Susan reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a historical romance that revolves around two queer women creating a space for themselves in art and science. Lucy Muchelney’s lover has just married someone else, and her brother is trying to get her to give up on astronomy; her only recourse is to fling herself on the mercies of Lady Catherine St Day, who’s seeking a translator for a french astronomy text so that she can wash her hands of her late husband’s legacy once and for all. Lucy, with her excellent French and understanding of mathematics and astronomy is the perfect person for the job! … If she can convince the scientific establishment to accept that.

I adored The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but it was so stressful as a reading experience! I was absolutely certain the whole way that there couldn’t be any true catharsis in it, because every sympathetic character is up against structural oppression and the sheer societal weight of white men and their gatekeeping. Over and over people who aren’t white men get dismissed and undermined, both professionally and personally, and it’s as infuriating in fiction as it is in real life! Especially because Olivia Waite does such a good job of showing the way that this form of bigotry wields politeness and reputation as weapons against marginalised people having the audacity to, say, want credit for their work! Or to be accepted as experts in their fields! But there is some catharsis – not just individual victories, characters explicitly doing the work to make science and art more welcoming, and I’ll accept that as a start.

It helps that the characters have believe in each other throughout the book. Lucy believes that Catherine’s embroidery is as much art as anything her brother has done with paint and canvas, and Catherine knows that Lucy – and many other marginalised people she knows, including herself! – are knowledgable scientists or talented artists, and while she might not always know what the best way to encourage those skills, she tries. The supportive relationships are such a good counterpoint to the Polite Science Society.

(And the descriptions are so lush! They give the book so much texture, and the characters so much depth just from what details they notice. Honestly it’s worth reading just for the gifts Catherine makes for Lucy.)

But it’s also a romance, so let’s talk about that! Lucy and Catherine are both freshly out of terrible relationships; Lucy’s ex-girlfriend is petty and manipulative even after they’ve broken up, while Catherine’s late husband was explicitly abusive. There’s no abuse explicitly on page, but Catherine’s reactions to relationships are heavily influenced by the abuse, and are completely believable to me! But if you’re in the market for a romance that’s supportive and kind, where the power difference between characters is actually acknowledged, and the characters find beautiful ways to demonstrate their commitment to each other, this is the book for you! I adored both of the characters and the ways that they tried to make their worlds and interests more accessible for each other! The ways that they work together warmed me right through. Honestly, my biggest frustration with the romance is that there’s a conflict between them near the end that could be solved by actually talking to each other that they just don’t deal with, which felt a little artificial considering that up until that point they’d tried to communicate! But on the whole, the romance was wonderful!

At its heart, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is about recognition and community. At every turn, the characters are asked to choose whose recognition they value – whose recognition is valuable – and what they want their community to be. Watching them answer those questions and discover a community that they didn’t even know was available is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

[Caution warnings: racism, misogyny, past abuse, structural oppression, manipulative exes, dubious consent in backstory]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

The Henna Wars by Adiba JaigirdarThe Henna Wars was my most-anticipated 2020 release. First of all, look at that beautiful cover! Plus, rival henna shop owners fall in love?? Who can resist that premise? As with many books I have high expectations for, I was hesitant to actually start it. Luckily, it lives up to the promise of that cover and premise.

Actually, I was impressed from the first pages. The dedication page reads: To queer brown girls. This is for you. After that, it has content warnings! (For racism, homophobia, bullying, and outing.)

We start the novel with Nishat contemplating coming out:

So that is how I spend Sunny Apu’s engagement, trying to construct the perfect coming out moment, and wondering if that even exists. I try to think back to every movie, TV show, and book that I’ve ever seen or read with gay protagonists. Even gay side characters. Each coming out was tragically painful. And they were all white!

She is a second generation Bangladeshi immigrant living in Ireland, and it’s not the best environment to come out in. She knows that her (private, all-girls) school will not take it well, and her family likely won’t, either. She has, however, already told her sister, who she is close with. The relationship between Nishat and her sister Priti was one of my favourite parts of the novel: they begin this story with an unshakeable bond, telling each other everything.

At the wedding, she bumps into Flávia, who she hasn’t seen since they were elementary classmates. Now, there’s an instant spark, and she’s pleasantly surprised to see her at school the next day. Complications arise in Business class, however. They all have to start their own business, and Nishat plans to do henna–she’s been practicing for years, learning from her grandmother, and feels like she’s beginning to be able to do justice to this art form. Unfortunately, Flávia noticed the henna at the wedding and comes up with the same idea–teaming up with her (white) cousin, who has spread racist rumours about Nishat.

