While my reading days are kept pretty busy between the AfterEllen Book Club and my undying passion for queer YA lit, I occasionally want to write separate reviews for books written by kickass queers that are aimed at adults. (Because sometimes I allow myself to be an adult. But only sometimes.) Whenever I have three good selections of these, I’ll present this sporadic column Reading the Rainbow. This inaugural edition includes comedic lesbian romance, historical British horror, and gut-hitting poetry. So essentially, this inaugural edition, like most things in my life, is random. But to be fancy, let’s say “diverse.”
I have to admit off the bat that I’m not a lesbian romance connoisseur, but after reading Ann McMan’s short story collection, Sidecar, I can say with confidence that she is one of my favorite lesbian romance authors. Her storylines are both sexy and sweet while her writing and dialogue is simultaneously snort-out-loud funny. The first of the four stories in here, a Valentine’s Day tale gone bad (or right, depending on your perspective), stars the same couple from McMan’s popular novel Jericho, although it’s not necessary to have read Jericho to be just as wrapped up in these ladies’ warmth.
My favorite story by far, however, is also the longest and the most hilarious, “Bottle Rocket.” There is nothing quite as delightful as lesbians poking fun at themselves, and there is no setting more perfect for this than a lesbian literary conference known as—I can’t even type this without laughing—CLIT-Con, “an unfortunate acronym for the prestigious Creative Literary Insights and Trends Conference,” at which AfterEllen even gets a shout out. (Thanks, Ann!) The set up: best-selling lesbian author Shawn Harris (well, you know, best selling in lesbian romance terms) versus the one reviewer who absolutely hated her debut novel. This is the powerful Kate Winston, one of the most famous reviewers at Gilded Lily, “the mainstream mouthpiece of the lesbiverse.”
After sharing some nasty comments back and forth online about this scathing review, Shawn and Kate are then unexpectedly forced to share a stage together at CLIT-Con. Hijinks ensue, and, well, you can maybe guess where things go from there. In seriousness, I would read this story again and again. (You can also now purchase Bottle Rocket by itself in novella form.)
While I know short story collections aren’t everyone’s bag, I recommend maybe stretching reading this book out, as I did. It was the perfect balm for when I was getting bored or frustrated with another book I was reading. I could put the boring book down and say, “Hey, I can read the next story in Sidecar instead,” and quickly return to stories that actually made me smile and smirk. Sidecar was also recently recognized as a best story collection of the year by the lesbian literature group the Golden Crown Literary Society.
In The Guardian’s review of The Daylight Gate (published when it was released in the UK last year), Sarah Hall remarks that Winterson “knows where true horror lies.” And in case you couldn’t tell by the cover alone, this is, indeed, horror writing. Which makes it a little hard for me to review, as I normally run as fast and as far away as I can from anything resembling horror. There were a lot of moments in this novel that made me queasy, that caused me to close the pages and take a few deep breaths. Yet I still plunged on willingly, compelled, as always, by the pure beauty of Winter’s writing alone. There is something she does that is just magic.
The history that The Daylight Gate deals with is also fascinating in itself. The year is 1612 in Lancashire, England, during the harsh reign of James I, whose mission to root out witches (and Catholics) has spread through the countryside. Winterson lays out what’s real and what isn’t in her tale in a brief introduction, and a large majority falls into the real. The Lancashire Witch Trial was the first of its kind to be historically documented.
What I love about this book, though, is that it’s not a story of innocent women falsely accused of witchcraft, as I first thought it might be. Oh, no: These women be witches. And our main character, Alice, seems to hold a type of magic even deeper than witchcraft, although she does engage in a passionate relationship with another powerful witch. There’s sex, suspense, torture, haunting scenery—and oh, Shakespeare makes an appearance, too.
The Daylight Gate just became available in the U.S. this month. There are also rumors of Hammer Films making it into a movie.
Within the first few pages of Running for Trap Doors, I had two thoughts: “God, this is why I need to read poetry more,” then, “I am so grateful to be reading this right now.” Queer poet Joanna Hoffman is undoubtedly a master of the form, an evaluation I measure by how much the poet reminds me that I am not made of the same stuff. In between trying to appreciate the poems objectively, I can’t help but selfishly wonder: “How did she come up with that strange but perfect word next to that word? That unexpected phrase there?” It is a gift I cannot comprehend.
Like most poetry collections, some poems hit me harder in deeper places than others. In the end, I liked the ones the most that were rooted in personal memory, the ones that more obviously and clearly told a story, as opposed to the ones more wrapped in metaphor and hidden meanings: the one about her aunt’s death and her grandma calling her Godface; eating Chinese food as a child with her dad; reflections on running—”Marathon is code for look what you’ve done, with your very own breath”—and many, many heartbreaking women.
My favorite poems that made me dog ear their pages included the painful yet ultimately hopeful letter to depression, “What I’ve Been Scared to Tell You”—”I’ve mapped out my own escape routes and poured in barrels of concrete”—and the triumphant-in-queerness “Pride”—”It is in our blood not to bake shame into our bones.” The cover of this book shows an uncertain girl, about to take a step, looking over her shoulder. The poems inside of it, though, are all of a bravely honest, weary but tender, overwhelmingly solid woman.