Emily Joy reviews Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

I’ve steadily been making way through the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a classic lesbian pulp series by Ann Bannon, for quite some time. Women in the Shadows is the third book in that series and by far the most difficult to read so far.

This review, by nature of being for the third book in a series, contains some spoilers for the first two books. That said, let’s get into it.

Women in the Shadows picks up after the second book, I Am a Woman, and quite some time has passed. Laura and Beebo are living together in Greenwich Village, and both are very unhappy. Laura feels that she is falling out of love with Beebo, and Beebo is only holding on more tightly, which only pushes Laura further away. When Laura finds herself attracted to Tris, another woman, things start spiraling out of control.

Trigger warnings for this book include domestic abuse (physical and emotional), animal abuse, self-harm, and rape. These are also mentioned and briefly discussed in my review.

When I read lesbian pulp, I always come across parts that are uncomfortable to read. Some of the language used to talk about LGBTQ identities and people of color is jarring. Ideas about sex and consent are very different, too. By nature, pulp fiction is supposed to be sensational and shocking, and I think the effectiveness of the sensation and shock only grows larger as the years pass. Some of the uncomfortable themes are also due to outdated social norms and ideas. I definitely don’t read lesbian pulp with any expectations for it to meet my contemporary ideas, and I think that’s okay.

I expect a certain amount of discomfort when I read lesbian pulp. I think the discomfort is often worth the satisfaction of reading and developing a greater understanding of this fascinating part of lesbian literary history. Even with all of this in mind, I had a very difficult time reading Women in the Shadows.

I think the most difficult part of this book is domestic abuse, both emotional and physical. Primarily, Laura is the abuse victim, as Beebo constantly gaslights her, physically overpowers her, and emotionally manipulates her. If readers are meant to root for Laura and Beebo as a couple, I was definitely doing the opposite and rooting for her to get out of that situation as soon as possible. The abuse is truly hard to read, and anyone who can potentially be triggered by it should be cautioned.

Highlight for spoilers. A particularly uncomfortable scene is when Beebo fakes being assaulted and raped by multiple men, who also graphically killed her dog. Now, I say faked, but when this scene first occurs we read it from Laura’s perspective, and she believes it to be true, so it can be very triggering under the assumption that this truly happened to Beebo. We later find out that Beebo faked it to gain Laura’s sympathy in a play to keep their relationship and keep her from leaving. This means that Beebo beat herself, and also gruesomely kills her dog. Later, when a friend gives her a new dog, she kills that dog too. It’s not fun to read. It’s not entertaining. It’s just difficult.

In the edition that I read, there was an author’s note addressing some of her errors in writing this book, and ultimately, I read pulp with a grain of salt anyway, so I wasn’t entirely put off by what could be considered “problematic”. However, others may feel differently and have different reactions than I did. There is certainly triggering material in almost all pulp novels, but Women in the Shadows seems to have an extra dose, so please do read this with caution if any of the triggers listed at the beginning are not okay for you. Otherwise, this book is a part of lesbian history as all lesbian pulp is, and especially Ann Bannon’s works. That alone makes it worth the read to me, no matter how hard it was to get through at times. But… I highly doubt I will ever reread this.

Emily Joy reviews The War Outside by Monica Hesse

The War Outside by Monica Hesse

The War Outside by Monica Hesse is a historical fiction novel set inside an American internment camp during WWII. It follows the friendship of two young prisoners, Haruko and Margot, as they deal with discrimination, family conflict, and their own growing feelings for each other. 

This book takes a look at a lesser known part of WWII history which is rarely taught in schools, although it should be. In fact, although I knew about Japanese internment and have done some reading about it, I did not know until this book that some Germans living in America were also interned. There’s a lot you could learn from this well-researched novel. 

In Crystal City, a historical internment camp located in Texas, Haruko and Margot live on different sides of the camp, and the Japanese and Germans are both distrustful of the other. Margot and her parents are careful to keep to themselves, not wanting to associate with the Germans who support the Nazi party, and Margot is one of the few German students to attend the federal high school rather than the unaccredited German school. It is there that she meets Haruko. Haruko is suspicious of her father, and worries that he might have helped the Japanese government, and is also concerned for her brother who is a member of the all-Japanese 442nd unit in the American military. 

In the midst of the tension, Margot and Haruko become unlikely friends, talking honestly together about their worries and fears. I loved reading about their relationship as they grew closer, and the trust they developed for each other was very sweet. As they slowly realize that their feelings may not be entirely platonic, the awkwardness between them is very cute, and their dreams for after they leave Crystal City and the apartment they’ll have together are so sweet and lovely. It was easy to root for them. However, their small romance does take a back seat to the other drama happening around camp, especially within their own families.  

