Kalyanii reviews Trouble and Her Friends By Melissa Scott

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Within an inventory of my virtues, I guarantee that patience will not be listed as one. Thus, had I not been relegated to bed for a week in order to ride out a nasty virus, chances are that I would have abandoned Trouble and Her Friends within the first fifty pages.  However, lacking the energy or even the motivation to venture toward my bookshelf for a different title, I stuck with the novel ‘til the end – and now feel extremely fortunate for that fact.

After Evans-Tildale passes, Cerise returns home to discover her apartment half-empty and her lover, Trouble, nowhere to be found. Trouble, after all, had made it quite clear that if the new law meant to police the net were put into effect, she would be leaving the shadows. It was far too dangerous to continue “cracking” (hacking) within an environment controlled by real-world authorities.

Three years later, Cerise and Trouble as well as most of their friends, have abandoned their activities, relegating themselves to working within the “bright lights,” often as consultants or syscops themselves. Yet, after Cerise’s company, Multiplane, is hacked by someone calling themselves Trouble, whose immature and sloppily destructive style shows him as an imposter, the crew finds themselves reunited in an effort to stop the one who has upset the net and usurped Trouble’s name.

There is no denying that, especially within the first half, the novel moves so very slowly due to the amount of detail provided. Yet, what kept me going was my desperate need to know what would transpire once Cerise and Trouble reunited against a common enemy. The strength of their connection remained palpable in spite of Trouble’s absence, yet the nuances of their relationship were revealed without any of the professions of love that typically send me running.

Both Trouble and Cerise are, after all, incredibly competent hackers. They’re simply not wired for overt sentimentality, well aware that allowing emotion to override intellect may well prove deadly. Not only does this make for a much more interesting story, but that coolness comes across as incredibly sexy, especially as worn by Trouble, herself.

Published in 1994, Trouble and Her Friends engages with the virtual world in a manner that reflects the time. It actually rendered me a bit nostalgic for the early days of the Internet – minus the pay-by-the-minute usage rates. However, given the way in which the complexity of the plot was executed, the badass and incredibly likable protagonists and the subtly philosophical undertones, Trouble and Her Friends remains far from obsolete. Rather, it just might be considered something of a cyberpunk classic.

Kalyanii reviews Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge

 

 

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With the turn of the new year, I decided it was high-time I broaden my literary horizons. After all, I came of age in the ‘80’s and attended a university that deemed literary fiction (often times penned by male authors of western European descent) to be the be-all-and-end-all of that worthy of one’s attention, much less scholarship and acclaim. Fortunately, over my decades of exploration since, I’ve encountered the diversity I sought as a student. However, up to this point, I had yet to venture into the realm of genre fiction and was admittedly more than a bit intimidated by Sci-Fi. Could I suspend my disbelief long enough to allow for the building of a future world? Would I be just as satisfied with a plot-driven work as one rooted within the characters’ internal landscape? Would there be anything of substance that I might take away?

After a bit of online research, I felt that my best introduction lay in Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire. I was drawn to the idea of a lesbian protagonist (as always), and several reader reviews alluded to well-drawn characters. In addition, Solitaire has received numerous recognitions. The forthcoming film, OtherLife, is noted as being loosely based on the novel.

As it turns out, it was, indeed, the perfect place for my first foray.

Ren “Jackal” Segura was held from the time of her birth as the Hope of Ko, a designation assigned to the first child of her corporate nation-state born in the first second upon the establishment of a one world government. As a Hope, she was given the most special of treatment, from respect and opportunity to outright adoration. Indeed, Jackal was blessed with a charmed life, until her extremely competitive and jealous mother let it slip in a fit of rage, “They give you everything and you don’t deserve it, you’re no more a Hope than I am!” Thus, Jackal unwittingly found herself privy, mere weeks before her investiture, to the unfortunate truth that, though her birth was calculated, she did not arrive into the world until several minutes past midnight.

When news of the cover-up comes to light after an accident in which Jackal is involved, killing 437 people, including an Earth Congress senator, her webmates and dozens of children, Jackal is given the choice of securing her own defense or pleading guilty in order to save her family from punishment. Choosing to protect her family, she is sentenced to 40 years in prison and later given the opportunity to fulfill that sentence within a mere eight years (10 months in real-time) by participating in a virtual confinement program that condenses the experience of real-life solitary confinement into a fraction of the time.

To my relief, the narrative was accessible right from the start, and the world built by Eskridge made logistical sense, even to a novice such as myself. Most of the characters were as well-developed as I anticipated them to be, especially Scully, a “solo” himself, trying to navigate life post-virtual confinement in the best way he knows how. Unfortunately, the least convincing character proves to be Jackal’s partner, Snow, though I’m quite sure this is due to the somewhat improbable interactions between Jackal and her partner rather than anything within the presentation of Snow, herself.

