Julie Thompson reviews Across a Crowded Room by Jane Alden

Across a Crowded Room by Jane Alden cover

Across a Crowded Room, reminiscent of “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, opens just before Christmas 1950 in New Canaan, Connecticut. Towards year’s end, Bennie Grant leaves an unhappy marriage for an unknown future. All she knows is that she can no longer be the society housewife her husband Will and his domineering mother, Olivia, want her to be. When the couple met during the heady rush of World War II, becoming engaged and married within a whirlwind span of a few months, Bennie hadn’t fully grasped her personal identity and needs.

The trajectory of Bennie’s journey symbolically marches through a harsh New England winter towards the liberating warmth and new growth of summer. Fall-out from her confession of a short-lived affair with her best friend Alice, which occurs before the novel begins, sets events in motion. Bennie soon takes on a short-term position at her alma mater as the drama teacher, while she works out divorce details and custody of their daughter, Livie. It seems like the perfect place to hole up, until she meets the school’s new board member, Laura Clayborn. They develop an easy rapport that plays out in carefully planned situations. Misunderstandings arise, however, and thrust Bennie still further out into unknown territory. As Bennie struggles to find her footing, she discovers queer community and possibilities in unlooked for places. Alden’s exploration of the duality of queer life at this time introduces both challenges and hopeful prospects.

Alden also ably depicts constrained freedoms and continued societal and legal restrictions facing women in this era. Bennie is an especially bold character, given the high stakes involving her daughter. One of the driving questions for Bennie is the impact of her decisions on her young daughter’s development and worldview. She agonizes over a conundrum familiar to women throughout time: can I be a good mom, and still pursue a career and personal fulfillment? Will and Olivia use the child as a pawn in various situations throughout, culminating in difficult choices for Bennie.

I’ll probably re-read this immersive novel in December, when I can curl up against the cold with my cats and space heater, imagining the holiday decor of my dad’s 1950’s childhood that graced the walls and trees of my own youth. Alden’s weaves in period details, simple as a cup of coffee or turn of phrase, that conjure images of bustling cityscapes, insulated small suburban life, and interconnected theatrical community. Readers keen on historical fiction set in this era will appreciate the author’s authentic voice and tone.

Quinn Jean reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout The Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

[This review contains very vague spoilers (no specific plot points, though) and mentions of violence]

This exceptional short story collection, edited by Saundra Mitchell, is a sterling addition to WLW fiction. The vast majority of the seventeen stories included involve major WLW characters and without fail, every tale is breathtakingly beautiful. The historical settings range from a convent in medieval Spain, to small-town USA in the 1950s, right through to grunge-soaked Seattle in the early 1990s. Similarly, the young women included in the WLW stories vary greatly in their personalities, identities, dreams and loves. The one thing all the stories have in common is that none of the protagonists have unhappy endings. The book has successfully set out to show queer teenagers have always existed and thrived, even in the most adverse circumstances.

The heroism inherent in merely existing as a queer person is captured brilliantly in every story in All Out, with some of the stories including magic and fantasy to further heighten this theme. Leprechauns and witches–as well as peasant girls, waitresses and nuns–all show themselves to be strong, generous and brave when their circumstances would have them give up on life and love. Too often fictional portrayals of WLW in historical settings show these women to be doomed, but these stories reward their characters with happiness and promising futures. And the long past times in foreign places portrayed by the authors never feel distant given the amount of detail and nuance each story is imbued with, so that the reader is transported completely each time.

It is to the reader’s benefit not to know too much about what each story will contain, with only the promise that none end in tragedy, so there’s no need to be anxious when reading. Inevitably certain historical settings mean there are depictions of violence at times, but this is not the over-riding theme of any story, with queer love stories and self-discovery always emerging victorious.

Do not miss this book, it is a glorious expression of the love and light that has always filled WLW.

Anna Marie reviews Grrrls On The Side by Carrie Pack

Grrrls On the Side by Carrie Pack cover

I was so excited to read this queer Young Adult novel, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. Before I get into my criticism, let me explain the premise, and why I was so excited to read it. Set in 1994, Grrrls on the Side is about Tabitha, a fat white girl who feels like an outcast stumbling across a movement of Riot Grrrls nearby. As someone who loves zines and some aspects of riot grrrl, I was really intrigued by the synopsis, and I had also just read Moxie which is another Young Adult novel but this time focused on contemporary girls reaching back to riot grrrls for inspiration. Moxie was disappointing to me for various reasons, some to do with the way race was represented and also because queerness was almost completely erased from the narrative. When I remembered that Grrrls on the Side had canon queerness in it and was also about Riot Grrrl I thought it would satiate my itch for some good angry queer punk girl YA, but once again I was wrong!

