Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape

Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every queer novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Maggie reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I’m not going to lie, I did not know if I wanted to read The Pull of the Stars before I started it. I haven’t read a lot of Emma Donoghue before, and I wasn’t aware that The Pull of the Stars had an f/f relationship. I knew that a couple of my friends had liked it, and that it was about the Spanish flu pandemic, and I questioned whether I wanted to read a book about another pandemic while living through one. But it was a shorter read, and I do love historical fiction, and I’m trying this new thing during quarantine of reading books soon after they come out rather than three years later, and I’m glad I moved this one to the top of my to-read list.

The entirety of the book takes place over about three days, and most of it takes place in one small room of a Dublin hospital. Julia works long shifts at a hospital with no leave, and off shift she goes back to the house she shares with her brother, who was invalided out of the army with what is obviously a severe case of PTSD. Julia is a nurse in the maternity ward, but since the flu had become an epidemic, the hospital she works at has quarantined women with flu symptoms into one room with three beds, away from the other women, and Julia is assigned to this room, having previously gotten and recovered from the flu herself. Closed in together, Julia and her patients might as well be in their own little world–she can rarely even get a doctor to come in to assist in emergencies or to sign off on orders that Julia knows are right but doesn’t have the authority to do herself. It creates a very intense mood that distills down an already intense subject matter. In just the few days that the book covers, Julia deals with the full spectrum of birthing experience, from success to tragedy, with the flu heightening everything and making everything more difficult. Any book I read these days is an escape from my small apartment, but this time I read avidly, feeling connected to these characters who are also closed in and struggling and scarred in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even simple things become more difficult when systems are overloaded, as we all well know now, and reading about Julia doing her best to do her job and help her patients was strangely cathartic.

The whole book isn’t about midwifery and plague though. When Julia arrives for her first shift at the beginning of the book, she is assigned a new runner, an orphan named Bridie Sweeney who has been sent by the nuns who attend to the hospital. Bridie has no nursing experience, but she’s willing to learn and is good with the patients. Her sunny eagerness and the joy she takes in even the small good things are an instant bright spot in the stuffy fever ward, and Julia finds herself taking Bridie under her wing and teaching her the beginnings of nursing. Alone and dependent on each other to get their wards through each night, Julia and Bridie grow closer and closer together in the crucible of the hospital. Julia finds herself opening up to Bridie, and also finds herself keenly drawn towards the other woman as she learns more about Bridie’s past. Now, since this review is appearing in a queer book blog, a discerning reader can probably guess the way this relationship is headed, but I, having done no research and knowing nothing about this book before starting it, did not, and it was delightful. For one endless night, things were getting better for Julia and Bridie, and they even stole enough space and time for themselves to breathe and dream, and it was so so good.

Vague spoilers:

Unfortunately, this is a book about a plague and the end of a war, and the dreams do not last. The flu doesn’t care about tragic backstories or hopes or dreams. Even as Julia rails against the lack of help she has to give her patients, and the circumstances that led to their present conditions, and the increasingly disturbing facts about Bridie’s childhood, all she can do is her best, which isn’t enough in the face of such overwhelming odds. But somehow, even though the ending was emotional and sad, it pulled it all together in a way that made me long for more. The Pull of the Stars was a fast read, a fascinating read, undoubtedly a difficult read, and yet an incredibly satisfying read. I connected with it on a personal level due to our current circumstances without it being too overwhelming, and in the end it was about the importance of doing what you can to keep going, and about the good you can do along the way. As an entry into the halls of f/f historical fiction, I heartily recommend it.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Feminine Pursuits) by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Minor spoilers toward the end

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a fun historical romance about a widowed countess and lady astronomer. Lucy wants to pick up her father’s work and do the translation for a famous French astronomer for England’s science society, but lo and behold, they’re all men and sexist as hell. Lady Catherine, the society’s main patroness, doesn’t care for that at all and takes her funds to Lucy’s endeavors. Naturally, they fall in love, and romance and angst ensue.

The driving force behind Lucy and Catherine’s meeting is heartbreak. Lucy, who’s always known she only loves women, wants to run away from home after so much loss. Aside from being rejected by her lover who chooses to marry a man, her father passes away. She loved him dearly and worked alongside him for so many years. When she comes across the work of Oléron, the famous French astronomer, among her father’s work, she’s determined to throw herself into this work as well.

Lady Catherine, recently a widow, only wants to take a lover to satisfy her needs. She doesn’t want love and romance, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married again. But her previous lover after her late husband’s death wanted to marry her, so she had to call off the affair. In comes Lucy, stirring feelings in her she never knew she could have for a woman, and the idea strikes her: if she takes on a woman as a lover, she’d never have to marry. As is bound to happen in a romance novel, when two characters are running away and most definitely NOT looking for love, they find each other.

The sweetest part of their romance is how much they support one another. While Lady Catherine finances Lucy’s translation work and assures her she’s just as brilliant as the cocky bastards in the society, Lucy validates Catherine’s own artistic talents and assures the Lady her needlepoint skills have as much merit in the art world as any painter or sculptor. Together, they help each other realize their dreams. This balance and celebration of both STEM and the arts makes Lady’s Guide a delightful narrative that highlights how these pursuits complement one another.

Waite creates a highly sensual atmosphere with the sex scenes between Lucy and Catherine. They highlight the importance and eroticism of consent, as well as taking charge of one’s pleasure and desires. There’s never any shame between the two women, even as Catherine engages in intimacy with a woman for the first time. She’s never repulsed by her feelings, but rather confused, as she never thought it possible. Lucy in turn shows a great deal of respect for her partner, making sure she’s comfortable and enthusiastic every step of the way. They both take great care to address each other’s needs.

Minor spoilers:

Perhaps one of the best moments in the book is when it’s revealed that Oléron is a woman. The whole time the society, and Lucy herself, assumed the famous French astronomer was a man. This point gets tangled in Lucy’s discovery of other women like herself who have studied and furthered the sciences through history and who were silenced or else had their work taken by their fathers, brothers and other men. It leads her to her newest endeavor, which is to collect the work of these women and continue their scientific pursuits while giving them their due credit. A wonderful feminist ending for a Regency story with misogynistic conflict.

Casey A. reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

This is not a pulp fiction book. This is a book which understands how to take a genre and perfectly shine a mirror upon it. I’m genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it, as sometimes historical fiction (particularly American historical) can be far more concerned with the context of the time than how any of the characters are feeling or growing. Robin Talley seems to know this, and she writes characters who are flawed and conflicted, knowing when they need to grow and when they need to hold true to themselves.

Pulp has a two protagonist structure, alternating between the points of view of two lesbian high school seniors: Abby’s in 2017 and Janet’s in 1955. Where a lot of books try to obscure their contemporary protagonist into the vague “now” timeframe, Talley leans heavily into the political and social landscape of 2017, making even the contemporary chapters into a period piece themselves, which I think will age well. The comparison between the two eras is compelling and complex, and a large part of what kept me reading. 1955 is painted as a cold and harsh environment for queer people and people of colour alike, whereas the 2017 chapters serve to remind us how far we have come but how much we also still must do.

The pacing of the book was awkward to begin with. As a reader with ADHD, I struggled with Abby’s inner monologue jumping around over the top of dialogue, and found myself going back half a page at a time to catch the flow of conversation. However, this seemed to improve when I was only a few chapters in, and the quality of the Janet scenes made up for it until then. Throughout the plot, the two character’s are slowly woven together by their self discoveries, love of writing, reading, and most of all, pulp fiction.

Talley obviously wrote this book with a keen awareness of the need to be intersectional with her politics and diverse with her cast. The protagonists are White Catholic and Jewish, and the supporting characters span a range of racial backgrounds, sexual orientations and genders. I was pleasantly surprised to find a character using they/them pronouns! It’s seems to be written from a solid grounding in internet culture and fan fiction, so at times Abby’s point of view can come across as a little contrived, but in a way that I don’t think audiences who read a lot of YA fiction will mind much. If you are into fan fiction theory, transformative works, or metafiction, then this is certainly a good read for you.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the roots of queer culture but I would exercise caution for those who are emotionally affected by the current political climate in the USA The book is very educational, even including things I didn’t know as an activist, but also leans heavily on protest culture in 2017 and can hit a bit close to home sometimes. I will say that if you should be looking for a satisfyingly hopeful book, I think you have found it. Robin Talley, to my mind, has very shrewdly shown us that however awful things may seem right now, they will get better because we will make them so.

Casey is a non-binary bookseller and writer, a sometime poet and an all-the-time queer. Their favourite genre is usually sci-fi / fantasy, but they can be found reading kids books and angsty YA whenever the mood strikes. Most of their reads are for audiobooks because they have ADHD and printed text is not their friend. They recently attempted to start a bookstagram which you can find here @know.thy.shelf

Sera reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waites

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

When I first read The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, I remembered being enchanted by the writing, the world building, and the gorgeous, tender romance at the heart of the story. It was one of the smartest historical romances I’d read in a long while, and it fed both my heart and my brain. In the same spirit, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, while markedly different in pace and character, satisfies in the same way.

I’m a sucker for first lines, and enjoyed the way Waite’s novel catches the attention with these:

“The corpses were giving Agatha the most trouble. They looked too much like people.”

Besides grabbing the reader, the opening is excellent as an introduction to Agatha Griffin, a forty-five year old widow who runs a print house. She worries about her son’s penchant for staying out all night, as well as his inability to keep his hands off her brilliant assistant, Eliza. She also worries about keeping the print press going given the political climate, the oppressive taxation, and her son’s lack of business sense.

When she finds a beehive in her warehouse, it’s the last problem in the world she needs.

In comes Penelope Flood, a gorgeous beekeeper who helps her remove the beehive. Living in a small village where everyone knows too much about each other, Penelope spends much of her time with her bees, while her husband and brother work as whalers and are often at sea. When she and Agatha meet, it sets off a friendship that grows into love.

It takes time for the relationship between two women to develop–they don’t actually share a first kiss until three-quarters of the way through the book. However, what we do get is a great deal of deep connection and pining, evolving into a smoldering passion that sweeps Agatha and Penelope away. In the meantime, there are subplots involving Queen Caroline and Penelope’s village, as well as discourses on the politics of the time, the workings of print presses, and the art of beekeeping. I enjoyed the political commentary about the importance of a free press and the need to maintain its independence from the state, a topic of direct relevance to the times we live in today.

It also thrilled my 40-ish heart to see older protagonists depicted in romance, and especially in a Sapphic romance as this one, where both women have lived rich and interesting lives and are no longer at their peak. It’s an important story that isn’t often told. Even with the obvious constraints on the lives of Agatha and Penelope, both because of their gender as well as their sexual orientations, these are two fully-realized women who also find a way to be happy.

As a corollary to this, secondary queer characters in both novels have satisfying relationships that are not shrouded in secrecy and shame, but accepted by others. It is high time to modify our understanding of queer relationships throughout history, how much more common they were, especially Sapphic ones, which had a bit more space within which to be carried out.

Waite makes a point of centering women’s occupations, and illustrating their value. She demonstrates this brilliantly in the The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and continues to expose the reader in this novel. The entire arena of female engagement is revealed, from print shops and beekeeping, to poetry and political activism. The story of Queen Caroline weaves throughout the fabric of the story, providing a wider historical arc against which Agatha and Penelope’s love story develops. The centuries change, but what matters to women doesn’t.

If you are looking for an intelligent, layered, historical romance featuring women of a certain age, then you will enjoy the book. It works well at the level of historical fiction, though as a romance, it does take a minute for it to take off. But when it gets there, the passion is wild and gorgeous. It is a romance that rewards a reader’s patience.

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Maggie reviews Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I really enjoyed Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and it is on my rec shortlist when people want fantasy or YA recs. So when I walked by the sequel in stores I was incredibly excited at A) the fact that it was out and B) how amazing the cover is. The complete drama of those outfits with the understated blood splatter is everything I wanted. Black heroines looking fancy? Black heroines looking so fancy while still fighting zombies? The amazing cut of Jane’s suit and blouse and her intimidatingly direct stare? I love every single thing about it. Of course, between wanting to reread Dread Nation so I could remember every detail and library hold lists and just everything else that has happened this year, it took me longer than planned to get ahold of the audiobook, but I am so happy I finally did, and that I get to review it right after reviewing Dread Nation.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland picks up exactly where Dread Nation left off: with Jane, Kate, and a group of miscellaneous other people they’ve accumulated escaping the doomed town of Summerland ahead of a horde of zombies. In possession of a letter that says that her mother is no longer at Rose Hill plantation but is instead headed for California, Jane wants to head that way to find her, but lack of supplies and the needs of the civilians with them force them to head for the nearby town of Nicodemus. There they are reunited with past acquaintances and have to convince the people of their temporary home that the town’s defenses will not stand against the oncoming horde in a frightening echo of their time in Summerland. The ending of Nicodemus, like Summerland, is catastrophic for everyone there, and Ireland uses its demise as a point for a time jump that has both Jane and Kate trying to make new lives for themselves in California, but separated from each other and facing terrible hardship and prejudice once again. Between proper Kate struggling to find a place for herself where she feels fulfilled and vengeance-obsessed Jane making a name for herself but being unable to rest, Ireland highlights a full range of experiences and difficult choices they face as Black women trying to survive in country filled with racism, misogyny, and, of course, zombies.

The choice between love and vengeance is a pretty standard one in literature, but Ireland explores the whole spectrum of love that can drive people. From family – where Jane’s memories of her mother are part of what drives her to keep moving and her subsequent grappling with how memory doesn’t match reality – to friendship – Jane and Katherine are continually motivated by the friendship they’ve forged through shared tribulations – Jane and Kate struggle to make sense of the world where they find themselves and what they want out of life. Romance gets a full treatment too, even though it isn’t the main focus. Kate is asexual, and her musings on whether she should try to stomach getting married for the benefits it would provide for her and others, as well as her remembering how trapped she felt as a youth when she thought it was her only option, were poignant and incredibly emotional for me. Kate’s journey is about her finding what makes her thrive in life while struggling with how that doesn’t line up with society’s expectations, and I think it is an incredibly great arc to see in what is ostensibly a historical horror/thriller.

Jane, on the other hand, has to deal with the price of vengeance versus what she wants out of life outside of it. She has some brushes with romance – honestly her relationship with Callie was refreshing both in that it was queer and that she accepted its short-term nature with a foray into heartache that is quickly tempered by pragmatism, something lacking in a lot of YA – but her real motivation for much of the time is getting vengeance on Gideon, the scientist whose experiments have killed a lot of people Jane cared for and irrevocably changed her own life. Becoming a bounty hunter in order to gather information to track him down, Jane enters a brutal world and becomes equally as brutal herself to survive. Over and over again she is forced to choose pursuing vengeance at the cost of her relationships with others, and every time she chooses vengeance she can feel the toll it takes on her soul. It was refreshing to see a character who could admit to her changing attitude and frankly start to wonder if it was all worth it or what would be left after she accomplished her goal. On top of that she has to deal with how the world perceives her. While Kate has to deal with the physiological ramifications of being white passing and of being attractive to men when she is not attracted to them herself, Jane has to deal with her reputation. Her nickname – The Devil’s Bitch – manages to be both threatening and derogatory, and she is forced to be aggressive when dealing with the rest of the world and face the reactions to an aggressive Black woman who doesn’t hesitate to use violence to protect herself. Her emotional journey through grief and vengeance to something more peaceful feels entirely earned and not any sort of magic switch moment, and I felt like the ending was satisfying and was something entirely true to the growing they all did throughout the book.

In Deathless Divide, Justina Ireland continues her fascinating story of life in a post-Civil War, post-zombie apocalypse America. I thought this continued the first book extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the characters stayed true to themselves. It would have been really easy for the vengeance quest or their constant journeying to become flat, but each character really grew and had a lot of great introspective moments. Jane and Kate’s wildly differing worldviews contrasted well, and I really enjoyed the casual queerness and asexuality rep. Whether you’re here for the zombies or for queer action women with swords, it’s a very satisfying story. I also highly recommend the audiobook version. Bahni Turpin and Jordan Cobb are amazing narrators, and I was really pulled into the story and the rotating POVs so well.