For me, the most compelling points of the story resided within the detailed experiences endured during Jackal’s virtual confinement, penned akin to a diary, revealing a progression from resolve, grief, fear, near-madness and dissociation to self-destiny, as well as the early days of her integration back into society, though one with which she was utterly unfamiliar. Within these chapters, the reader is able to witness Jackal’s internal evolution and the coping strategies she implements in order to keep herself from breaking beyond repair.

More profoundly, Jackal’s journey toward healing and reintegration became my journey, giving me pause within each step of the process. As the reader, I was provided the opportunity to witness, objectively, the benefits and pitfalls of each strategy and reflect upon my own application of it.

The apparent acceptance of a corporatized governmental system left me at something of a loss, however. Although its manipulative omnipresence was haunting throughout, Jackal continues to seek its validation, often expressing her desire to once again belong to Ko. Perhaps the author’s intent was to encourage readers to find ways in which to utilize the system for the public good, but, jaded as I am, I simply couldn’t buy into such a tidy line of thought.

Nevertheless, after a healthy dose of reflection, I continue to take comfort in Jackal’s resilience, the subtly underground communities that support those of us on the fringe and the value of offering hope to those who need it most.

Kalyanii reviews Pansy by Andrea Gibson

 

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There are literary influences whose work has a way of taking us back to a time when we were enlivened, emboldened and perpetually inspired. Then, there are those who nudge—or rather kick—our ass forward, encouraging us to seize the opportunity to wake up, give back and believe in something greater than that for which we, and the world around us, have settled. If we have stumbled upon this force serendipitously, we might even ask, “Where have you been all my life?” or more honestly, “Where have I been to not have found you before today?”

The evening I settled in with Pansy by spoken-word poet and activist Andrea Gibson, I found myself reborn. The experience was something akin to what Ani DiFranco gave to me back in the early ‘90s with her rousing discontent yet more fierce as befitting the undercurrents within our present-moment society which foretell the rise of a raging and hate-fueled tsunami, headed directly for our civil rights and capable of leaving who-knows-what in its wake.

Within their fearless truth telling, Gibson tackles issues of sexism, racism, trauma, suicidal ideation and, yes, love and hope, calling it all as they see it with self-deprecating humor amid pleas to abandon complacency and seek out ways in which to hang on and work together to quell the devastation of that rising wave of bigotry, heteronormative ideology and apathy that threatens to imprison, if not destroy, us with its yet again growing momentum. (Mind you, I’m writing this on the eve of the U.S. presidential election and can only hope that you’ll turn to me upon reading this and assure me that it was only a very, very bad dream, after all.)

The first poem that gleaned my attention was “A Letter to My Dog Exploring the Human Condition,” in which Gibson addresses their dog, Squash, a.k.a. My Beating Heart with Fur and Legs, and imagines how the nonsensical habits of humans must appear to her, all the while expressing their undying love. With tenderness, they write, “If I could I would put your beating heart in my mouth / and suck on it like a piece of candy / so I could truly understood [sic] how / you got so sweet.”

Given Gibson’s commitment to advocacy and support for those contemplating suicide, it comes as no surprise that “The Madness Vase, a.k.a. the Nutritionist” serves as a letter “to anyone who has ever wanted to die,” providing understanding and pledging to remain by their side. Gibson assures,

I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance.
Even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?

You stay here with me. Raising
your bite against the bitter dark,
your bright longing
your brilliant fists of loss.

“Things that Don’t Suck” made me smile with its appreciation for the joys of connection, nostalgia, the simplest things… and the most profound, while “The Insider’s Guide on How to Be Sick” brought me smack into the moment of crisis, to a place where attempts to soothe only exacerbate the pain. To the well-meaning, they cry out, “I know how to talk to god, / and right now god does not expect me / to use my inside voice.”

“A Genderful Pep-Talk for my Younger Self” affirmed my commitment to living honestly and boldly. There was something so very gratifying about realizing that I’ve been around the block enough times to know the perils of compromising oneself in order to meet the status quo. The lines “They’re telling you to blend in, / like you’ve never seen how a blender works, / like they think you’ve never seen the mess from the blade,” serve as a reminder that we’re now smarter about these things than we one were.

While I’ve embraced “Etiquette Leash” as my rally cry, it was “Privilege Is Never Having to Think about It” that gave me the greatest pause, for as firmly as we might believe in our understanding of white privilege, it took the pointing out of the daily safeties and luxuries—the wearing of thrift-store grunge without raising suspicions and the expensive haircuts meant to appear unkempt—to drive the point home.

Though I had convinced myself that none of the love poems would rank among my favorites, “To My Love on the Day She Discovered Tumblr and Every Love Poem I Ever Wrote to Every Woman I Loved Before Her” certainly found its place there. Offered as a pacifying explanation for having experienced feelings for others in their past, Gibson’s love resonates whether petitioning for understanding or mumbling to themselves, “Damnit, Tumblr, you tattling piece of shit.”

