to (or someone else has been staunchly opposed to), but there have been instances where I’ve needed to sacrifice ideas I’ve loved in order to achieve something else. Something more valuable than whatever plans I might’ve originally had. Quite honestly, when there’s a case for change, I’m all ears.

AC: Do you lean toward a certain color palette, or a certain style, or certain themes, or even modes of illustration? 

CBM: There be far too many attempts at greyscale realism scattered amongst my personal projects to say “no” here. Tonal values (shadow and highlight, which, together, serve to create depth and dimensionality) are best observed in this profile, so perhaps this feeds into my obsession? I’m not really sure. For work, though, predispositions are tossed to the wind! (It’s the ones that end up boomeranging me in the face that are then, possibly, reconsidered.)

cbmesserRhino

AC: What do you most love to read for pleasure? Is it the same stuff that lends itself well to illustration?

Perhaps I am a giant geek. No, for sure I am a giant geek. Apart from fiction of the lighthearted/comedic sort, I spent most of my time perusing children’s picture books, visual development anthologies, and textbooks on the human anatomy. (I majored in biology, so let’s pretend that last one isn’t as strange as it probably is.) As for whether any of this lends itself well to illustration, I would say yes. At least in the sense that I will always find lessons in aesthetic storytelling invigorating.

AC: I still treasure my copy of Gray’s Anatomy. Medical illustrations are so cool.

So, what’s better, computer or hand?

CBM: Ah, the age old question. One that has long been subject to zealous debate. I would assert, with complete sincerity, that each serves a purpose of equal importance. That “undo” button, though? Even the finest of fine artists will admit that thing’s downright transcendent.

AC: Paint or graphite or something else?

CBM: For me, personally: digital paint, graphite drawing, Star Wars characters in papier-mâché.

AC: Illustrating something already written, or creating something a propos of nothing?

CBM: Both! Every now and then, I’ll stumble across a little ditty that tickles me, and before I know it, I’ve drawn a frog in yellow rubber wellies. Other times, I’ll paint something just because the abstract notion of it makes me laugh. My favorite outcome, though, is when something I draw then inspires someone to write. This has happened a time or two, and I freakin’ love it.

cbmesserfrog

AC: What are you working on right now?

CBM: Exciting, secret stuff! (Hint: 2018 pub calendar, here we come.)

AC: How can people get in touch with you if they want to tell you how cool your work is, or if they want to work with you?

CBM: Anyone who feels so inclined can hit me up at cb@interludepress anytime. E-paper footballs and airplanes welcome!

 

To see more of CB Messer’s illustration and design work, you should check out her website: http://cbmesser.com/

 

Buy me in new places

That sounded dirtier than I intended. What I intended to say:

My first novel, SWEET, is now available on NetGalley: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

My upcoming novel, OLYMPIA KNIFE, comes out on November 2. It’s a magic realist novel about a woman in a traveling circus at the turn of the century. You can pre-order it at most major booksellers, but I suggest getting it straight from the publisher–support small presses when you can (most booksellers take a cut of their profits): https://store.interludepress.com/collections/olympia-knife-by-alysia-constantine

Now, go read something.

(Oh, yeah, and if you’re in NYC and looking for something fun to do on November 5, stop by Bluestockings Bookstore from 7-9 for the book release party for OLYMPIA KNIFE. There will be cotton candy and other swag, a raffle for some good stuff (including books), a live performance by Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller, a reading, and your chance to browse a fabulous feminist bookstore while eating a brownie.)

REVIEW: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F T Lukens

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens (September 7, 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

If I were a gawky teenage boy and had to climb the side of a house to get a job working for a weirdo Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-Watcher-Type-Guy who got smelly-slimed by trolls frequently and had a 1960s-ish nutjob secretary and a couple of junk-food-obsessed pixies living with him, and this job put me in situations in which I was chased by gore-furious unicorns and nearly killed by unfriendly mermaids, then… I don’t know what. I guess I’d be the star of this book and my name would be Bridger. Unlike the star of this book, I probably wouldn’t have the fortitude and determination to press on after that first mermaid attack.