Grrrls on the Side is a confusing and fluctuating story – Tabitha is very inconsistent in so many ways, leaping from one feeling, one breakup and one crush to the next, and not in a way that was believably adolescent. It was weirdly paced, intensely focused on romance in a really unlikely and often confusing way – random characters would be mentioned once as being present in a scene completely out of the blue. A lot of the characters, including Tabitha, are like light switches in terms of their emotions: one minute they are crying and the next laughing – its very hard to keep up with and enjoy. One of the threads of the novel – that being Tabitha’s sexuality – is just oversimplified: at first she has turmoil about being bi and thinks about it a lot, but as soon as she’s in another relationship, it completely disappears from her mind, except when out of the blue, one of the love interests says really biphobic things to her (which I personally found to be very frustrating and out of character for her).

There were three black girl characters in the novel, Venus, Monique and Jackie, and of those three Jackie was the only one to get more of a personality than her blackness. Venus and Monique were consistently present to draw attention to the racism not only of the Riot Grrrl movement (and especially one specific character), but also to Tabitha. A character arc of the novel is that Tabitha finally understands that she won’t ever understand what it’s like to be black, which is such a disservice to all three black characters, and the idea that Tabitha, a white girl, is the focus point of a narrative supposed to highlight how black women and girls are the ‘grrrls on the side’ is reprehensible. I just cant understand why the author would choose to sideline the black characters in a story that she was in control of creating!

On top of the stereotypical and flat representation of these three characters, there is also a Chinese American character named Cherie who doesn’t seem to register as a person of colour in the context of the group or the narrative, like her presence isn’t seen as a ‘problem’ in the way the black girls are?!

I don’t want to end this totally negatively, so here were some good aspects: Throughout the chapters the zines that some of the girls make are included, and it was always so fun and lovely to read. It really made it seem like riot grrrl, like a bunch of messy, angry, contradictory weird girls were making things and enjoying it for themselves. My favourite character was Jackie, because she was a tender butch lesbian and she was so sweet and patient. Lastly, there was a really cute moment where Tabitha met an older woman who had also been part of a women’s liberation movement, and they had a lovely connection and promised to write to each other! Intergenerational solidarity is the best!

There’s one instance of sexual assault in this and some discussion of r*pe nearer the beginning of the novel.

Tierney reviews Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who Is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht cover

Who Is Vera Kelly? is a thoughtful, twisty spy thriller, whose eponymous protagonist is a queer American spy in 1960s Argentina. Vera’s life unfolds in fragments through the novel: passages in her present day, in which she is working for the CIA to monitor the unstable Argentinian government and suppress communist interests, are interspersed with passages recounting her troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and path to the CIA – as well as the path she takes coming in to her lesbian identity.

The novel is a spy thriller, but one with a little more languor: the focus is more on the psychological – oppressive feelings, the sense of things closing in, Vera getting inside her own head – than on heroic exploits, dastardly villains, and implausible twists of fate – like a queering of the genre itself. We follow Vera, in all her complexity, as she poses as a university student and tries to enter the inner circle of a student identified as some sort of communist operative – which includes befriending his mysterious girlfriend, Victoria, who seems to be flirting with her…

Who Is Vera Kelly? puts us right inside Vera’s head, and peels the layers back one by one: via the intermingled flashbacks, we journey through her life, starting with the death of her father and her difficult relationship with her abusive mother, moving forward right up to her present day, uncovering what she has been through and what makes her tick, as she herself tries to uncover this communist plot while the Argentinian government crumbles after a coup and she is left stranded there.

It took me a little while to get sucked in to the novel, but I once I was in, I was hooked. The novel fills you with an all-consuming desire to know what happens, both in Vera’s past and in her present… Who is on what side, and who can she trust? What is Vera’s life story? How can she escape Argentina after the coup? And, crucially, was Victoria actually flirting with her? You’ll have to read to find out.

Danika reviews Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes is a classic lesbian book. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, and now that I have… I’m divided. On an immediate, personal level, I enjoyed reading it. It has a lot of interesting things going on. I am also surprised that I heard about this as having lesbian subtext, when it’s really quite blatant. On the other hand, I was troubled by its depiction of race. To try to untangle my thoughts, I’ll go through these one by one.

