Susan reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad is the sequel to Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory (which I reviewed here last month!), so there might be some unavoidable spoilers for Karen Memory from here on out!

In Stone Mad, Karen and Priya are settling into their life together and celebrating their new ranch with a night out for dinner and a magic show – except that their dinner companions happen to be a widowed sceptic and illusionist, a pair of Spiritualists who might be sisters and are almost certainly con women, and whatever is haunting the hotel’s dining room. It as dramatic as you would expect.

Stone Mad is really different in scale to Karen Memory. The first book covered schemes and murders that stretched across North America at least, even though the majority of the action took place in Rapid City. In this, the action is very local and personal, and the drama is mainly interpersonal instead of conspiracy, which makes for a somewhat different tone to the action and consequences. The steampunk elements are quite toned down, presumably because of the space, but the bits that we do get are well set up and dramatic, and I enjoyed them a lot! Instead, we get a little more folklore, which is great when the characters can acknowledge that tommy-knockers and jackalopes are probably real, but ghosts and Spiritualism might be a step too far.

I really like Karen’s narrative voice. She is very frank and matter-of-fact in her narration, especially about her past as a sex worker; I really liked that she could recognise the tricks that the Arcade sisters were using on her from that, and had professional respect for it, as well as the way she talked about things she’d learned from clients. The narration has a really conversational tone, which works well for when Karen digresses onto a different topic – the digressions seem to go a little further afield before they loop back to the actual narrative than they did in Karen Memory</em, but that could be a trick of my memory. Her voice also has great descriptions, especially for the tommy-knocker – Karen has a great eye for people and details, as a character, and those really come through in the narrative.

But I did read great swathes of this book from behind my hands because one of the central dramas in Stone Mad is that relationships are not easy, as evidenced by Karen and Priya’s first real fight in their relationship. And it’s one of those fights where the actual problem and the thing that the fight’s about are two separate things, so solving it is not a simple matter. For those who spend books going “Why can’t you solve this relationship drama by talking to each other like adults?!” this might be worth checking out – I found the way they reckoned with each other and the way they helped each other with problems to be quite realistic, especially the way they talk about family.

Aside from that: I found the scenes with the tommy-knocker to be effective and unnerving, the magic show was really vivid, and I really appreciated that Elizabeth Bear actually kept and used the repercussions she set up in Karen Memory; not just the social aspect of them being heroes of the town, but also Karen’s tinnitus and chronic hip pain, and Priya’s PTSD (which in particular I thought was really well-done – the details of her being embarrassed by her own reactions rang really true for me).

Plus, I always love historical stories where every female character is explicitly Done with men, and Stone Mad goes in on the perception that the greatest woman will never be taken as seriously as the most mediocre man, How to Suppress Women’s Writing style.

Basically, this is a fun sequel to Karen Memory, and it was great to go back to that world and see how the characters were doing, even if the answer made my clutch my face in my hands! I really enjoyed it, and if you liked Karen Memory it’s worth checking this out too.

[Caution warnings: mentions of historical racism, sex trafficking, and abuse]

[This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher.]

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Daughter of Makha by Nel Havas

I look across the years in astonishment, for in the distance I see a simple, trusting girl. She is a stranger to me, yet she is familiar; her land alien, but it is mine. In unbroken chain, hand-in-hand with ghosts of myself, over the days and the hours, over years measured in heartbeats, I am linked to her.

Daughter of Makha is a retelling of the biblical story of the epic of Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-19). In the original story, Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother. When her father does nothing to punish him, Tamar’s mother and brother plot revenge (and attempt to seize power), which tears the family apart and leaves a large death toll. Tamar serves only as a catalyst n the narrative, disappearing quickly after that. Daughter of Makha expands on this character, exploring what this must have looked like for Tamar, who is trapped in a family tearing itself apart.

This is the third of Nel Havas’s books that I’ve reviewed at the Lesbrary, and although this book departs from the Ancient Egypt setting of the previous two, I can see the parallels in these stories. Like her Egyptian novels, Daughter of Makha has a matter-of-fact writing style and features thorough research–though sometimes that research veers into info dump territory, describing every road the characters take and its landmarks, or dropping in some historical story that doesn’t quite match up with the narrative.

All three books also feature court intrigue and elaborate plots to gain power. The women, especially, in these novels scheme to gain influence. They may not have a lot of legal power, but they use the resources available to manipulate their circumstances, whether it’s to shore up power, peace, or protection for their family. Makha and Bathsheba are the principal players here–both wives of King David, both trying to ensure that their son becomes the heir. But they are not the only women using whatever influence they have: Tamar spends the novel trying to turn the course of history, attempting to prevent bloodshed. I was especially impressed by the quiet shrewdness of Shoshana, who finds a way to protect her (and Absalom’s) sons no matter the outcome of the war.

Although it is the wrong against Tamar that launches this war, she is horrified by it. She doesn’t get a say in her mother and brother’s revenge plan, and it becomes obvious that they are acting for their own gain more than any attempt to defend her “honor.” I thought that Havas captured the terrible and engrossing power of war. Tamar is continually disgusted by her loved ones’ blood lust, but the battle is brutal and bloody and giddy—it inspires a morbid fascination.

As for the queer content, it comes in about half way through the book. Hana is a few years older than Tamar and has acted as a pseudo servant/caretaker/surrogate sister role at various times in Tamar’s life. They are reunited after a long separation, and they travel together to try to prevent the final battle. Hana crossdresses, disguising herself as a warrior to defend them from any conflicts on the road. Their relationship has subtly shifted; they both seem to have grown since they were last together, and they see each other with new eyes. I did like the slow build of their relationship—the tentative flirtation—but I wish there was a little bit more of it. [spoiler] Specifically, I wish there was more detail of their relationship from the end of the battle to their happily ever after. They seem to kiss for the first time, separate… and then a while passes and they’ve grown old together. I’d like to see more of their fumbling first steps in their relationship. [end spoiler]

And, of course, I have to mention their donkey, Pimi. Pimi is with them on their journey, and she’s an adorable animal sidekick.

I do have some criticisms, however. Like Nel Havas’s other books, I think the strength of the story is in the ideas and broad strokes. It could benefit from more intense editing. For instance, some paragraphs are a few lines, while others take up more than an entire page. Although overall I though the second half of the book was more interesting, some of the travel could be condensed, especially by not describing every single road they took. I was also surprised that [spoiler] Ahithophel’s suicide is casually mentioned and isn’t really a plot point.[/spoiler] Also, I know this is based on a Bible story, so arguably you can’t really “spoil” the ending, but on page 300, right before the final battle begins, the narration gives away who wins the battle, which takes away some of the tension in the moment.

And finally, a few warnings. This is based on a Bible story, but it is from an atheistic perspective. Characters (especially Makha) scoff at these beliefs, and there doesn’t seem to be any character who is religious and also a good person. I will also include a trigger warning for Tamar’s rape, which is described in some detail.

I am not a religious person, so I was not very familiar with this story, but reading the Bible story and Daughter of Makha back-to-back was a very interesting experience. I appreciated how Havas gave Tamar (and the other women of the story) agency, even when they were restricted by both misogyny and story constraints.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Shira Glassman reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

                         Alyssa Cole’s drawing of her characters

That Could Be Enough, the lesbian offering in the early American romance collection Hamilton’s Battalion, is everything a gentle historical f/f romance should be. Both characters, Mercy the servant/secretary and Andromeda the dressmaker, are fully fleshed out even within the novella’s small scope — it feels fully complete and I truly felt like I watched their courtship unfold even though it’s less than a hundred pages (in my Kindle app, anyway.)

The skeleton is your basic “woman has been hurt Really Badly and finally opens up to love again despite all her fears” trope, but the prose is so approachable and the characters so vividly painted that it felt completely fresh to me. When Mercy first sees Andromeda in the doorway of the house where she works, she’s affected in a soul-claiming way that I don’t often see represented in the romances I read but have definitely experienced in the presence of a gorgeous and captivating lady.

