Marthese reviews Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue is a phenomenal writer take is able to make you related to her narrative. So when I heard about a new book, I knew that I will someday buy it and read it especially one with such a nice cover!

Frog Music is a historical fiction with some basis in reality as it deals with an unresolved crime. It is based in 1876 in San Francisco and it follows Blanche, a French dancer. Blanche lives with her lover, Arthur and his friend Ernest. She is also friends with one Jenny Bonnet, who ends up murdered in the beginning of the book.

The book follows Blanche in her misadventures as she tries to do what’s best while at the same time searching for answers. Who killed Jenny? Who was Jenny?

Jenny is an interesting character and we get to see her through the story that swings between the past and the present. She’s a butchy character with seemingly no care in the world, but as later Blanche discovers, Jenny had a lot of mysteries surrounding her. Comparatively, Blanche is an open book. She’s a survivor and we see her character grow and mature in the book. Blanche is a character that may infuriate the reader, but one cannot help but pity her in turn.

I think this book should come with a lot of warnings. There is explicit heterosexual activities, some consent issues, victim blaming and slut shaming to begin with. Moreover, there was some gore (there was a murder after all), racism and neglect. A lot of the characters will make you angry as well but I thought that their actions were representative of their times and their believes and were realistic. I went through the last chapter really quick, I must have missed reading mystery and detective novels!

There is queer content in the book, but it comes up later on in the book. Frog Music in general has a lot of interesting thoughts on power dynamics, gender, race, consent and sexual activity, it is also a well done historical fiction book that shows its research and turns it into a vivid account of what it was like living in San Francisco in 1876.

Although I felt uneasy reading some scenes, even in the very beginning where there was gore and seemed like a horror scene (I don’t do horror) I thought that overall the themes were done well. It is an adult book, with adult themes that made me think about how it was to live life in those conditions; from clothes to housing to jobs and vehicles. The story was hooking and things were tied well. Like a good detective story, hints were there for us to notice later and leave us guessing until the very end. The end was not perfect, but it was fitting. It wasn’t happy but it wasn’t sad.

I recommend this book highly to readers that can stomach hard themes. The writing style is just exquisite. You will find yourself repeating sentences just so you can experience the writing again! I would give it as 5 stars for being a historically accurate crime story, whose background in reality was also interesting to read about (and Emma Donoghue did go out of her way and provide us with her research on the story, songs and glossary) and dealt with themes that are still relevant and good to question today.

Marthese reviews Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue

stirfry“In what day in what month of this queue of years would she find that she had become a rootless stranger, a speck in the urban sprawl?”

– Stir-fry page 13

If there was one book that I read and I thought ‘this book is me’, this book is it. It is a book that stayed with me and even if I someday forget what the story was about, I will never forget how much I enjoyed reading it and relating to the story.

Stir-fry was Donoghue’s debut novel and is set in Dublin, Ireland. It is about Maria, a university student, who goes to live with Ruth and Jael who at first she does not realize they are a couple. Maria is very innocent and always  tries to help but you see her develop and mature, in a way, this novel is also a coming-of-age novel.

It is interesting to see how Maria interacts differently with Ruth who is really sweet  and just needs someone to talk to and Jael who has a more rebellious streak and usually tries to rope Maria into fun activities and how she interacts with them as a couple. To an extent, they become so familiar with one another that they become a trio.

Maria stays with the couple and she grows up in a short period of time. We see her force herself to have relationships with people but in the end, in a plot twist that you realize made sense at the end, she ends up with someone really lightly and in a relationship I imagine full of respect.

I like how the book is divided. Ruth likes cooking and cooking brings all three together so the chapters are divided in the steps required to make a stir-fry and it makes sense! Especially because a stir-fry is the first meal that Ruth cooks for them when Maria goes to see the flat.  The story is set in the past so not contemporary and the physical space is both cozy in the flat but also big in the city and you see her attitude change more even how she feels about returning to her small home, so in a way there is psychological distance to who she used to be.

I definitely would have liked a sentence or two about what happened to characters after Maria stopped interacting with them. The book also has a bit of an open ending, but I definitely recommend this book to people that like psychological elements in books, to people that love Ireland and coming of age stories. Emma Donoghue is probably one of my favourite authors for the reason that she writes so brilliantly but also relatable.