First, the queer “subtext.” When Ruth and Idgie first meet, Idgie is 15/16 and Ruth is 21(!) Idgie is immediately smitten with her, and everyone knows it. Idigie’s mother addresses her siblings with “Your sister has a crush, and I don’t want anyone to laugh at her.” Idgie is blatantly described as being “in love,” so I don’t know how that counts as subtext, except that they don’t have sex on page. There is even a fade-to-black sex scene with Idgie and another woman. Ruth notes the moment she began to love Idgie, and they share their famous “bee charmer” moment. They raise a child together, whom people often refer to as their child, with Ruth and Idgie as a unit.

With that out of the way, I can say that although I thought Ruth and Idgie were the heart of the book, they aren’t really the main characters. The book is interestingly structured. Evelyn is a middle-aged woman going through menopause, and she is unhappy with her life. She has done everything she has been told to do in order to be a “good girl,” and now that she’s had a moment to stop and look around–now that her kids are adults–she is realizing that none of that got her anywhere. Her husband drags her into a nursing home to visit her mother-in-law, but when she sneaks off to eat a candy bar, she bumps into another elderly woman, Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny regales her with stories from the good ol’ days at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The book alternates between Evelyn and Ninny’s regular visits and Whistle Stop during the 20s-60s. Interspersed are small-town newspaper clippings.

I found Evelyn interesting, as a character. She is just beginning to discover her anger, and it comes on strong. She is angry at everyone who she feels wrongs her. She creates an alter-ego which she imagines ruling the world, and doing things like dropping a bomb on the entire Middle East. She has a lot of racist thoughts. Ninny is similarly engaging, but flawed. She helps Evelyn a lot, by providing her emotional support. She obviously is very nostalgic for the times she’s describing, and I couldn’t help but get drawn in and begin to feel that nostalgia myself. She also goes on at great length about “colored folk” and ~well-meaning~ stereotypes that she has about them, as well as some ableist comments about little people. This may be accurate for a woman who grew up in the 20s, but it doesn’t mean I want to read about it at great length and for no reason. (She makes racist comments out of nowhere.)

Because I have heard about this book in the context of a feel-good read, I wasn’t expecting it go as dark as it does. There is racist and ableist slurs, abuse, rape, murder, and even (spoiler) cannibalism. What really made me reconsider how I felt about this, though, was the racism. Obviously, if you’re talking about a town in the southern US from the 20s-60s, you’re going to talk about racism, but it goes beyond that. For one thing, one of Idgie’s friends is a member of the KKK. This is shrugged off, even though Idgie and Ruth are theoretically anti-racism (they serve black people from their cafe even when the KKK protests–but they only serve black people through the back door). Then again, Idgie uses the n-word. Worse, though, are the racist caricatures that make up the black cast. Most of them speak AAVE (phonetically spelled out), and they are devoted to Idgie. Another character is described as being “so black he had blue gums,” and that kid grows up to stab his brother 5 times in the arm. (His brother, who had lighter skin, was a model citizen.) Why include that character? In fact, Artis gets a lot of page time, and I’m not sure why.

I did enjoy the tone of the book, and aspects of it. I liked Idgie and Ruth, obviously. I did feel transported to Whistle Stop, and I mourned its dismantling. But unfortunately, I just can’t freely recommend it because of the racism that’s so blatant in the text. It’s disappointing, because the parts this book does well, I loved. It’s a shame that this wasn’t interrogated more, because I do believe the intention was to call out racism, but it unknowingly perpetuated it. As much as I can see why people loved this, from a 2018 perspective, it just hasn’t aged well.

Megan G reviews Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn

Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn cover

Buried under a mountain of debt, Starla Martin is forced to say goodbye to her life in Toronto and return to her hometown of Crystal Beach. To help her with her debt, her mother offers to find her a job with her at the local library, but Starla knows that just living with her mother will already be challenging enough. Instead, she finds a job at a local campsite, “The Point”, working the overnight shift. There, she finds herself involved not only in the lives of its residents, but also in a supernatural phenomenon unlike any she’s experienced before. And yet, Starla is not afraid. In fact, she is the exact opposite.

I was instantly drawn to this book because of its setting. It’s hard enough finding Canadian stories that aren’t set in the plains, but a queer ghost story set in Eastern Ontario? Colour me intrigued. In this aspect, the story did not disappoint. Everything about this story screamed Ontario, from the crappy local bus service, to the celebration of May two-four. Even though I’ve never been to Crystal Beach, or even Fort Erie, after reading this book I feel like I have.