But Bridger, like many a hero of young adult novels, is stronger and more determined than I. He bumbles into a job helping someone who’s charged with ensuring the world’s myths (like the Loch Ness Monster and a unicorn and a manticore) remain in their proper places (that is, hidden from “regular” folks) and the world’s humans are safe from their magic. Lovely enough for the reader, but unfortunately for poor Bridger, those mermaids, that manticore and all the other myths are pretty dangerous—that unicorn is definitely NOT a My Little Pony hearts and rainbows sort. Bridger discovers there’s magic in the world, but it’s not the fantasy magic he read in storybooks—it’s real, terrifying, and the only way the “normal” world stays in balance is if it remains ignorant of it.

This is an adventure story (Bridger, and many of the other characters, have quests and Joseph Campbell-like arcs to complete) and a love story (Bridger falls for football hero Leo) and a tale of chivalry (Bridger must rescue not only the world, but Leo, so that he may ride off happily into the sunset with him, and the two rescues are in direct conflict). The novel is knowing, and softly humorous at the same time that it’s gripping and tense. It puts me in mind of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time quintet—believably weird, starring outsider teens who come into their own through intrigue with odd creatures and helpful-but-strange mentors.

 

 

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne

REVIEW: Blended Notes by Lilah Suzanne (August 17, 2017); 275 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

Nico and Grady are back at the center of the narrative in the third book of the Spotlight series, and they’re getting maaaaarried. If you haven’t read Broken Records or Burning Tracks, you can still read Blended Notes and understand everything going on, but why would you skip those other two books? Broken started us off with Nico, a stylist to the stars, meeting Grady, a star country singer, and, well, hitting it off. Burning moved the focus to Nico’s business partner Gwen and her life with her wife Flora, and added focus on famous country singer Clementine, who reminds me a bit of a young Lucinda Williams (at least I picture her that way—smart and feisty and full of everything). Blended swings back to Nico and Grady, but Clementine is there, and Flora and Gwen are there, along with their wee son Cayo, who’s there with all of his drool and joy.

(I should make a special note here: Cayo’s in it, but it’s not a fawning, baby-focused thing in which even his diapers are cute. He’s there for realness.)

Lest you think Blended Notes is only about the fantasy of getting married, there is much more to be had (I’ve written about this before—not all gay folk, or folk in general, burn only for a straight-style wedding and marriage or care much about it, except for the significant financial and legal equality it delivers in many parts of the world… in short, a wedding alone is not enough to sustain an interesting narrative in my opinion). (And I recognize that this, on the heels of my “a baby is not all cuteness” thing probably makes me seem like the bitterest old lesbian ever, but I swear that’s not it. I like both weddings and babies, but I also recognize there’s more in a person’s life, or at least there should be, and those two elements are usually cheap and easy story devices to lend motive and pathos to characters. But that isn’t the case here.) The wedding here is neither central (I mean, who wants to read about picking out napkins for more than a paragraph?) nor is it the point. It’s there, but only as an impetus for other things to happen. Also going on: Grady comes out about his love for Nico (well, “him”) in a song, his record company censors him, and he must make the decision about whether to sing from inside or outside the closet, and Nico must figure out how to support him.

The writing is well-paced as usual—and perhaps in this book, even better than before. It might have something to do with the tension created when wedding plans and homophobic record labels and snooping press all begin to make things go awry and one’s never sure whether the wedding—or Nico and Grady’s relationship–will go forward or not. Grady sees Nico sneaking around with some guy, and then Nico wants to cancel the wedding, and it just can’t be what it seems to be, right? (One more page, one more page, I kept saying, which is how I found myself still reading at 2:30 AM more than once.)

All in all, it’s a really satisfying way to wrap up a series of books which follows the lives of some very likeable, interesting characters. I, for one, am particularly partial to Clementine, Grady’s compatriot country singer—she’s been by turns vain, compassionate, weird, complex and interesting in this and past books, and I want to be her friend. On the whole, these characters are not, by any means, perfect, but they are all people you root for despite that (or maybe because of it).

 

 

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: 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: 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.