Nishat tries to talk to Flávia about appropriating henna, but Flávia (who is Black and Brazillian) says that it’s just art, and that it’s actually really easy! Cue a painful rivalry for Nishat, who is determined to win this competition.

Okay, that’s more plot summary than I usually give, but it’s really just the first chapter or two. The Henna Wars is a fascinating book on several levels. One is that it grapples with cultural appropriation from another woman of colour, which I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before. Flávia is clueless to why Nishat is upset, and says that maybe Nishat doesn’t understand because she’s not an artist. It’s a mess.

But what really caught my attention is that this story manages to seem hopeful and joyous while dealing with dark subject matter. Nishat is trying to survive in a profoundly homophobic environment. She is not safe within her family, within her school, and doesn’t even feel sure she can tell her friends. She is harassed for her race, and the counselor can’t even get her name right. Even the pockets of joy she finds in a new crush and doing henna are complicated by this appropriation and competition, and Flávia’s teaming up with her racist cousin.

Despite all of this, though, Nishat never seems to lose herself. Even if her family doubts her and she faces pushback at school, she knows who she is, and she refuses to be ashamed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if she wins the Business competition or gets the girl: “Because I’m still here and I have my friends, my sister, and my family. And things will be okay.” [Spoiler, highlight to read:] Her parents earnestly watching Ellen is perfect. [End spoiler]

I can only imagine how difficult it is growing up as a Bangladeshi lesbian in Ireland. The Henna Wars suggests it’s a gauntlet. But Nishat is a model of steadiness and strength within the storm. She’s not perfect–she has flaws, makes mistakes, and sometimes is so embedded in her problems that she forgets to look around at what other people are dealing with–but she is inspiring.

I’ll leave off with a quote I couldn’t help but include:

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and it’s true; I’ve never really thought about having a type. I guess my type is… beautiful girl. Which is a lot of them. Most of them? Pretty much all girls.

Tierney reviews Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

Leah Burke is spending her last year of high school trying to figure out where she fits in, and often feeling awkward about the fact that she marches to the beat of her own drum. She tells the story from her perspective in Leah on the Offbeat, Becky Albertalli’s not-quite-sequel to Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda (the book on which feel-good gay movie Love, Simon was based). I say not-quite-sequel because while the events in this novel follow the events in the preceding one, Leah’s point of view puts the focus on entirely different things (don’t worry, Simon and Bram are still disgustingly adorable, even as the secondary focus), and rewrites some of what we thought we understood from the previous novel in ways that are absolutely glorious.

In Leah on the Offbeat, Leah spends much of her time hanging back – from the spotlight, from taking a real shot, to avoid change and uncertainty. She loves to draw – but doesn’t think her art is good enough to actually sell her pieces, even though she needs the money. Someone has a crush on her – but she can’t figure out how she feels about it. She’s got a giant crush on someone else – but she spends time agonizing over it, even when things look promising. She’s bisexual, and is out to her single mom (and has been since middle school) – but she doesn’t feel like she can come out to her friends so soon after Simon has come out, so they don’t know about this big part of identity.

But there are also glorious moments when she steps up to the plate, like when she stands up to a friend who makes a racist comment about affirmative action being the only reason someone got into a university she was rejected from. Throughout the entire novel, Leah is an absolutely delightful character, even when you feel like yelling at her for getting in her own way and messing things up for herself with her self-consciousness and her reluctance to ever try, for fear of messing things up. It’s infuriatingly adorable (and all the more so when she finally gets over it!).

Albertalli does an awesome job in her portrayal of Leah’s bisexuality: it’s such a rock-solid part of her identity, despite her other insecurities, and is an important focus of the novel, even though she’s not out to her friends. Her pop culture references are on point, and are delightfully queer. And no spoilers, but the very queer denouement of her story feels absolutely epic – Albertalli’s writing had me rooting for this ending from very early on in the novel.

Leah on the Offbeat is a great read, and worthy of your time whether or not you’ve read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (though queer folks who have read it are sure to enjoy Leah’s take on things, and the spectacular unfolding of Leah’s own queer story!). All I can say, they better make this one into a movie too: Leah deserves her own movie, and her queer fans deserve to see this story onscreen. Fingers crossed!