Mercy’s a poet, but she shut all of that down because of the way a previous girlfriend treated her poetry as part of a cruel, fatalistic breakup. “There’d been a time,” Cole writes, “when she’d felt beautiful things acutely.” This is someone who’s natural personality wants to appreciate and worship all the glories the world has to offer, but can we blame her for being terrified and walled-in after such treatment, and with nobody else in her life – before Andromeda – contradicting her ex’s pronunciations about the fate of queer lives? However, when she starts emerging from her shell again, the poem Cole gave her to write is truly beautiful. I’d put it in the review, but I want you to discover it for itself 😉

In this respect Cole herself is a bit like Mercy, inasmuch as she did some truly stunning things with language. For example, close to the story’s opening, Mercy accidentally wrote “Yearned” in her diary when she was too tired to stop herself. The next morning, she scratches it out, in progressive horizontal lines compared to a wall, and replaces it with “Slept.” That’s some powerful imagery right there. We feel her sense of perpetual retreat.

I also really liked the scene where Andromeda whisks Mercy away to something truly cool that the local Black community is working on, something that feels so in tune with Mercy’s own interests that there’s narration about how “seen” she feels, by Andromeda’s choice. I can relate to that a lot; being truly seen is high on my list of things that I’m hoping will get me out of my current, Mercylike frame of mind, romantically.

It does contain That Old Standard Trope where someone believes the worst and doesn’t ask for clarification, but from misunderstanding to pain to happy resolution there really aren’t that many pages and honestly I can’t say I’d have behaved any better in her place because when you’re scared of rejection, asking frankly is… difficult.

Andromeda is clever and enterprising and devoted to her community, especially to her fellow Black women, and Mercy is sweet and deserves lots of pampering and reassurance and validation after the kind of self-denial in which she’s been wallowing.

Author Alyssa Cole did her research and shows us a dainty, yet earnest portrait of what life might have been like for two relatively fortunate queer Black women in the early days of America. We queer women deserve a part in the costume drama world that dazzles many of our imaginations. So do Black women, not that I can speak for them, obviously. Cole’s plot solution/resolution is completely realistic, which makes it far more enjoyable for me because it’s easier for me, personally, to enthusiastically embrace a happy ending if it’s set up to be a plausible one.

That Could Be Enough fulfills its mission. The setup and resolution affirm that yes, while the road has never been a guaranteed red carpet, it has always been possible for WoC and those of us who are queer to have a far more decent life than the hungry eyes of non-queer white literature with its appetite for exploitative tragedy would have us believe.

Incidentally, the story does contain some bits here and there that will probably make more sense to people more familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I was mostly able to piece together from context what Mercy’s inner voice was thinking about and don’t worry if they lose you anyway; they’re not key to enjoying the story itself. (He’s not even alive anymore when the story takes place.)

I don’t remember this having any of the most common triggers I usually warn for. It does have a sex scene, so if that’s your preference, enjoy!

Shira Glassman writes affirming fantasy and contemporary fiction centering mostly on queer Jewish women. Come join Queen Shulamit as she saves her country’s farms with the assistance of a dragon and a witch in The Olive Conspiracy, or hang out with Clara Ziegler as she dyes yarn to match a cute girl’s wildlife paintings in Knit One Girl Twowhoops, she just accidentally dyed the cat pink, too!


Marthese reviews Carol by Patricia Highsmith

”How would the world come to life? How would its salt come back?”

Finally read this classic! Carol, originally published as The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith in 1952, was written in the late 40s, taking some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s real life and running away with it.

The story is about Therese, a young woman who at first works in retail but is hoping to get jobs as a set designer. She’s currently dating Richard but she does not love him and he knows it. Therese grows a lot during the story and becomes less awkward, but first, she has a few existential crises. One day, during the Christmas rush, she helps Carol select a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Carol has grey eyes and poise and Therese is immediately taken with her. They meet again and begin a friendship that is obvious where it will lead, although there is some resistance.

This book is often described as the first lesbian story with a happy ending. I’m not sure whether the story could be said to be happy – because for sure there are scars – but Therese and Carol are true to themselves. It is also a realistic description of the time and feelings.

Since this book was made into a movie, many may know the story, so I will focus on themes and elements within the book.

One of the things that immediately struck me was all the descriptions of things that are seen. It made for visual and captivating prose. Highsmith also describes emotions vividly.

The character of Therese is introspective. As I mentioned, she has existential crisises. They are not about her sexuality mostly – she’s never been in love and she immediately makes a connection – they are about her work and the place she has in life. This is something that everyone can relate with. Although she starts of as really insecure, she doesn’t have a problem saying ‘no’ to things she doesn’t like! I could also relate to her because she pushed a lot of people out of her life when she needed a change – she knows when a goodbye is a goodbye.