The storyline I found most intriguing was actually what happens with Haruko’s brother. As a member of the 442nd unit, he is not present for most of the book, but his absence is felt in a very real way. He also has a very frank discussion with Haruko about his depression, and I found that to be a particularly poignant moment in this novel.

Another thing that I loved was how Margot seems to be coded as autistic. I was a little disappointed that the book never addresses it directly, but it seemed too intentional to be coincidence. I talked about it with my autistic girlfriend, and she agreed. I only wish it had been stated directly in the text so I could say for certain that this was the author’s intention. 

Overall, I thought this book was interesting, and the setting choice is one that I don’t see often in WWII historical fiction, so I appreciated that. However, I did have a few issues, mostly with the ending. I’ll keep this mostly spoiler-free, but by nature of discussing the ending, it will give some things away so please read ahead at your own discretion. 

(Spoiler section begins, highlight to read) I felt like the ending was abrupt, and it honestly feels like the last couple chapters were ripped out. None of the characters get any closure, and, as a reader, I didn’t either. 

 

Both Margot and Haruko seem incredibly out of character, and both of them make such cruel decisions. It was so painful to read the ending, and while I understand what the book was trying to say…. I don’t know if either character is truly justified in her actions. “War makes people do terrible things” doesn’t seem to be applicable to their situations, and it felt unnecessary and forced. 

 

The ending also feels anti-climactic. The relationship that I was rooting for collapsed before it was even acknowledged, which was a real shame. I wouldn’t neccessarily call it queer-baiting, because it was so obviously alluded to, and the feelings themselves were quite clear, but the word ”gay” or “lesbian” was never used. Neither of the girls ever addresses their feelings earnestly, even internally. So that was a disappointment to me. (Spoiler section ends)

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, and wants to explore a different part of WWII. Although it is not a perfect book, the setting, atmosphere, and the characters are excellent. 

Emily Joy reviews Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Niamh Murphy had me with the title: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood. I didn’t need any more incentive to purchase this for my Kindle. Whenever there’s a new book with the promise of both lesbians and Robin Hood, I am bound to read it. My two primary reading interests are Robin Hood and lesbian literature, so there’s no getting around it. To my knowledge, this is the second lesbian retelling of Robin Hood. Or in this case, Robyn. (Marian by Ella Lyons is the other lesbian retelling, if you’d like to check it out!) Fair warning that I am a huge Robin Hood nerd, and this review reflects that.

Robyn Fitzwarren is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Loxley, just outside of Sherwood Forest. Marian de Staynton lives in the neighboring baronage of Leaford, and the two are childhood friends, and very close. Shortly after Robyn’s father departs on crusade with King Richard, a new sheriff is appointed over Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and things start to turn sour. Robyn, feeling responsible for the well-being of her family, enters the sheriff’s archery tournament, determined to win two hundred silver so that her family can pay the unfair taxes levied against them. However, in an unpredictable string of events, Robyn finds herself and her family in danger.

You might notice that my plot synopsis included very little about Marian, and that’s because Marian, and her relationship with Robyn is not a primary focus for this book. Instead it focuses almost exclusively on Robyn’s commitment to her family, and her efforts to protect them from the sheriff. I like that the book does not ignore the existence of families and parents, as some YA books tend to do.

However, I have to admit that the title led me to believe that Marian would have a greater role to play, or at least that the romance would be explored. As it is, Robyn and Marian kiss only once, and Marian is only present in maybe ten scenes. Most of the romantic narrative comes in the form of Robyn thinking about her while Robyn is hiding out in Sherwood Forest.

There are some very sweet moments, including one where Robyn goes to sleep in Marian’s bed seeking comfort and safety. It was so sweet that I nestled down deeper into my pillow with a silly grin. Sadly, such scenes are not in abundance in this book.

In some ways, the lack of focus on the romance between them is refreshing. It gives their relationship time to develop at a much slower speed, which feels natural in many ways. But with “a lesbian retelling” in the subtitle of the book, I definitely expected more. A second book is in the works, and I’m hoping Marian will have a bigger role next time.