Danika reviews How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

Even before this book came out, I have been hearing 100% positive things about it. Lots of people whose opinions I respect have sung its praises, and with bi & lesbian YA readers, it’s widely accepted as a favourite. But despite these glowing reviews, I was reluctant to pick it up. Why? Honestly? Because I didn’t like the cover. It looked so bland! I know that’s a silly reason, but that’s why it took so long to reach the top of my TBR stack. And in fact, it’s probably only because I read it on my phone instead of picking up the physical copy that I even made the leap then. I’m happy to say that I was utterly mistaken in putting it off, and everyone else was completely in the right. I loved this book.

This book deftly deals with grief and unhealthy/abusive family dynamics. Grace’s father died when she was young, and since then, her mother hasn’t acted much like a mom. Maggie has been dragging Grace from one boyfriend’s house to another, and Grace is used to following her into bars and pulling her out of dangerous situations. She feels like it is her responsibility to watch after Maggie.

This is a horrible situation to be in as a teenager, and Grace is obviously suppressing a lot of anger and pain. She never knows what she’s coming home to. She’s constantly scared that Maggie has gone out drinking or ended up with a questionable guy. Trying to grow up quickly and hold it together for the both of them means something has to give. I appreciated was Grace as a character because she has deep friendships and cares about people, but she also lashes out in ways that are very believable. She wants to reach out, even as she feels that making connections is meaningless, that she is trapped in this situation. It makes her a complex but relatable character.

The relationships between characters are nuanced: Grace’s best friend and his mother are a solid source of support for her, but Luca’s mother and Maggie have a strained relationship that causes Grace to try to cover up for Maggie. In the meantime, Luca and his mom have taken in Eva (Grace’s love interest), who has recently lost her mother. Maggie takes Eva under her wing, causing Grace to agonize over whether she should tell Eva the whole truth about Maggie.

That’s a lot going on, and it’s only scratching the surface. Maggie and Grace are living with Maggie’s new boyfriend, who happens to be the father of Grace’s ex-boyfriend, meaning she’s stuck in the same house as the guy who publicly posted their suggestive text conversations after they broke up. Grace desperately wants to pursue a career as a pianist–her passion–but is afraid to leave Maggie alone, and the deadline for her life-altering audition is rapidly approaching.

The heart of the story, though, is between Maggie, Grace, and Eva. Grace cherishes the relationship she forms with Eva, where she feels like she can be herself, while resenting Eva for having a more positive relationship with Maggie than she does. The push-and-pull between Grace and all the people in her life leaves her in a situation that feels unwinnable. It’s heartbreaking to see how Maggie lets Grace down, over and over. Particularly because it’s so believable. Maggie is not a cartoonish villain, but she’s a terrible mother who puts her own child in danger and doesn’t even notice.

In case it isn’t obvious, I highly recommend this. I thought it was masterfully handled, and I was completely invested in Grace and Eva–individually and as a couple. My only complaint was that I thought Grace’s ex-boyfriend, Jay, got off the hook too easily for what he did. But overall, the treatment of abuse and grief layered with a bisexual (yes, using the word bisexual) love story and accompanied with a thoughtful examination of race and art (Eva is a black ballet dancer) all came together into a five star read for me, regardless of the cover.


Danika reviews Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman

Knit One, Girl Two by Shira Glassman cover. It shows an illustration of two women kissing and a cat playing with yarn.

I feel a little bit silly reviewing Knit One, Girl Two, because what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Especially considering that this is a novella! So consider this less of a review, and more of a reminder that this sweet little novella exists (and that you can get it for about $2!)

This is a cute, mostly fluffy story that has a wide appeal: Jewish readers, queer ladies (including bi women), and artists will all find aspects that have special interest to them. It was also nice to read about a fat love interest. This definitely felt like a “slice of life” story. It’s realistic, and as if you’re just being dropped into a short period of these people’s lives, but the characters seem to live outside the words on the page, as well.

Both the main characters are cisgender, but there is a scene that shows the queer community that they are in, and it has lots of trans minor characters. They only get a handful of lines, but it was still nice to see that.

As always in Shira Glassman books, the Florida setting is significant. Danielle is a painter, and she is inspired by Florida landscapes. Clara dyes yarn, and she collaborates with Danielle to use the colors in her paintings to design the blends in her yarn.