Danielle Ferriola reviews Hood by Emma Donoghue

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Hood is not your light reading on the beach, rather a long sitting in bed with a box of tissues and a warm blanket. Emma Donoghue writes a tragically beautiful story about two women who shared a special kind of love –a love that many might not agree with. Pen O’Grady and Cara Wall have spent well over a decade together in conservative Dublin, Ireland, their love expressed only behind closed doors. Cara enjoyed pursuing men and women outside of her relationship with Pen; on one particular trip, she never made it back home due to a fatal car accident. Pen got the painful news on a Sunday evening while at home with Cara’s father in 1992. Pen is left numb as she cannot express her true reactions in the public or to family members due to their secret relationship and society’s disapproval of homosexuality.

Throughout the span of one week, we follow Pen as she tries to cope with the passing of her long-time lover. Donoghue paints an in depth picture of deep loss and profound realizations intertwined with moments of simple comedic relief. Flashbacks of their times together, both the wonderful memories and numerous breakups, help us understand the complexities of Pen and Cara’s romance. Although Pen and Cara had an agreement that they were not monogamous, Pen was always faithful to Cara, at least in the physical sense. I think Pen would have preferred their relationship to be more contained; however, her unyielding love for Cara made their arrangement more bearable.

I am glad that I embraced Hood with an open mind and undivided attention. The story is quite relatable, not only in the aspect of losing a loved one whether it’d be due to a relationship coming to an end or in unforeseeable circumstances, but also dealing with the fear of people not accepting your sexuality. Quite often that fear that keeps us in the closet to shelter us from negative reactions does just the opposite. We become lonelier and find it hard to develop close relationships if we are not fully honest with who we are. Pen is a prime example of this phenomenon as she could not call her mother on the phone following Cara’s passing and share her heartbreak with her.

One particular thought by Pen struck me as unfair in that if Cara was her husband, she would have been given two weeks off of work to grieve the loss of her partner. Regrettably, we live in a heteronormative world; it is heartbreakingly unjust that the love of two women is not appreciated in the same light by many individuals. Pen’s place of work, an Irish convent school for teenagers, upholds traditional views of the Catholic religion and perhaps she would have lost her teaching position if she had revealed her true identity. It is sad that she could not have more time to deal with her loss.

Stories revolving around the death of a loved one gone before their time remind us to treasure our lives and appreciate the moments we share with others. I wonder if Cara and Pen knew their time would be limited with one another, if they would have been open with their family about their partnership. Towards the end of Pen’s difficult week, we left on a hopeful note that things might be okay.

Hood is my second read by Emma Donoghue. I read Room a couple years ago and it remains one of my favorite books to this day. Donoghue has this incredible gift of holding the readers’ heart hostage as we immerse ourselves inside the intricate minds of her characters.

Jordan reviews Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

Kissing the Witch

Far too many people often forget the power of a story. Stories change worlds, or particularly they shape worlds, and people. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much Disney has managed to shape the mentality around romance and love for many people of the current generation. And luckily it isn’t only Disney that understands this concept. Emma Donoghue, and her collection of thirteen fairy tales Kissing the Witch, understands the power of a story, such as the one that is weaved through these tales.

It all starts with the Tale of a Shoe and Cinderella and ends with the Tale of a Kiss and a Witch, but these aren’t just thirteen separate fairy tales with a touch of real and positive female relationships. Each one of these tales, from the shoe to the kiss, is threaded together by the women in the stories. In a way this novel actually reminds me of a method that the L Word had used for its third season, interlocking various women through the past and present by bringing up a story at the beginning of each episode and moving from one woman (or guy) to the next. But Kissing the Witch does it with stories instead of events and does it in a way that proves there is always another chapter beyond the happily ever after.

We start this story with a young girl being whisked to a ball after she asked to go. And although she dances with the prince and expects to go with him, things change and instead she finds herself tossing her shoes aside and finding the woman who had brought her to the ball. It doesn’t end there, though: as they are going off together, we are led right into another story and this one is about the godmother before she was off bringing girls to balls. And each story continues one after another, based on one of the characters in the previous one. It eventually got to the point, half way through that I was turning it into a game trying to figure out who would be the next person to tell their story and what tale it might be, especially since it isn’t always clear which tale is a retelling of what!

Like most fairy tale retellings, though, you’d be able to recognize many of these stories if you knew another version of the tale. You’ll find Beauty and Beast, Donkeyskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, and even the Little Mermaid. Now you might also be surprised to find that not all of the stories in this book are lesbian retellings, but they do all have a common mentality.