How males interacted with her was also interesting. At first, Phil and Dannie (her boyfriend Richard’s friends) ignore her and it seems like she gets jobs because of her connection with Richard. However, she managed to become friendly with them and she also gets jobs based on her connections.

The character of Richard was also interesting. At first, although I didn’t like him, I pitied him. He and Terry also appeared to at least have a good friendship when they laughed, but as time went on, he become more bitter and more sexist, using the ‘but I’m a nice guy’ and ‘you’ll change’, he gaslighted her and threatening to expose Terry. These are pretty common tropes, but it was done well, and keeping in mind when it was written, I cannot help but feel that on many accounts, Highsmith was a pioneer and beyond her time.

Carol’s character I can imagine as being very poised and having a ‘resting bitch face’ that hid her emotions. She does care a lot but never begs too much and her voice and expressions are usually controlled. She is also very direct and is not afraid to criticize. Although there was hesitation at first and a few misunderstandings when problems escalated, these two know how to maturely communicate! One thing that I noticed, is that Carol seems to be depressed: ”Carol was happy only at moments” (page 168).

As with regards to gender, I believe that this book was really progressive. It humanized a lot and voiced a lot of probably unpopular opinions. One thing that bothered me a bit was the use of ‘men’ vs ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’, something which is still done today.

It also offers a complex view of sexuality. For example, at one point, sleeping with the same people is described as a habit. Carol also has loved Harge, the husband she’s getting a divorce from and also another female before Therese. And although Therese did not love Richard, she seems attracted to another man for a while. There are no explicit sex scenes, but there are allusions to a good night!

This book is a historical fiction, but it was written in the same time (so at the time, it was a contemporary read). This was really felt. It was, for example, really interesting to see how humans interacted with so little technology. People used to amuse each other, go out to eat, go for car drives and talk, and so on. We still do it, but it had a different vibe to it.

I would recommend to read this book especially at this time. The story starts before Christmas and although it’s not really a ‘Christmas/Holiday read’ because it goes beyond the holidays, there is still a holiday feeling with shopping, presents, and celebrations. This book is a classic because so many of the themes are applicable today, so many of the emotions felt we can nod to.

One question that I have after reading the book is…how many hotels did these two pay for and not stay in? I hope they managed to get a refund! Time to watch the movie now! I still haven’t…


Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Danika reviews Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

When I finished Honey Girl, I was eager to dive into the sequel–mostly because I was absorbed by the setting (1972 Californian beach culture), but also because Riptide Summer promised to break the rule that “Girls don’t surf.”  I’m glad that I got see more of Nani and her life, but overall I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first book. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about this book that is different from the first book, just a few thoughts:

[Spoilers]

  • It’s not surprising that Nani’s relationship with Rox fell apart. I was rooting for them, but it was despite the obvious instability in their arrangement. It was disappointing, but not unrealistic, for them to so quickly turn on each other.
  • I felt like the characterization wasn’t as strong in this volume–Claire, for instance, is barely present, and I completely forgot her personality.
  • I did like that Nani started surfing, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book, and in secret. I would want to see more of her after the secret came out, and how she dealt with this new side of beach culture.
  • My favourite part of the whole book was Windy, the new love interest, and we barely get to see her at all! If there is another sequel that focuses on them and Nani’s new surf life, I would pick that up.
  • I wasn’t sure from the last book whether Nani was bi or gay, but despite wanting to kiss and date guys, she seems to decide that she’s a lesbian by the end, because she enjoys sex with women more. Unfortunately, this is also wrapped in a lot of biphobia: she tells Rox that she’s a lesbian, no matter what she says, and says she doesn’t want to be one of those funny kine girls who also date guys. The idea that someone can be attracted to more than one gender and that’s fine doesn’t really come up at all.

[End spoilers]

This series felt a little fractured, actually, like they were originally supposed to be one story and then were separated into two volumes. Riptide Summer didn’t seem to have its own arc; it just followed along where Honey Girl left off. I wish this had been condensed in some way, whether that was making Honey Girl and Riptide Summer one book, or skipping over a lot of Riptide Summer and getting more into the surfing plot line and the romance with Windy.

Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Danika reviews Honey Girl by Lisa Freeman

It’s 1972, and while Nani may not be familiar with California, she’s a Hawaiian teenage girl, and she knows the rules of the beach. Rules like: Never cut your hair. Never go anywhere without a bathing suit. Don’t let boys see you eat. Armed with this knowledge, she’s determined to break into the line up of local beach girls and become a true honey girl. But beach girl culture is cutthroat, and it’s not so easy to earn a spot.

Rarely has historical fiction pulled me so completely into the atmosphere. This takes place entirely during the summer, right after Nani and her mother have moved to California after her father’s death. She’s struggling with his death, the move, and dealing with her (white) mother’s refusal to acknowledge her Hawaiian culture, all while trying to fit in in a whole new social scene. Honey Girl perfectly captures that feel of summer vacation sun-drenched days that seem to stretch on forever. It was fascinating to see the intricate power plays that happened between all the girls on the beach, who are competing for the attention of Rox and Claire–the rulers of the beach girls–almost as much as they compete for surfers’ attention.

Nani takes her reputation on the beach very seriously, and she calculates every word and movement to ensure that she follows the rules of the beach, which she is sure will be her ticket to success. I really liked Nani. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, who wants a quick route to a shiny, rich, Christian, American life. Nani wants to keep the memory of her father alive, and is determined to go back and take over his bar once she’s of age. She resents her mom, but she’s also the only family she has.

The beach has the real cast of characters, however. Rox and Claire, especially, are fascinating, but even the minor characters seem to have more going on than is explicitly written, like they’re wandering off the page to continue their own stories. Initially, I was briefly worried that I had somehow gotten confused, and that Honey Girl wasn’t a queer book. Then Nani talked about secretly looking at her uncle’s Playboys, and I stopped worrying. Still, although she acknowledges that she might be a funny kine girl (Hawaiian Pidgin for lesbian), her romance with a boy is a significant part of the story. It is not, however, the only romance she has.

[spoilers] 

Some people might be concerned about the cheating/”slutty” bisexual trope used here, but I enjoyed Rox as a character a lot, and both Nani and Rox seem to agree that in their situation, a beard boyfriend is necessary for keeping up appearances. I wasn’t sure if Nani was bisexual or a lesbian, by the end. She doesn’t use a label, but she seems to come to a general both/and conclusion for the dichotomies in her life: Hawaiian and white, Fiji and Nigel, Mom and Jean, Hawaii and California.

[end spoilers]

I really enjoyed this one, and I am very glad that I have the sequel lined up, because I really got sucked into the atmosphere of this story.

Shira Glassman reviews Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant

The English Restoration, i.e. when Charles Stuart II returned to England to take his father’s throne back from the Puritans, fascinates me for being a renaissance of both art and hedonism. Theaters opened again after being banned, and all kinds of sexual openness flourished. I purposely sought out queer lit set in this time period–not that there’s much, given that historical LGBT romance skews heavily Regency–and was rewarded with Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant. I think it’s out of print, but WorldCat has it at these libraries and Amazon has used copies.

Mistress is about a woman who comes to London to become an actress, and in the course of doing so falls for the lady playwright who’s been helping her hone her skills. It delivers most generously on lesbian romance, on plot twists and turns, and on evocative language. The author’s also done a remarkably good job at bringing a time period to life pretty vividly without falling prey to “look at meeee, I’m so well researched!” I felt the exciting earthiness of the time.

The actress, who is going by Amy but that isn’t her real name–she’s the Beauty with a Mysterious Secret Tragic Past trope–is scarred across her face, prompting the line: “I know I have a garden in my face–the roses and the thorns.” How it got that way, and what she’s hiding from, comprise the main conflicts of the book. She’s never heard of queerness before she came to London, not understanding why she’s so immensely, irrevocably drawn to her playwright friend Margaret, until one of her fellow actors gossips to her about their gay boss. Wait, that’s a thing people can do? Is that why I–

And straightaway, beautiful sensual sapphic prose starts gushing out all over the reader:

“I have deceived you,” [Margaret] said. “I have no poetry to share with you.”

“You are deceiving me now,” Amy said in a shaking voice, “For you are yourself a poem, and I have been hungering for you to share yourself with me.”