I’ll admit, “Emergency Contact” nearly brought me to my knees with its clumsy though heartfelt wooing, embodied within lines such as

I have never made a love potion that hasn’t blown up,
but your mouth is the sexiest beaker.

or

Fuck playing the field.
Do you know how wild I could grow
in the flower pot beside your desk?

Seldom (if ever) have I witnessed such original use of metaphor as within the examples above as well as so many others littered throughout the collection. If truth be told, Gibson’s masterful implementation of the device has inspired me to discover a whole new level of connection and meaning within my own writing. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the tender and the ridiculous touches a place in me that begs for surrender.

Just for the record, that still doesn’t peg me as a romantic.

In conclusion, given the political unrest and impending threat to the civil rights of all marginalized people within the United States, I’m grateful that Gibson’s honesty, humor, integrity and passion have reached me in just the nick of time. I only wish that I had encountered them long ago, for there have been more personal, rather than political, times in my life when I could have used the strength and vulnerability of someone who “gets it” to keep me hanging on. Yet, what we have is today and a most pressing need for all of us to speak up and do something to make things safer, kinder, more equal and just. Please, I ask of you, let Gibson inspire and strengthen you the way they have inspired and strengthened me. We’ll do this together. We’ll hang in there with one another for as long as it takes.

Kalyanii reviews Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

 

 

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After stumbling upon the announcement of Elizabeth Gilbert’s coming out last month, l thought I’d key a quick Google search in order to become acquainted with the woman who’d rocked her world. It took the perusal of only a couple results to discover that Gilbert’s relationship with Rayya Elias is no fly-by-night romance; rather, Elias has been her dearest friend and confidante for the past fifteen years. So, when I learned that Elias had published her memoir in April of 2013 (with an introduction penned by Gilbert herself), I grew determined to get my hands on a copy. Little did I realize at the time that Elias would rock my world as well.

Born in Aleppo, Syria, Elias and her family knew more than a modicum of luxury, residing in an eight-room flat, complete with long marble hallways and manicured gardens to look down upon from the several balconies above. Beyond a handful of secrets and emotional scars, the family made pleasant memories while surrounded by the warmth of its members, good friends and caring neighbors; yet, the relative ease of daily life began to slip away with the rise of nationalism as the Ba’ath Party came into power. Amid mounting religious and political tensions and threats to his financial security, Elias’s father decided they had little choice but to leave all they knew in order to seek safety and a better life in America.

Elias was only seven years of age when her family arrived in Warren, Michigan, near Detroit, and the transition was anything but easy. Not only was their standard of living well below what they enjoyed in their homeland, but cultural differences set Elias apart as the target of incessant and utterly relentless bullying. All the while, her desire to assimilate into American culture left her feeling alienated from her family and the local Arabic community within which they had found a sense of home.

It was only in her early adulthood that Elias’s fashion-forward outlook and talents, not only as a hairstylist but a musician as well, provided her the positive regard that enabled her to flourish. The club scene, with its techno new wave vibe, enlivened and inspired her while offering the promise of a world to which she belonged.

… this was the 1980s, my time, and I was enamored with both the music and the look. They allowed me to escape; with no rules or boundaries, I could express myself and be part of an underground culture that accepted my newfound ambivalence toward being “normal,” and make cross-gendered sexuality look cool. Instinctively, I got it. Everything about this genre spoke to me, and it was the first time and place in society that I felt cool and accepted by gentle, intelligent, creative, and like-minded people…. I’d found my clan, my own pack of wolves.

With two careers budding simultaneously, Elias began to wonder if she might be outgrowing Detroit. She craved an independence beyond her family’s protective embrace and the freedom to discover her most authentic means of self-expression, both creatively as well as sexually. Thus, Elias decided to petition the owner of the salon at which she worked for the opportunity to prove herself on the East Coast whenever one became available. As luck would have it, there was need for an artistic director in Stamford, Conneticut, just 45 minutes outside of New York City. If Elias wanted it, it was hers.

The bulk of Harley Loco follows Elias’s rise as a high-end hairstylist and cutting-edge musical force into her descent within the hell of hardcore drug addiction, complete with overdoses, arrests, evictions, threats to her life, homelessness and a well-remembered stint at Rikers Island. All along the way, she takes the time to introduce her reader to those who inhabited her world during those tumultuous years, from lovers, party buddies, drug lords and down-and-out junkies to fair-weather friends and guardian angels. She shares heartrending moments of the most intense love and desire for a woman amid several doomed attempts at navigating the ever-shifting terrain of polyamory, the no-strings-attached comfort of a stranger’s bed as well as the loss and devastation sustained within a committed relationship when another’s love, regardless of how true, cannot come close to competing with that initial high.