Niamh Murphy makes some interesting choices with the traditional Robin Hood story, especially with her sheriff. In fact, the sheriff seems like a genuinely nice guy! He is in favor of good sportsmanship and prefers to play by the rules. Rather than the sheriff as a primary antagonist, it is his wife, Maud, who seeks power and revenge. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes work that Maud does to overtax and harm the people of Nottingham goes unseen, and the sheriff gets most of the blame. He eventually does take on some of his more traditional characteristics, but I appreciated the slight departure from the usual inherently villainous sheriff.

Speaking of the sheriff, he is named for the same historical sheriff who was in power during King Richard’s absence! As soon as I read the name “William de Wendenal”, I had to smile. She also made use of the pagan character, “Green Man”, sometimes associated with Robin Hood, and instead applied Green Man-like qualities to her Little John character. Niamh Power did her research for many of the details in this book! My Robin Hood nerd heart was indeed happy. There is even a glossary linked at the end (although not included in the book itself) which explains some of the people, things, and locations mentioned in the book. While some Robin Hood books tend to be more medieval fantasy than historical fiction, I think Outlaw rest somewhere comfortably in between.

That being said, the book includes such language as “thee”, “thou”, and “art” to preserve a medieval style of speech and dialect. Personally, I found this to be more distracting than immersive, and it didn’t work for me. Things like “Cover me arse, will thou?” and other similar phrases didn’t sit well with me in the way they blend modern speech with older English. The writing itself, outside of the dialogue, also has a modern voice, and skipping from modern to older, while not difficult to follow, didn’t feel cohesive.

Sadly, Robyn didn’t work for me as a character. I didn’t feel like I understood her choices, and when something went wrong, her reactions felt over the top. The whole book felt like a competition for which new thing was the Worst Thing To Ever Happen, and resulted in Robyn having a breakdown every fifty pages or so. She was the main character, and was supposed to be a version of Robin Hood, but she wasn’t much of a hero. I don’t mind unlikely heroes, but the way she would constantly break down and then run away from friends and family because they “couldn’t understand” and she “had to deal with it alone” felt immature rather than vulnerable. It certainly didn’t come across as strength, either. I didn’t even particularly care enough to root for her most of the time, largely due to a lack of believability.

As a Robin Hood retelling, I do think this one works better than Marian by Ella Lyons. The Robin Hood elements are there, and used to guide and inform the story. As a Robin Hood enthusiast, I enjoyed this! It does interesting things with the legend, and some smaller details of the lore and history are included. If you’re specifically looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, this might work for you. For casual readers, however, I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea.

Emily Joy reviews Tokyo Love by Rica Takashima

Tokyo Love

Trigger warning for some transphobia

In Tokyo Love, Rica Takashima explores a semi-autobiographical story of recently-out college-age lesbian, and what it was like to be queer in Tokyo in the 1990s before dating apps and online LGBTQ communities became more commonplace. This book is an omnibus of a serial manga she created originally for the lesbian magazine Anise(now defunct), and includes later chapters published after Anise was discontinued.

Tokyo Love follows a young woman named Rica (not to be confused with the author) after she first comes to Tokyo for college and ventures into Shinjuku Ni-choume, Tokyo’s gay district. Rica is adorably naïve and genuine and full of enthusiastic curiosity. She quickly meets an art student named Miho, and through the rest of the manga, Miho is her Ni-choume guide, and eventual girlfriend. Focusing primarily on their relationship, Tokyo Love showcases Japanese lesbian experiences in short episodic doses.

All and all, I found this book to be cute and fun. Some of the best parts of this book are in some of the earliest chapters where readers learn along with Rica about Ni-choume and Japanese lesbian bar culture. Although I live in Japan, I don’t particularly enjoy bars and haven’t gotten up my introvert courage to visit Ni-choume. This manga was fascinating, and I loved enjoying it from the quiet of my own apartment.

Although this is not necessarily a “coming out” story, over the course of the manga, Rica experiences many “firsts” of her lesbian experience, allowing the narrative to explore different topics like bar culture, having sex for the first time, her first girlfriend, and discovering LGBTQ community. Despite all these first experiences, Rica is already sure and established in her sexuality and attraction to women, and there isn’t any of the coming out drama that might otherwise be included.

Chapters are also included which show Rica and Miho’s respective childhoods and first feelings of attraction towards other girls, which is a nice addition.

My only major criticism of Tokyo Love is the depiction of a trans woman in one of the chapters. Rica meets a woman at a college mixer, and they agree to go on a date. However, when Rica suggests they end the night at a women-only bar, her date declines, fearing that she hasn’t “perfected her female body” enough to go inside. After realizing that her date is assigned male at birth, Rica responds in a thought bubble, “You’re a man!” It’s played off as very lighthearted and comical, and Rica’s date doesn’t seem upset in the least, but it was a rather jarring experience for me as the reader.  While not stated outright, this seems to end the potential for another date, and the character is never mentioned again.  It was a very disappointing scene, in an otherwise good manga. And although there isn’t anything offensive in the rest of the book, this chapter might have been enough for me to think poorly of it as a whole.