They are simply stories focused on the power of relationships between women: all relationships. One is the friendship shown between two women (The Tale of the Skin), another focuses on a step mother and her step daughter (The Tale of the Apple), or even a keeper who becomes someone else for the girl she keeps (The Tale of the Hair). Regardless each one of these stories, sensual or supportive, shows the positive sides of relationships that women can share, and if this doesn’t seem like such an interesting and revolutionary idea, then you haven’t read enough fairy tales.

Often times the tales of old try to pit women against women, with the classic step mother and step sisters always being terrible to the girl in cinders, or the witch and queen that curses the young and fair girl that happens to be more beautiful. It is a common occurrence and one of the more unfortunate themes rampant in fairy tales. Instead, Emma Donoghue put the power back in women’s hands with these stories. Each one was not only interesting in the method of not focusing on the prince or husband but in some cases exciting to find out what happens next even though they were already known tales.

It’s usually hard for me to pick favorites with fairy tales, because I find many of them amusing, but in this case I think the ‘Tale of the Hair’ won out finally, due to some blind elements and an interesting narration that focused more on sounds that really got me thinking, and such a well done spin involving the prince in the story.

However, that is just from the retellings, my absolute favorite from this set was actually the last one, told by a witch narrator we know by no other name, ‘The Tale of the Kiss’. As far as I can tell, this was not a fairy tale retelling, but I could be wrong and if I am, I would love to see the original story it was based on. Regardless, this one had a bit more power behind it, possibly because it was original from the author, but it had an interesting focus on the power that people give to each other and to themselves, and most of all it had an open ending. What do I mean?

Well, the thirteen stories don’t just end with The Tale of the Kiss. Much in the same way all the previous stories before it led to a new tale being discussed by one of the characters, this one ends with a direct slant toward the reader continuing the story, essentially indirectly asking the reader what they will do with the knowledge of the stories they just read. I found it a brilliant ending for a collection of interlinked pieces and it really gives me an idea about creating a challenge to have everyone continue the ‘Kissing the Witch’ by creating the next story and the next, and the next.

Anyway, the interconnectivity of this novel was really what set this one majorly apart from other ones I’ve read and gave each tale a little more power. Of course, not all of the pieces were perfect, I actually didn’t particularly care for ‘The Tale of the Bird’ and I had trouble keeping up with ‘The Tale of the Cottage’ because of the narrator’s voice through it, but overall I still enjoyed those stories, they just fell lower on my memorability of them than the others.

Other than that, there really isn’t much of anything to say bad about these fairy tales. The writing style was wonderful and makes me glad I wrote my fairy tale rewritings in first person narrative too and the stories most of all had something to say. You could almost say there was a hidden lesson in each of them, with the last one having a not-so-hidden lesson. Regardless, this is one novel I’d recommend to really anyone, with a particular focus on showing people how it is very possible to portray women with meaningful and positive relationships (and not drama filled ones), lesbian or not, and still have a story to tell.

Danika reviews Inseparable by Emma Donoghue

I don’t know why this says Donaghue: it’s Donoghue on mine

I don’t think I can properly express how much I adored this book. As I was reading it, I wrote down the page numbers where there were quotes I wanted to post on my LesLit tumblr, as well as books I wanted to add to my TBR list, and thoughts/comments I had. Typically when I do this, I end up with half a page of notes. This time, I ended up with 5 full pages.

When I posted a quote on tumblr, I suggested the subtitle of Inseparable should be Or: How All the Authors You’ve Ever Heard of Wrote Lesbian Love Stories and No One Told You and I stick by that. Ovid? Shakespeare? Apparently every author who was anyone wrote lesbian love stories and I was somehow not aware of it. We are taught that lesbian literary history begins with Radclyffe Hall, with Sappho a distant anomaly. That’s not true at all. Desire between women has always existed, and it’s been written about throughout time. It’s just that somehow our history has been hidden from us.

Emma Donoghue excavates this masterfully. The breadth of works covered is astonishing, and it clearly took a huge amount of work. There are even passages in the novel that Donoghue translated from the French herself! And it is meticulously arranged. The book is divided into sections: Travesties (cross-dressing), Inseparables, Rivals, Monsters, Detection, and Out. Some are brief, and some have subsections of their own (the cross-dressing section is the most detailed), but it flows together very organically.