Aside from a handful of returns to Detroit, Elias’s memoir is set against the backdrop of New York’s Lower East Side as it was in the 1980’s and early 90’s with its underground clubs, drug-dealing bodegas, shooting galleries and dens. The seediness of Alphabet City, so vividly drawn through its cast of characters, proves enthralling as Elias proceeds to paint an utterly visceral portrait of what the neighborhood was prior to gentrification. Though I spent only one night amid those streets during that epic era, the experience remains permanently etched within my memory, for the edginess of the neighborhood was nothing less than mythic in its time; and, given her penchant for telling things precisely as they were, Elias reveals with uncompromising grit the reality behind the legends that we had all so naively romanticized from afar. Though narrated with an ambivalent air of nostalgia, Elias’s innumerable falls from grace are evidence of the true underbelly of a drug culture that film, literature and the other media of its day portrayed as captivating rather than demoralizing and often deadly.

Given that Elias lived to tell the tale, it’s probably safe to say that the unfathomably hard lessons learned while looking down a gun barrel, seeking shelter within Tent City at Tompkins Square Park or writhing, dope-sick, on the cement floor of a holding cell were all a part of a journey which awakened a voice within her—a voice which, at last, spoke with certainty, “Rayya, you don’t need to do this anymore. You can be free.”

Immediately after the acknowledgements, Elias includes a section entitled “Music Links,” which directs readers to her website, where they can access the six tracks that she considers something of a soundtrack to Harley Loco. As you might expect, I beelined to my laptop, keyed in the web address and promptly pressed “play.” With palpable harkenings of Aimee Mann, Portishead and early Sleater-Kinney, the tracks presented so satisfyingly meld that which influenced us back in the day with the hard-earned jadedness of the present. My favorite track, by far, is “Fever,” which boasts a chorus I simply can’t shake:  “Got a fever in my soul, cancer in my heart; never had any place to shelter, never had anywhere to start.”

According to Gilbert’s September 7th Facebook post, it was Elias’s diagnosis of pancreatic and liver cancer that brought her to crossroads, where, after fifteen years of friendship, she chose, what else, but love.

Death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth. The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away, without ever having let her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her…well, that thought was unthinkable.

It’s beautiful yet heartbreaking, isn’t it, that which brings us face-to-face with who we are and who it is that we truly love?

I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to come to know Elias through her memoir as well as her music, which has not only brought me back to the ecstatic sensation of inhabiting my own skin but provided me a sense of the badass that I always fantasized I’d been. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if her soundtrack were to end up playing a role in the creation of my own.

In conclusion, to quote Gilbert’s courageous coming-out post once more, “Truth is the force that guides us to where we need to be in life, but love is the power that heals us once we arrive there.”

With that in mind, I wish both Gilbert and Elias the most treasured of journeys together.

Kalyanii reviews The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi

 

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After reading The Raging Skillet, I’m not certain whether I’m desperate to marry the legendary culinary mastermind known simply as Rossi or to live within her skin. It would be futile to deny my appreciation for the handful of openly lesbian chefs whose careers have blossomed in spite of – or perhaps due to – their determination to manifest a passion for food while remaining true not only to their culinary sensibilities but to the very essence of who they are. Gabrielle Hamilton, even amid the rumors surrounding her personal life, most notably comes to mind. However, none have inspired within me the spirit of resilience, determination, creativity and authenticity to quite the extent that Chef Rossi has. Her journey’s not been an easy one; she earned every bit of her success. And, the woman who’s lived to tell the story holds my admiration as well as my most heartfelt gratitude, for I just may be something more of a force in my own right for all that she’s endured.

It is to the introduction of the microwave oven that Rossi attributes her professional destiny, for once the appliance found its way into her family’s home, seldom did her mother serve any of the Hungarian faire that had graced the table, day in and day out, prior to its arrival. Unimpressed with the flavorless, prepackaged dinners that took the place of her mother’s slaved-over kosher dishes, the young Rossi began inventing and presenting concoctions that gleaned the enthusiasm of her family, later the adoration of her stoner friends and eventually the devotion of the drunks to whom she served avant-garde nachos in an attempt to sober them up before last call. It didn’t take long for her to realize where to access her influence.

Aside from a two-week bartending course, Rossi embarked upon her culinary career with no formal training. However, her chutzpah landed her positions in the food industry shortly after she ventured out on her own as a teenager, fleeing the oppressive Hasidic expectations of her family and religious community. Beyond a stint selling subscriptions forThe New York Times, a gig on The Matthew Rousseau led to both dive and ultra-trendy establishments until she found herself named by Zagat “the wildest thing this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Her anecdotes pertaining to her mother’s frugality and over-the-top kitchen dynamics inspire laugh-out-loud snorts and giggles against a backdrop of poverty, friends lost to AIDS and the challenges of proving herself in what was, especially in the 80’s, very much a man’s world. Rossi’s sense of humor proves caustic while still rather cornball, a combination I found to be terribly endearing.

I appreciated that Rossi opted for a less sentimental approach to her hardships and losses, for their gravity is evident in simply being what they are. In addition, the objectivity with which she addresses painful circumstances serves as indicative of her forward focus and innate refusal to become mired within the muck of a life lived well and boldly.

Though Rossi admits to a tendency to kvetch, or complain, the reader never sees it. She attributes the wise words “Sweetie, I come here to work, not talk about what hurts. What does not? Everything hurts. This is life… so forget it. Make some gorgeous food!” to Niko, a chef who over time assumed the roles of brother, son, wife and prodigious butter-plater, but I suspect that his guiding principles are as much hers as his own, even if she hesitates to give herself credit for it.

The chapter pertaining to her time spent at Ground Zero was perhaps, for me, the most profound of them all. Rossi does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of 9/11’s early aftermath and humanizes what remains, for anyone born post-WWII, the most jarring event of our lifetimes.

Each chapter of The Raging Skillet is accompanied by a couple of recipes associated with the events described within. Viewing the measuring cup as a “soul-crushing” instrument, Rossi notes amounts in plops and coffee cups of a given ingredient, making the recipes incredibly accessible; however, I would have given anything to learn more about her technique and creative process, secrets and all. I’m just that greedy… though it doesn’t stop me from noshing “Riverboat Guacamole” even as I pen this review.

Within the acknowledgements, Rossi thanks her girlfriend, Lydia, for “filling a void in my heart that I didn’t know was there,” so I won’t hold my breath for a proposal. However, I will continue to ponder the lessons that Rossi’s learned, share her story with fellow foodies and remind myself, when push comes to shove, within or beyond the kitchen, to hold my own when it matters and find humor in the rest.

Kalyanii reviews The Housing Crisis by Kate McLay

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Some literary journeys reveal their destination long before their narrative engine has found its hum, while others keep the reader wide-eyed and white-knuckled with a plotline that mirrors construction season on Chicago’s I-90, with lane shifts, detours and bright orange “No Shoulder” signs aplenty. Then, albeit far and few between, there are those that encourage the reader to settle into cruise, confident that she has it all figured out, right from the start… until she reaches that scene which stops her dead in her tracks. Maybe even while driving in a center lane of the Kennedy Expressway. Or in the midst of The Housing Crisis by Kate McLay on the Windy City’s quaint yet bustling near north side.

Hannah should have known better than to move in with a straight girl, but Morgan seemed different somehow. The two of them just clicked. So, nothing could have prepared her, when she arrives home early from work on the eve of their six-month anniversary, to find her girlfriend in bed beneath a shaggy blonde-haired college guy, who just so happens to still be inside her. After emptying the contents of her stomach into the toilet and cleaning herself up, Hannah meets the swollen-lipped Morgan, where she’s standing in the kitchen, and articulates the four simple words that seal their fate:  “I can’t do this.”

Alyssa had everything in Nancy she could have asked in a roommate. She was easy to get along with, paid her half of the rent and covered her share of the bills. Even Nancy’s reluctance to vacuum was a non-issue in the whole scheme of things. Their arrangement worked well – or so she thought – prior to her return from work one day to find the apartment half-empty and a note from Nancy scrawled onto the back of a piece of junk mail, informing Alyssa that she had decided to move in with her boyfriend. After all, he had the truck only for the day.

With no idea as to how to come up with the rent, due in a couple weeks’ time, Alyssa promptly places an ad and begins asking around work. Among the prospective roommates she’s interviewed, not a one has come close to fitting the bill. Then, out of the blue, she receives a voicemail from a woman named Hannah, explaining that Nancy mentioned she might be looking for a roommate and that she, herself, is looking for a room.

The attraction between the two women is palpable even as Hannah arrives on Alyssa’s doorstep with her entire life packed into two bags and a guitar case, which isn’t much of a problem for a musician who embraces her sexuality – that is, provided she doesn’t act on her desires. After all, Hannah knows well how courting a straight girl will likely turn out. Yet, for Alyssa, who was raised Catholic and brought up with intensely conventional Midwestern mores and a God-fearing approach to life, the suddenly sensual nature of her dreams, all of them about Hannah, inspires a fair amount of anxiety and a mighty dose of confusion, especially when she awakens with her hand tucked into her moist panties.

If truth be told, I spent a good portion of my time reading The Housing Crisis with my hands splayed (not in my pants, but) through my hair, grasping any graying strands long enough not to slip through my fingers. Initially, the story progresses with a painful predictability as McLay offers up the most crucial conflicts and resulting emotional fallout in a manner which steals every ounce of her own thunder, spelling out dynamics that would have been better shown and summarizing her characters’ internal responses without the slightest hint of restraint. With each successive chapter, I felt increasingly robbed of the exhilarating tension that resides in the gradual unfolding of a well-crafted tale.