Despite being left with a sour taste in my mouth from that chapter, the rest of the manga was mostly enjoyable. The art is cute, and although the story became a bit dull for me at a certain point, I still enjoyed it for what it was, and read it until the end. If you are curious about the experience of being a lesbian in Japan in the 90s, you might consider this one.

If you’d like to read Tokyo Love, the publisher has made it free online, and you can read it and download it as a PDF: http://www.yuricon.com/yuriconalc/RTKO/files/inc/1218031951.pdf You can also purchase a Kindle edition on Amazon, but I don’t recommend it, because the text is sometimes too small or blurry to read, but is clear on the PDF!

Emily Joy reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeannette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for sexual assault and pedophilia

I must first admit that I am new to Jeanette Winterson’s books. Previously, I’ve only read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I know that she is a well-known lesbian author. Otherwise, I don’t know much. I picked up The Daylight Gate because I wanted to know more, and, as a historical fiction lover, I was drawn to this book, and hoped that it might get me started in the right direction. In the end, I think this book is more of an outlier for her works.

This review contains very mild spoilers, but I have been careful to preserve the twists as much as possible.

The Daylight Gate is a highly fictionalized account of the witch trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. Alice Nutter is a wealthy female landowner, and although no one quite knows her age, she is regarded as beautiful. She is a private person, and mysterious even for those who know her. This novella follows several characters, but ultimately it is about how two young women become involved with each other and with black magic, and how that relationship results in a dungeon full of suspected witches.

When I picked this up, I was imagining something akin to books I’ve read about the Salem witch trials⁠ — innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately finding themselves caught up on the wrong side of a rumor. The Daylight Gate is not that. It is the opposite of that. This is a book about black magic, and what happens when two young women become involved in it.

The two young women I mention were previously lovers, and their lives intertwine throughout this book, bringing many surprising twists and unexpected revelations for the reader. I honestly couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the reader experience while figuring out the twists was one of the best things about this book.

[We] were lovers and we lived as lovers, sharing one bed and one body. I worshipped her. Where I was shy, she was bold, and where I was hesitant, she was sure. I learned life from her and I learned love from her as surely as I learned astrology and mathematics from John Dee and necromancy from Edward Kelley.

Their relationship is never perfect, and I could not bring myself to care about them as a couple even in the beginning. My apathy towards them seemed justified when one eventually turns to black magic, and in a bargain for her soul, sacrifices the other to “the Dark Gentleman”, for him to rape. So… that was a bit startling.

This rape is not the only one in the book. Rape is treated as very commonplace, and occurs or is mentioned in nearly every chapter. While I wouldn’t have minded the griminess and violence of this novella, the constant presence of rape was unsettling in a way that made the book itself unenjoyable for me. There is a young girl who is abused terribly by her family, and particularly by her brother who takes her with him when goes out to “pay for his drink”. I don’t want to talk about this at length, but it is worth noting that the man who rapes this girl most often is later revealed to be her father, which some readers may want to know before choosing to read this book.

Other aspects of this book, while disturbing, are not unbearable, and suit the genre. Horror is meant to illicit a physical response in readers, and this book definitely succeeded in that. The (nonsexual) violence and rather horrific magic made me shudder, which I think is a success in the horror genre.

There is also a general feeling of despair and inevitability throughout the narrative. It feels as though the idea of the “dark ages”, usually applied to the early Middle Ages, has instead been transported to the Renaissance. Everyone is unhappy, dirty, abused, and starving. Which, while that isn’t necessarily untrue of many people during this time period, this book seems to exaggerate in order to create a truly bleak existence. This kind of atmosphere, although it felt inaccurate, was compelling, and I read this book in one sitting.

As for the magic, it is truly thrilling and terrifying. As I stated earlier, I picked this up assuming it would be about innocent people caught in a rumor, and the beginning of this book does lead you to believe that the people involved are ultimately innocent. As the book progresses, however, the amount and shock value of the magic only grows, and definitely helps make this book a page-turner.

This book is a blend of horror and historical fiction, and if that is your cup of tea, you might enjoy it more than I did. While its good qualities do not outweigh the bad for me, it did keep my interest, and it might keep yours, as well.