Inseparable is a fantastic academic resource for les/bi/etc literature, but it’s not written in an academic voice. It’s extremely easy to read. If you’re looking for a casual read, there are no footnotes to distract you, but if you want to go more in depth, the notes at the end are packed full of information (they note the page they are referring to), as well as gems like this note, referencing the introduction to the book: “In the ongoing controversy known as essentialism vs social constructionism, both extremes seem to me to verge on silliness (“Joan of Arc was a dyke” vs “lesbianism was invented in the late nineteenth century).”

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you like les/bi/etc literature (and why else would you be here?), check Inseparable out! You’ll be amazed at the explicit f/f romances in literature going back more than a thousand years! And it will give you plenty of ideas for more lesbian books to find. This is definitely now my favourite nonfiction book, and one of my general top five!

Interview with Emma Donoghue

I just finished reading Inseparable by Emma Donoghue (review to be posted tomorrow), and I had the opportunity to interview the author herself about it!

Q: I was coming into Inseparable expecting ambiguous relationships that we could project romantic or sexual feelings on, but I was surprised at the explicit female/female desire stories in literature stretching back to Ovid! I’ve been searching out lesbian literature for years and hadn’t heard about the vast majority of these stories. Why do you think our conception of lesbian (or female/female) literature tends to skip straight from Sappho to Radclyffe Hall?

A: I agree, it’s very odd. Partly the fault, I suspect, of modern academics who actually prefer to have to dig out hints and ambiguities, rather than tackling a right-there-in-your-face same sex plot! But mostly the fault of consistent homophobia (or, more precisely, a willful blindness to the lesbian theme) on the part of pre-twentieth-century guardians of literary tradition.

You discuss how lesbians in the past have been left unnamed in literature and law. Why do you think this is? 

Often those discussing desire between women (either in reality or in fiction) have not been deeply troubled by such desire as such; what bothered them was the notion that it might set such women apart, give them an identity, make them unavailable to men. So if they were left unnamed, they weren’t so troubling.

You covered a huge amount of material in Inseparable, but it a slim book and organized pretty strictly. Did you find it difficult to keep it so short? Is there anything you would like to have gone into more depth with?

Oh yes, I wrestled with the material for a long time; my cross-dressing chapters, in particular, could have been a book on their own. (I had a science-fiction/fantasy chapter which I was actually quite relieved to cut, because it turned out that so much lesbian sci-fi sets my teeth on edge.) I wasn’t sure whether the book would suit academic or trade publication. When INSEPARABLE finally found a publisher at Knopf, my editor Vicky Wilson was wonderfully ruthless: she made me reshape it to the general reader, cutting multiple examples, debate with other literary critics, and anything that sounded too academic. On the plus side, she encouraged me to add lots more pictures! I think she was quite right, given that lesbian literary history/criticism has got so much more specialised and theoretical in the last ten years; the way I write is much more suited to a non-academic readership. (But I was determined to give the book full notes at the back so it could be useful to scholars too.)

I have heard that this book took you a long time to write. Was it the writing, or the gathering of the material? How did you root out the more obscure texts?

It was partly the editorial process I’ve described – the endless cutting, boiling it down to the gist. But it was mostly the research, done a couple of months year for many years, very much as a side-project to my fictional work. There’s no quick way to read so many (often vastly long) primary texts. I had to read dozens of Renaissance plays just to be able to compose a single paragraph that summarised their variations on the female-bridegroom plot. Trying to skim the seventeeenth-century epic of AMADIS DE GAULE in French, in particular, nearly killed me.

Lesbian pulp fiction gets a brief overview in Inseparable. Are there any laugh-out-loud bad ones you’d recommend?

I decided to devote more attention to pre-twentieth-century works because they get so much less attention in other books on lesbian literature (which tend to start with Radclyffe Hall). But I’m glad I at least got to mention pulp. My favourites are the Beebo Brinker ones – laugh-out-loud-bad and great, too, in their peculiar way.

What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?

Hm. Actually, I think it was the centrality of lesbian themes to the tradition of detective fiction, from its beginnings.

Do you plan on writing more lesbian nonfiction?

No specific plans, but I’m very open to it. My fiction and plays are more an expression of myself, I suppose, but I treasure the quieter, more humble-monkish contributions I can make to ‘finding the lesbians’ in our cultural history.

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I am honored to be able to interview Emma Donoghue, one of my absolute favourite authors! I highly recommend Inseparable, and I’ll post a review tomorrow.

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!