Emily Joy reviews Nottingham by Anna Burke

Nottingham by Anna Burke

“They will remember when Nottingham’s daughters rose up against you when no one else dared.”

Let’s talk about medieval queer women. Okay, actually, let’s talk about Nottingham by Anna Burke. This is the fourth lesbian Robin Hood retelling I’ve read, and I think this one is my favorite. All of them had some things I liked, and others that I didn’t. Nottingham is no exception. What I loved most about this particular retelling was the effort the author made to represent medieval queer women as they may have really lived and felt.

For me, I feel it’s a disservice to our LGBTQ ancestors to represent them in a contemporary fashion that doesn’t reflect the actual realities of their lives in historical context. I have a hard time with queer historical fiction that invents or overwrites queer history rather than representing it. Of course, other readers may feel that there’s too much sorrow in the past and prefer to read fiction that is more optimistic and uplifting. I get that! I think Anna Burke understands as well, and Nottingham walks a fine line between representing queer history and also providing a positive, hopeful, and mostly believable narrative for these historic and fictional characters.

I have previously researched queer women in the middle ages, and there are several passages that reference specific medieval beliefs and practices concerning homosexuality. It was exciting for me to read those parts and sit up and think, “I know this reference!”

Here’s one familiar reference that I was particularly excited to find:

“[E]veryone knew that women needed stimulation to prevent suffocation of the womb. Unmarried women could seek out a midwife to do the job for them until they could find a husband.”

I loved how much effort Burke put into her research as it relates to queer women in the medieval period. I did feel, however, that it fell slightly short in the overall representation of medieval women on the whole. Often, this book fell into the familiar misconceptions that women were relegated to an upper room to embroider or weave and wait to be sold off into an advantageous marriage. The plot heavily leans on this stereotype of women being helpless chattel and sometimes it acts as the primary influence for character decisions. It was disappointing to find a lack of representation of real historical women, especially when the research into queer history was so apparent. Of course, medieval women were not afforded the same rights that women are today, but they were also respected and powerful persons in their households and in society.

I love talking about history, but let’s talk about the story too!

Nottingham creates a truly original Robin Hood retelling, including some classic scenes, but also incorporates original and exciting content. When we meet Robyn she lives with her brother and sister-in-law in Nottingham. Together they struggle to make ends meet until things take a turn for the worse, and the only way forward in which Robyn can support her family is to turn outlaw. Gathering a group of other outlaws and fugitives, they work together to bring justice to Nottingham.

Robyn’s group is wonderfully queer and full of LGBTQ characters, including Little John, who is a trans man. At first, I was nervous about how the narrative would treat a trans character in a medieval setting, but I found it to be gracefully done and didn’t have any issues with it. It’s so much fun to read about a gang of LGBTQ outlaws fighting against the system! By recasting the story, it gained a little more social relevance in our contemporary world, as well as making for a fun read.

Without spoiling it, I want to add that Robyn’s character is primarily driven by a desire for revenge, and the progression of her goals in this book is excellent. I absolutely loved seeing her grow and develop throughout this book.

Elsewhere in the story, we have Marian, the sheriff’s daughter. As an interesting contrast between our two main characters, Robyn is well-aware that she is a lesbian and very comfortable with her attraction for women, but Marian is the opposite. Her story follows her experiences as she explores her newly recognized attraction to women. Although coming out stories are plentiful in LGBTQ fiction, I think the historical context offered through Marian’s perspective was both interesting and necessary to create a believable medieval social landscape. It might be a difficult read for some as she works through her religious beliefs and internalized shame. This section also includes some self-harm, so please read carefully if that is a difficult topic for you. But fear not! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Marian’s journey does not end in heartache.

In fact, I spent much of the book really rooting for and eagerly awaiting the inevitable meet-cute between Robyn and Marian. I haven’t been as invested in a couple while reading in a long time, and this one was a real pleasure. Their relationship is subtle and takes time to develop, which gave me plenty of time to become truly invested. It was exciting to see them get to know each other and begin working together as the story progressed. It certainly helped matters that I’m a sucker for the trope of a love interest being somehow off-limits to the other, and casting Marian as the sheriff’s daughter provides a special brand of friction and drama that I enjoyed.

If you’re looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, I can wholeheartedly recommend Nottingham as your very first stop. While I’m disappointed that medieval women as a whole were so harshly stereotyped, the relationships and historically sensitive LGBTQ representation were enough to make me love this book despite a few misgivings. It has earned the number one spot on my list of lesbian Robin Hood retellings.

If you’re interested in reading up on LGBTQ medieval history during Pride Month, check out this resource page on medievalists.net, one of my favorite online resources for medieval history.

Maggie reviews Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of those rare books where an interesting concept is upheld through thorough world-building and great writing. It posits “What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened at the end of the Civil War?” and follows through with that idea – building an amazingly detailed post-war, post-undead world and filling it with political conspiracies, combat schools, small life details, and plenty of drama.

The story follows Jane McKeene, a student at one of the most prestigious combat schools for black girls in the Baltimore area. She is training to be an attendant, a highly skilled position that is meant to protect the life and virtue of wealthy white women, but Jane has her own plans to return to the plantation where she was born, which is now being run by her mother. Before she can graduate and strike out for home, however, she is caught up in a series of events that takes her out of Baltimore and to the Kansas prairie town of Summerland. Stranded there with her fellow school-mate Katherine, Jane discovered that the torturous living conditions of Summerland cover up even worse problems coming for the inhabitants.

What I really liked most about this book was the care that was put into creating the world and the atmosphere of the book. It’s not logical to plop down zombies into the Civil War and keep everything else the same, but the author carefully layered her story with details about how life would play out, right down to acceptable skirt lengths and Jane’s utter shock at seeing real horses in Summerland. It’s the sort of world-building that I love to immerse myself in. Please, tell me more about the history of combat schools, how zombie fighting techniques evolved, and the effect of the undead on post-Civil War life. Add to that the weird cult-like atmosphere in Summerland, and you have an engaging and evolving read that really fleshes out the premise of a historical zombie apocalypse. There’s also plenty of straight-up zombie fighting included too, for a nice balance of action and plot-building. Jane is an extremely capable person who is absolutely deadly with her zombie-fighting scythes. A child of her time, she doesn’t waste time on the nostalgia of those older than her, who long to go back to the way things were before the undead rose up. Zombies and post-war politics are simply a fact of life for her, and she switches back and forth between doing what she needs to survive zombies and doing what she needs to survive white society, although her strong independent streak does get her in trouble a lot.

Another thing I liked about this book was how quietly, and normally, queerness crept into it. At first, Jane shows both that she has been involved with Jackson Keats, a local boy, and an appreciation for Mr. Redfern, a trained fighter who works for the Mayor. Later though, she reveals that she has had relationships with girls in the past, and it was, in fact, a girl who taught her how to kiss. I really enjoy that this information is revealed so casually, and that Jane herself is very casual about it. At once her sexuality is a real and explicit part of her character and not a guiding part of the plot at all. I guess that fighting zombies means that she does not have time to worry about who she wants to be with, or perhaps she came to terms with herself with her first girlfriend. Either way, Jane McKeene does what she wants, whether that’s fighting zombies or kissing girls, and it was nice to have it be such a nonissue for a historical character. Kate, on the other hand, is outwardly bossy but intensely private about her personal life. Even when she and Jane grow closer through their shared struggles, she doesn’t like to talk about her past. Finally though, she confesses to Jane that she isn’t interested in sex or marriage. This happens towards the end of the book, so there isn’t time to develop this more, but I was genuinely excited for ace rep, and I really appreciated the antagonists-to-friends arc that her and Jane went through.

I’m excited to see how Jane and Kate grow in the next book, and I’m also excited to see what society looks like as Jane and Kate move west across the frontier!