The protagonist, Starla, took a bit of time to get used to. This is partially because for the first few chapters of the book, all we really seem to know about her is that she lives in Toronto, dropped out of college, and has a lot of sex. Her sexual partners are described as both male and female, which led me to assume that Starla is bisexual, and having the only personal characteristic of a bisexual character be that she has many sexual partners was not a very promising start. However, as the story unfolds you learn more about Starla, who she is, why she acts the way she does, what led her to the choices she made. She goes from a two-dimensional sex-addict to a three-dimensional traumatised woman, simply trying to live her life.

As for her sexual orientation, despite seemingly being attracted to men and women, Starla is often labelled a lesbian, though never by herself or her girlfriend. This can most likely be chalked up to the story being set in the 1990’s, when knowledge of all things queer was still pretty minimal. It is made very clear that Starla feels more attracted to women than she does to men, so it is also possible that she is a lesbian who is struggling with compulsive heterosexuality based on her past, though this isn’t delved into too deeply.

This is an incredibly heavy story, with characters suffering from such things as spousal abuse, alcoholism, suicide ideation, and past physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The latter is described explicitly, as both Starla and her friend, Bobby, have experienced abuse in their past. Bobby’s past abuse is specifically relating to her identity as an Aboriginal woman, something I am happy that Dawn included and delved into. [minor spoiler] Starla’s abuse happened when she was a child, and it is implied that her mother was aware of it but did nothing [end spoiler]. As well, there is an incident near the beginning of the novel between Starla and a cab driver that does not read as consensual in the least. If any of these things trigger you, you may want to give this book a pass.

The supernatural element of the book was incredible. The ghost, Etta, is both a sympathetic and villainous entity. You feel for her, the way she was in life, and the horrible way she died, but at the same time you hate her for what she is doing to Starla and everybody around her. I adore characters who can be loved and loathed, as I find it such a tough line to walk. Dawn manages it flawlessly here.

I won’t delve too far into the love story of this book, because it’s something you need to experience by reading it to fully understand. Just know that it is perfectly crafted, and unlike any romantic plot I’ve read before.

Overall, Amber Dawn has crafted a wonderful supernatural drama, full of characters who feel so human, you’ll think they’re your friend by the end. She draws you, not only into their lives, but into their environment. By the end of the story, you will be dying to book yourself a ticket to Crystal Beach, hoping to experience even a hint of what the novel describes.

Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.

Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Alexa reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’ve been obsessed with Mary Read ever since I played AC: Black Flag, and while nobody can live up to that interpretation of Mary for me, I was really excited to read a book about her and see a different take. I found that the title matches the book beautifully, because it is truly first and foremost a story of Mary, and her discovering herself and what she wants.

Mary and Anne are both bisexual women living among pirate men in different ways. They both have relationships with and long for men for most of the book, but at the same time, there is a budding attraction between the two of them that eventually wins. While I don’t think Mary is meant to be nonbinary, due to being forced to live her life as a man she had some “don’t belong to either gender” feelings that were personally relatable to me as a nonbinary person.

One thing that kind of ruined my enjoyment was that… every single men in this book is absolute trash (except for Paddy, who is golden, and Jack and Nat, who are mostly decent). But seriously, everyone other than them is a misogynistic, homophobic trash, and while this might have been realistic, it was not enjoyable to read about. Anne was abused by her husband in the past and spends the second half of the book trying to break free of him for good, while Mary experiences violence both as a woman, and as someone thought to be a gay man.

The ending dragged on a little for me. This book has very short chapters, and when I saw from the page number that I’m towards the end, I had six different chapter ends where I thought “oh, that would be a pretty cool ending sentence” and then it wasn’t. Everytime I thought this was the ending, the story just went on. In the end, I ended up really liking the /actual/ ending and how it all came full circle, but this was still a little strange.

One thing that might be interesting to people (especially people looking to fill a reading challenge prompt maybe… I’ve seen prompts like this before) is that this book has a dual timeline – there is a “present”, but there are also several flashback chapters that detail how Mary ended up where she was at the beginning of the book. Without spoiling much, I can say that I really liked how these two timelines “interacted” with each other and supported each other.

I had some mixed feelings about the book, but overall I liked it. It could have been heavier on pirate adventures, but I liked Mary’s character arc and discovering herself. Also, the cover is beautiful.

TW: physical abuse by spouse, (misdirected) homo- and transphobia, attempted sexual assault, general pirate-y things like violence and murder

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books: