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Page turners for the beach or pool

‘Love, Simon’ sequel, ‘Sodom Road Exit’ among 2018 book delights

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summer books, gay news, Washington Blade

Stuck in the summer doldrums? Here are some of the best LGBT books from 2018 to pull you out.

If you loved this spring’s blockbuster, “Love, Simon,” you should read its sequel, “Leah on the Offbeat,” (April; 368 pg.) in which author Becky Albertalli offers readers a deep dive into Simon’s best friend Leah, as she struggles with her body image, self-esteem and sexuality. On top of her personal issues, her tight-knit group of friends also starts to fracture, and things get even more complicated when Leah realizes she may like one of her friends as more than just a friend.

In “Let’s Talk About Love” (January; 308 pg.), Claire Kann tackles the stigma and misunderstanding faced by the asexual community. Kann tells the story of Alice — a college student who’s heartbroken and done with dating after her girlfriend breaks up with her after finding out she’s asexual. However, Alice is forced to revisit her prior condemnation of love when she meets Takumi, a boy who gives her butterflies in her stomach again.

“Sodom Road Exit” (April; 404 pg.), the second novel by Lambda Literary Award winner Amber Dawn, explores Starla Martin’s confrontation with the unresolved traumas of her past after she drops out of college and returns home to Crystal Beach and an overbearing mother. Though the novel may appear at first like a conventional paranormal thriller, “Sodom Road Exit” is far from it. Featuring a queer ghost story, mother-daughter complexities and authentic, raw portrayals of mental illness, the novel brings nuance to the horror genre.  

Camille Perri, author of “The Assistants,” tackles the pervasive societal taboo surrounding female pleasure in her new book “When Katie Met Cassidy” (June; 272 pg.). Katie has her life together; between her wonderful fiancé and successful law career in New York City, she is proud of the person she’s become since leaving her hometown in Kentucky. However, her entire world is turned on its head when her fiancé leaves her and she subsequently agrees to a drink with Cassidy, one of her coworkers. She and Cassidy quickly form a relationship that calls into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex and love. 

In her debut novel, “Little Fish,” (May; 320 pg.) Lambda Literary Award-winner Casey Plett tells the story of Wendy Reimer, a 30-year-old trans woman who comes across evidence that her grandfather may have been trans too. At first, Wendy sets this revelation aside, but as her life continues to unravel, she turns to her grandfather’s story and becomes determined to reveal the truth. 

Uzodinma Iweala takes you into the complicated life of a privileged boy forced to live in the closet in “Speak No Evil” (March; 207 pg.). Set in Washington, D.C., Niru lives a charmed life by most standards; he has attentive parents, attends a prestigious private school and is all set to attend Harvard in the fall. However, he has been forced to remain in the closet for fear of rejection by his Nigerian parents. Unfortunately, his parents eventually discover his secret and the fallout is brutal. The story traces Niru’s journey as he attempts to regain control of his life and redirect his future. 

Jordy Rosenberg queers a historical figure — notorious English thief Jack Sheppard — in his new novel, “Confessions of a Fox” (June; 352 pg.). The book chronicles the journey of Dr. Voth, a trans college professor, who turns up a previously undiscovered biography of Sheppard, which reveals that he was also trans. The biography further details Sheppard’s life including his love affair with a sex worker and criminal history but also his liberation, self-discovery and coming of age. Set in 18th century London, “Confessions of a Fox” reimagines the infamous Jack Sheppard and tells the story of queer love and liberation.   

“Paper is White” (February; 318 pg.) tells a familiar tale — a queer wedding with a snag — with an unfamiliar twist. Set in the 1990s in the Bay Area, Ellen and her girlfriend decide to get married, but Ellen realizes she can’t get married without first telling her grandmother. Only problem is, her grandmother is dead. In her debut novel, Hilary Zaid explores the dilemma between looking back at the past and setting forward into the future. 

If you believe you’ve seen everything worth seeing in D.C., think again. With her new book, “111 Places in Washington That You Must Not Miss,” (June; 240 pg.) Andrea Seiger invites tourists and locals alike to discover often overlooked District gems. Having lived in D.C. for the last 30 years, Seiger brings an expertise and passion to the book only a resident could. This off-the-beaten-path guide will offer new places to explore in the final month of summer and even more reasons to love the city. 

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Books

‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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