Very little of the narrative is written in-scene, and the meager snippets of stilted dialogue prove as contrived as they do improbable. The unsupported shifts in point-of-view muddy any sense of groundedness within the storyline and cast suspicion upon all that one should be able to take for granted from an omniscient third-person narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for unreliable narrators, but the incessant head-hopping proves disorienting.

McLay successfully, if not compellingly, conveys Alyssa’s sheltered upbringing and resulting moral code; however, the reader is never given the opportunity to fully experience Alyssa’s evolution when, rather than showing her reactions to a major development, the narration simply states, “And then they were kissing again and things made a lot more sense.”

Ironically enough, Alyssa’s burgeoning self-awareness and empowerment are the novella’s raison d’etre; yet, in the midst of losing her virginity, the narration again informs, “Alyssa felt free, freer than she’d ever felt in her entire life.” and “This was living.” How much more profound would it be to observe such a sentiment directly in the moment and witness its gravity within a catch in her breath or the slow roll of a single salty tear?

In spite of occasionally jarring and inconsistent word choices, random shifts in point-of-view, vague descriptions and glaring grammar and punctuation errors among a plethora of other issues, I desperately wanted McLay to succeed, for her potential is so very evident; and, after dropping a mighty bombshell toward the conclusion, in concept, she does. Though the inclusion of the completely unexpected doesn’t necessarily redeem the weaker aspects of the piece, it certainly pleads the case for a thorough revamping of the manuscript. If only McLay would take Alyssa’s story and bring it to life, utilizing the tried-and-true methods of her craft, she’d have a truly noteworthy manuscript… and the satisfaction of knowing that she created a work of fiction that is not only entertaining but exceedingly influential. As I see it, if executed well, The Housing Crisis could easily be regarded as a groundbreaking contribution to the ever-expanding canon of contemporary LGBT literature. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed, hoping that what was released was merely, in the words of Anne Lamott, a shitty first draft.

Kalyanii reviews Starting from Scratch by Georgia Beers

 

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An author skilled at her craft has a way of holding a mirror to the psyche of her reader – which is often not the most comfortable of experiences, as enlightening as it may be – and, Georgia Beers is no exception. In fact, while writing in the seemingly innocuous genre of lesbian romance, Ms. Beers adeptly yet inconspicuously infiltrates our inner mechanisms, unearthing the rustiest bits and pushing buttons we forgot we even had.

Graphic designer by day and avid baker by night, Avery King doesn’t miss a single wayward glance, much less the passing of an appreciable hourglass figure. If truth be told, she even admits to a tendency to drool, which she deems not worth the effort controlling – especially in the presence of Elena Walker, the manager of her local bank branch, who it turns out may have the additional tie or two to her daily life. Yet, Avery hasn’t dated much since the demise of her relationship with Lauren, who continues to call every couple of weeks to catch up on the latest, generous enough, at one point, to share the news that she has decided to have a baby so many months after Avery put the kibosh on the idea back when they were still together.

It’s not that Avery doesn’t like children. Her best friend Maddie and even her own grandmother, who raised her from the age of four, contend she is quite good with them. She’s simply uncomfortable making conversation with the little crumb snatchers and has never envisioned motherhood in the grand scheme of things, given the residue from her own early childhood. It’s a moot point, really, when one spends her off-time alone, attempting to elicit the affection of her pampered shelter-adopted terrier, Stephen King, while baking muffins and other sweet treats to bring into the office the following morning, is it not?

With knee surgery and several weeks of rehab looming, Maddie discovers that she’s neglected to consider her obligation to coach within the upcoming season’s youth tee-ball league. Given that, back in the day, Avery professed owing Maddie and her wife, J.T., big time after they helped to extricate her from her toxic pre-Lauren ex, Maddie decides that it’s time to cash in on the favor. After ample protesting, Avery resignedly agrees to lead practices until Maddie is able to return, presumably in time for the team’s first game.

Days later, while Maddie is rehabbing and quickly tiring of the requisite rest and relaxation, she relieves her boredom by taking it upon herself to create an online dating profile for her friend, which miffs Avery to no end, in spite of the fact that Maddie’s initiative has generated a handful of viable prospects. Most notably, Pinot72, a single mom who works in finance, captures Avery’s attention; and, in the midst of one of several rounds of chat, she startles to a knock on her door.

Yes, Starting from Scratch is an endearing love story. There are titillation and intrigue, sexual tension and moments smack on the cusp of heartbreak; yet, it is the exploration of what it means to navigate a relationship with a woman devoted to her young son when childrearing was never part of the plan that gives the meat, the savoriness, to the otherwise toothsome sweetness of a burgeoning romance.

As for the mirror held, Avery’s over-the-top lustfulness would have easily resonated with me ten years ago, when I was in my early thirties, fresh out of a heaven-and-hell-bent relationship, or even last summer, when I (in not my finest moment) assumptively slid into bed, after several incredibly delicious glasses of cabernet, beside Julia, my best friend from way back when; but, in the present, Avery’s acute awareness of the female form struck me as undermining to her other assets – her intelligence, creativity and generosity of spirit. And, as the mother of a now twenty-something, highly-evolved, metrosexual male, I could identify all too well with the varied perspectives on the parenting issue. After all, I once had a small child to consider, have lost a fair number of loves, had at one point determined that both I and my son would have fared better had I sworn off dating altogether during his formative years and, now, if honest with myself, doubt I’d be up for taking on the challenges of motherhood once again.

But, then, I remember what it was to love such a precious being, to take in the scent at the nape of his neck….

Fortunately, the novel was nearing its conclusion as the baby cravings began.

I’ve got to hand it to Ms. Beers. Within Starting from Scratch, she’s created a remarkable narrative that extends far beyond the parameters of lesbian romance and straight into the glorious muck of compelling literary fiction. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one who has been given pause by her wordsmithing, for I can only imagine the number of relationships that have been touched by the gleaming shards of wisdom interwoven within this thoughtful tale as well as the multitude of women who have benefitted from the gentle prodding to contemplate that which was once beyond the realm of consideration, much less possibility.

Ms. Beers, “just” romance writer? I think not.

Kalyanii reviews Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness by Cat Cora

 

cooking as fast as i can cat cora

For years, I’ve admired Cat Cora for her ability to take on the most notable male chefs of the day, all the while prepared with a quip in her Southern twang and sporting a smile that invariably brings me to my knees. Self-assured and deservedly so, Ms. Cora’s star had risen in the midst of Food Network’s extended heyday. Her commanding presence and newfound celebrity status offered an image of infallibility as well as culinary brilliance. Watching her throw down in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium, there appeared not a chink in her armor.

When I opened to the first page of Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness, I expected a tidy yet endearing memoir, one that might recount a few challenges along the journey toward hard-earned culinary stardom. A work that would enhance her accessibility while painting a portrait of a woman who has let nothing get in her way. Yet, I was unprepared for the uncompromising honesty and no-holds-barred self-reflection that I encountered within its pages.

Born to an unwed teenage mother on April 3rd of 1967, Cat, initially named Melanie, landed in the Mississippi Children’s Home, where she was adopted by a loving couple one week later. Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora of Jackson, Mississippi provided her with a rather idyllic childhood, complete with strong familial bonds, Greek and Southern culinary histories and frequent family outings.

For the young Cat, however, some of the family’s travels were tainted by the sexual abuse perpetuated by AH, the son of a family friend, nine years older than herself, who had made a habit of molesting her from the time she was six years old, warning her not to tell her parents or they would hate her, stop loving her and think she’s “cheap trash.” Fortunately, or not so much, when Cat was ten or perhaps eleven years old, her father walked into the bathroom where AH had cornered and proceeded to have his way with her. Initially relieved that the secret was out, Cat grew heartbroken upon witnessing the disgust on her father’s face. Rather than having AH’s hide, Spiro Cora turned and walked out, leaving her alone with her perpetrator.

There is very little of the polite or demure within Ms. Cora’s narrative. She tells things as they were (and currently are) without sugar-coating or diminishing the gravity of any given situation. Her tone is intensely conversational throughout the book, bare-bones honest without a hint of the melodramatic. She even throws in an f-bomb or two, which I appreciated to no end. Within her memoir, there is no denying it, Cat Cora gets real.

Not once does Ms. Cora shy away from her appreciation for the ladies, the strength and vitality of her apparently impressive libido or an admission of the trysts enjoyed while in a steady relationship. Seemingly unconcerned with the potential of judgements passed, Ms. Cora tells it as she sees and, yes, lived it.

When it comes to present-day dynamics, Ms. Cora remains forthcoming in her remembrances regarding events that pertain to her life with her wife, Jennifer, and their four young boys. She tackles head-on the challenges of motherhood, the residue created by several jet-set years as a celebrity chef as well as the fallout from her excessive alcohol consumption, which is truly where the rubber meets the road and I found myself most astounded by her willingness to self-disclose.

Even in conclusion, Ms. Cora chooses not to flaunt her involvement in twelve-step meetings as resolution in her relationship with alcohol nor as a happy ending to her marriage nor, for that matter, any other aspect of her life. She simply invites us to meet her where she stands, preparing dinner for friends while her wife is away, practicing yoga, and the boys play underfoot.

Kalyanii reviews Turtle Season by Miriam Ruth Black

turtle season by miriam ruth black

Suffice it to say, our personal growth does not take place within a vacuum. Our circumstances and those with whom we interact are often the catalysts for the reconfiguring of our beliefs and perceptions. So it is for Anna Simon, the protagonist within Miriam Ruth Black’s debut novel, Turtle Season.

Blindsided by her husband’s death, dismayed with the lack of access to her children and grandchildren and adrift amid the tides of hormonal imbalance, Anna finds herself lost and alone as she navigates the challenges of middle age. The demise of her career as a community college instructor of hospice care gives her pause, motivating her to take charge of her life and to embrace the present; yet, her initial efforts to let go of the past reveal a secret that upends all she believed to be true of her thirty-year marriage.

While tending to the fallout of her dead husband’s choices, Anna finds the courage to make baby steps toward reclaiming her life, embarking upon a course of estrogen replacement therapy and enrolling in a documentary production class at the university. She gradually moves beyond her self-consciousness and begins to enjoy the process of learning camera operations, interviewing and editing. Even her project partner, Ken, respects her abilities and her input.

As the two of them go about filming a ten-minute documentary on a gay and lesbian marching band, a topic suggested by Ken that initially brings up not only a bit of discomfort for Anna but latent memories of her relationship with Audrey back in college, Anna takes the lead in interviewing members while Ken tends to the nuts and bolts of capturing footage and schlepping the heavier equipment. Upon their first meeting, the band’s drummer, Carla Martinez, secures Anna’s attention, inspiring a sense of intrigue that extends far beyond the realm of the intellectual and artistic. For the first time in years, Anna’s body responds with longing and even what she remembers as desire.

With remarkable insight, Black illuminates the groundlessness often encountered amid the shifting landscape of midlife, delving into Anna’s experience with a sensitivity that is unique within a genre that more often tackles the challenges of younger women coming into their own while coming out. Although Anna questions herself at every turn, her story is one of bravery as she grows ever more willing to challenge her own biases and assumptions and reveal her authentic self before those whose decades of friendship have no alternative but to be redefined.

Fortunately, Turtle Season is primarily a story of self-discovery and personal evolution, for the more intimate elements are simply not compelling nor believable. Neither Anna nor Carla behave in a manner akin to that witnessed in the dance of two women getting to know one another. The flirtatious moments are clumsily executed while the nuances of the courtship ring hollow for they are described rather than shown within the women’s interactions.

Although I was admittedly disappointed with the handling of Anna and Carla’s burgeoning romance, I found the focus upon Anna’s personal journey to be refreshing and validating as a middle-aged woman myself. Indeed, Black’s is a fresh voice that offers the reader shelter while encouraging her to break free of the perceived safety that exists in clinging to an understanding of herself and her experience that once was valid, but is no more.

Kalyanii reviews Too Late… I Love You by Kiki Archer

 

toolateiloveyou

It takes something special to soften the heart of a woman as jaded as myself who also has a notoriously difficult time suspending her disbelief; yet, on a snowy Tuesday afternoon, yours truly turned the final page of Kiki Archer’s latest novel and sighed. Bringing the coffee mug to my lips and gazing upon the flakes falling outside my window, there was no denying it. I had been touched.

Connie Parker tells herself she has the life of her dreams. After all, she is the mother of an adorable three-year-old son, Noah, who provides her with boundless love and gives her days meaning. So what if his father, Karl, has chosen to stay with her out of a sense of duty and obligation? Though he remains more committed to his work than either Connie or Noah, Karl has made it clear that she should be grateful for the roof over her head and the opportunity to tend to her son as a stay-at-home mom.

Yet, it is within the under-stairs cupboard where she writes that Connie finds solace and glimmers of possibility, for, through the journey of her protagonist, Bonnie Blythe, she stumbles upon her own personal truth and takes to penning a precedent for the unfolding of all for which she yearns, which comes to manifest alongside her burgeoning friendship with Maria, the mocha-eyed single mother who shows up one morning at playgroup.

Too Late… I Love You is nothing if not a page-turner. In spite of all attempts to set the book aside in order to tend to my to-do list, I couldn’t help but surrender to my need to discover what happens next, abandoning my best intentions for the hours that lay ahead. Not an inkling of the formulaic or predictable finds its way into Archer’s tale. Thus, my every expectation was shattered with each new twist and revelation. My attention remained rapt throughout, though I found a rather overdone thread of banter and innuendo toward the beginning to grow old quick.

Yet, not all of the humor was lost on me. The descriptions of Earth Mother’s pendulous breasts, unabashedly displayed at playgroup, had me laughing out loud; and, Connie’s visit to the sex shop provided some pretty interesting visuals, to say the least. Connie’s best friend, Ryan, contributes a hearty dose of campness to the tale, which truly wouldn’t be the same without him.

In spite of its impressive entertainment value, Too Late… I Love You addresses important topics such as same-sex parenthood, bisexual stigma and closeting in a tone that is affirming without being victimizing and courageous without coming across as preachy. Each occasion is handled without a break in the humor or pause in the plot, propelling the story’s momentum and subtly foreshadowing some of the most memorable scenes.

In truth, I’m incredibly grateful to have encountered Archer’s writing and will be exploring her earlier works as well, for there is something tremendously freeing in laughing out loud while allowing yourself, in the moment, to believe in fairytales, even if not your own.