Their sex scenes glorify in sensuality, with that enthusiastic appreciation of breasts that validates my own impulses so soothingly. Amy is “my type”–a buxom, squishy, gorgeous brunette with luxurious hair and a tragic past. Margaret is one of those independent, outspoken, able to live slightly outside of society’s rules widow characters. They have chemistry from their very first encounter, and are totally believable as a couple.

“MARGARET AND I HAVE BECOME FRIENDS!” Amy gushes into her diary, too cautious to write what she really means. She goes on to add “I will say that we wrote poetry together, and whenever I read those words, I will know what they mean. And they are true indeed, for we have writ such poetry as I never dreamed of!” The metaphor doesn’t stop here, so the book is almost worth it for the “cunnilingus = poetry” jokes alone.

I love the way this book talks about writing inspiration and the way we create idealized and alternative versions of the people in our lives to interact with on the page. So very relatable.

The liveliness of the time period is evident in the snappy dialogue:

“I heard you had returned from the dead,” says the gay theater owner to someone recovering from violence. The man’s reply is “I did not like being dead, for the plays in heaven were quite dull and not the least bawdy.”

In one scene the two leading ladies recognize and mourn how it was easier for a man to be accepted for sleeping with men than a woman with other women, mainly because of misogyny. Incidentally this is a book that recognizes bisexuality as a phenomenon (without actually anachronizing by using the word), which was a nice touch.

My one quibble, and it’s a major one that’s the reason for the missing star, is the treatment of the book’s minor characters of color. Since it’s out of print, it would satisfy me deeply if this book were to return to print with those parts reexamined especially since they could be tweaked with zero impact on the actual story itself. I like the fact that the enslaved cook from next door insists right away that the main character call her by her real African name instead of the English name her own captor gave her–and that Margaret immediately does so–and I like the fact that the main character buys her and frees her at the end. But both she and her friend, another African captive, speak in broken English that felt awkwardly executed to me, and there are passages exoticizing her religious beliefs without actually adding anything to the story itself. I’m glad she was freed at the end but it would have been even more satisfying if she’d left England with the main character’s blessing after being freed instead of being asked to stay on as a servant and sneak out.

Trigger warnings: sexual assault in a flashback, and also for a brutal attack sustained by the gay supporting character from his lover’s brother’s henchmen. I found the lesbian positivity in the book so overwhelmingly affirming that it didn’t bother me as it ordinarily might have, but it’s there all the same.

Thank you for taking the time to read my review! I write more of them at http://shiraglassman.wordpress.com and on Goodreads, or check out my latest book, The Olive Conspiracy, Jewish fantasy about a young lesbian queen who must work together with her found-family, including her wife, a dragon, a witch, and a warrior woman, to save their country from an international sabotage plot.


Danika reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairIt’s rare for me to pick up a book and be surprised to see it has queer representation. That’s part of being so immersed in the LGBTQ book internet: I’ve usually heard about the representation before picking it up. I picked Everfair because I was intrigued by the premise: a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. I like steampunk, but I’m even more interested in steampunk that isn’t in a European context. I was happily surprised to see that in addition to that premise, this book also has several queer women main characters!

This is an incredible and complex story. I wouldn’t pick this up as a light or quick read: it definitely took me a while to get through. Each chapter switches perspectives, and there are tons of point of view characters (I actually lost count). This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. The alternate history of the Congo was fascinating, and although the steampunk element was more subtle than I was expecting, there was so much going on that I didn’t notice. There are a lot of nuanced political machinations taking place, including negotiations between the people who helped to found Everfair and the rulers of the area who preceded the existence of Everfair.

At least three of the points of view characters are queer women, along with more minor characters. I would argue that the relationship between two of them is at the core of the book. They definitely don’t have a simple, sweet romance. It’s complex and deeply flawed, but it’s also passionate, genuine, and loyal. I didn’t always like the characters (okay, one of the characters, but I won’t spoil it for you), but I always appreciated the layered, believable relationship they built between them, which spanned continents and many years.

This is an ambitious novel, tackling difficult and multi-faceted topics (including war, colonialism, and racism). It is thoughtful and unafraid to deal with uncomfortable conversations. I highly recommend this if you’re looking to dive into a book that is far-reaching and thought-provoking.