This isn’t entirely a traditional romance novella: there is a romance, but it’s just as much about Clara and Danielle’s art, or their relationships with their siblings, or their shared love of fandom. If you’re looking for a quick, light, but satisfying read, pick this one up!


Megan Casey reviews Tarnished Gold by Ann Aptaker

tarnished-gold

I can’t think of a better time to post this review because Tarnished Goldthe second book in Aptaker’s Cantor Gold series—has just been named the co-winner of the 2016 Golden Crown Literary Award in the Mystery category. It was previously named co-winner of the Lambda Award, making it the only book ever to have won both awards.

Tarnished Gold finds the dapper art smuggler Cantor Gold in trouble not only with the police, but with the New York mob as well. It seems that her client, for whom she recovered a Dürer landscape  painting from a Nazi in Europe, was brutally killed shortly after Cantor made the delivery. A mob boss is suspected, so to stop the cops from nosing around his business, he wants Cantor to find the killer—or else.

I’m a sucker for historical mysteries, so the fact that this book is set in 1950 already makes it a plus for me. But to keep on my right side, it has to sound like it was written in 1950 in addition to being well written and having interesting characters. Well, fear not, this book has all those. It may not be as good as Deborah Powell’s two novels about Hollis Carpenter, set in the 1930s, but it is well on the way. What it reminds me most of, though, is Therese Szymanski’s When the Dancing Stops, whose main character, Brett Higgins, also operates on the wrong side of the law.

Cantor Gold, like Brett, is a pretty unlikable character. For one thing, her face gets so continually banged up that many people’s first reaction would be to wince (she is, in fact, the Tarnished Gold of the title). She is intelligent, but selfish and she treats her women poorly. Her devotion to Sophie—a missing ex-girlfriend—may be sweet and honorable, but not at the expense of others who deserve better. As Cantor herself says, “I was always mystified by what Sophie saw in me.” Well, join the club. She also says, “I can be a cad and I know it.” But having a louse for a main character doesn’t mean a whole lot when the author is able to wield a keyboard as well as Aptaker does. In fact, it seems that she enjoys pointing out Cantor’s flaws.

When her woman-of-the-moment, Vivienne Parkhurst Trent, takes her to task for her ill treatment, Cantor agrees, although silently: “I’m speechless now, as if my tongue’s been cut out with the sharp blade of truth.” It is this kind of self-realization—and this kind of poetic writing—that puts this book in the way-above-average category. And Aptaker is a wiz with a simile. A police squad car—which Cantor loathes—is described as having “a chrome grill that looks like a mouth ready to spit.” It also“hugs the curb in front of my building like a rat claiming territory.” Not only are these descriptions vivid, but they are appropriate both for the time period and for Cantor’s mindset. It’s hard to get any better than a simile that works on three different levels.

I’ve already mentioned Szymanski’s book, but Tarnished Gold also reminds me of the fine novel by Lisa E. Davis, Under the Mink. The protagonist, Blackie Cole, is a 1940s nightclub singer who sometimes finds herself to the left of the straight and narrow. Like Cantor, she dresses mannish—so much so that she is always frightened that her place of business will be raided by the police and that she will be arrested for impersonating a man. The same holds true with Cantor and her friends—and the police in Tarnished Gold are not exemplary representatives of New York’s finest. The main cop in the story, Lieutenant Norm Huber, would do virtually anything to put Cantor in prison or in a psych unit. His vitriol is so palpable that we get the idea that he would gladly kill Cantor just to get such a pervert off the streets. I mean, it was bad in those days. Real bad.

Cantor, with her sidekicks Rosie the cab driver, Judson the information gatherer, and Red the tugboat skipper, have to delve into the very depths of New York’s criminal society to try and find out who is killing people and stealing their paintings. There are several more characters that increase the enjoyment of the story. One of them is Esther “Mom” Sheinbaum, a fence who seemingly can find out info on every piece of stolen goods in New York City. She reminds me much of Mrs. Sucksby, from Sarah Waters’ excellent Fingersmith. Sorry to drop so many names into this review, but I love it when an author pays homage to those who have gone before.

The novel has a few flaws (some of which I have communicated privately to the author), but nothing to bring it down to less than a 4.

Note: I read the Advanced Review Copy of this novel which was kindly provided by the publisher through Netgalley in e-book form.

For 200 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website atchttp://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries