Julie Thompson reviews The Liberators of Willow Run by Marianne K. Martin

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***A little bit of spoilers ahead***

Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.

During World War II, the United States “enlisted” women to help with the war effort on the homefront. At the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Audrey Draper is securing her independence with each B-24 Liberator heavy bomber her crew assembles. The women tax their minds and limbs as they build plane after plane after plane. The demand is incessant, so for the most part no one cares about their co-workers’ personal lives unless it interferes with the work at hand.

In another world not many miles away in Jackson, Michigan, Ruth Evans is shipped off to The Crittenton Home, a place for families to hide pregnant, unwed relations. The deep friendships that Ruth develops with some of the women give her strength to overcome the limitations of her environment. These relationships will determine the course her life and the lives of those around her, takes.

Most of the women employed at the bomber plant are married or engaged or otherwise involved; Audrey and Nona are exceptions. For the world at large, Audrey has a boyfriend stationed overseas with the US Army. She isn’t comfortable with the lies her sexuality necessitates, but she does what she has to in order to protect her autonomy. Between 1943 and 1946, she has a steady job and folks don’t complain (much) about the slacks she wears or lack of rouge on her cheeks. It is what comes after the war that she worries about. Can she secure a meaningful career, one that doesn’t require too many personal compromises? While the novel wraps up all loose ends rather quickly at the end, the conclusion is not implausible. It resonates with the hopeful tone that permeates the story.

The tale initially alternates between Audrey and Ruth, converging a quarter way into the book when the two women meet and bond over scoops of ice cream. Their burgeoning friendship is impeded by guilt and insecurity. The Liberators of Willow Run follows a familiar push-and-pull romance, with the heroines discovering more about themselves and the women they will become as they help other people and each other. It’s a quick read; I devoured it on New Year’s Day.

The leads and supporting cast possess admirable qualities: they lift each other up, instead of trampling each other underfoot. Certain aspects of the story are a bit surprising. Nona’s ready acceptance of a secret Audrey shares at the start of their friendship, for example. Not to say that some folks aren’t unflappable; perhaps the two women’s status as “other” makes this acceptance possible. At times, the world of Willow Run feels like a sky with minimal clouds. This isn’t to say that the women don’t experience misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, and limited career options. They do, but those moments never feel insurmountable or harrowing. The novel could have easily gotten stuck telling too many stories at once or seeming to tack on certain narratives without infusing them with genuine feeling.

Secondary characters showcase a range of attitudes regarding women and African-Americans in the workplace. Up until the divergent narratives merge, I thought that Nona would play a larger role in the novel. She is a self-aware woman who is unwilling to sacrifice her educational and career goals. Unlike her white counterparts, she must contend with both sexism and racism. She is also generous in her friendships and confident when facing barriers. Jack and Lucy, a married couple who work at Willow Run and give Audrey rides to work, take a pragmatic view of life and seek a level playing field for folks who do the best they can. When riots near the church Nona is staying at prevent her from getting to work on time, Jack speaks up on her behalf because the foreman isn’t willing to listen to women. Myopic views on social roles are found in characters like the crew foreman, who constantly groans about women at the plant, and in June, a reluctant wage earner who believes a woman’s only place is in the home, raising children. She also ignores Nona, and speaks over Bennie, an easy going co-worker who stutters when he speaks.

The Liberators of Willow Run gives readers a world in which the family you choose enables endless possibilities.It brims with hope in the face of limited choices and half-truths. The women are keenly aware of their limitations, though their friends more readily see the good, the potential, that lie in their hearts. While I would have enjoyed more details placing me solidly in the United States during the 1940s, it was an overall enjoyable lazy day read.

Women on the Warpath (1943) – Inside the Willow Run B-24 Plant: https://youtu.be/HQKvBPjxMo4

Building The B-24 Bomber During WWII “Story Of Willow Run” 74182
https://archive.org/details/74182StoryOfWillowRun

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Rachel reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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British novelist Sarah Waters is known for her historical novels, some of which take place in Victorian England and/or have lesbian protagonists. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, is viewed as a lesbian classic by many readers.

The story opens in Whitstable England, 1888, with eighteen-year-old Nancy Astley, who helps her family run their oyster business. Restless and wanting new experiences, she attends a theater one evening and gets her first glimpse of Kitty Butler, a performer who dresses as a man for her act. After becoming friends, Nancy grows strong romantic feelings and eventually joins Kitty’s act, taking the stage name “Nan King” and earning countless admirers. She is thrilled when she and Kitty admit their love for each other and begin a relationship, although Kitty insists on keeping it a secret. After an unexpected betrayal, Nancy leaves Kitty and takes to the streets, resorting to prostitution and masquerading as a boy to make ends meet. She is determined to forget her past, becoming reclusive because of it. Over the years she comes across countless people who shape her decisions. While a lot of the changes she experiences are difficult, others offer Nancy hope of turning her life around and falling in love again.

Sarah Waters’ writing is extremely rich in substance as she describes Nancy’s world, the people she meets, and the hidden lives of homosexuals. Scenery and surroundings are so well-detailed there was never any doubt where Nancy was or what was around her. The writing style seemed authentic for the time period, making Tipping the Velvet appear to have been published in the 1880s instead of a century later.

The novel’s characters each had their own differing views and personalities; it’s obvious that Waters put a great amount of effort into creating them all. Nancy herself was a bright young woman who did make some poor decisions, but also had a strong will to keep going. Her impulsive, vocal character both clashed and complimented with Kitty, who was a quiet thinker.

Two other people in the novel stand out for me the most, and they’re both polar opposites. Diana Lethaby was wealthy and well-connected, taking Nancy in at one point in exchange for a sexual relationship. But though she provided Nancy with nice clothes and an elegant home, Diana was really possessive and treated her lover like property. I despised her character and shared Nancy’s shock at her actions.

The other character is Florence Banner, a charity worker Nancy later befriends. She was easily one of the most complex characters in the book. Her personality shifted between cheery and grim, and sometimes she worked so hard helping others she didn’t think much about her own feelings. I was intrigued by her and wondered about her family and what kinds of experiences she had. As the story progressed and I learned more about her, it was much easier to sympathize with Florence and see the true, gentle-hearted person she really was.

Tipping the Velvet was an interesting take on sexuality in Victorian London. All through the book, Nancy meets a whole underground of gays and lesbians, which adds to her story because, although homosexuality was seen as a crime and perversion, there were still countless men and women who were trying to live their lives yet also acknowledge their feelings. Very little is really known about this world as it was almost never spoken of. But Waters makes strong parallels between then and now. Like today, there were bars and social circles where gays and lesbians found their refuge, and literature they read in secret, like Sappho’s poems.

Tipping the Velvet is a wonderful story for lesbian literature, although some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotica tone. I found it to be a masterpiece and look forward to reading Sarah Waters’ other books.

Lauren reviews The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel by Vincent Cross

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The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel is a short story about an order of nuns that administer exorcisms. In particular, readers are introduced to Sister Teresa and Sister Elizabeth. The sisters have traveled to a small village to assist Father Gregory with a recent crime that he believes will require a spiritual interrogation. At first, nothing seems odd about the nuns. They are dutiful with religious and cultural etiquette. Fast-forward past the opening and Cross unveils the “worldy” side of these women, which removes the veil between the reader and the historical setting, and allows Teresa and Elizabeth to add deeper hues to the story.

Given this is a short story I can’t delve into the plot without risking spoilers. Therefore, I’ll shift to the parts of the narrative that interested and concerned me.

First off, Little Sisters is erotic, which augments the relationship between the characters, as well as the banishment of evil. The erotic is more than sexual. It exists in several layers. It’s physical and spiritual and romantic. On this same note, there is a layer of Cross’ eroticism that pestered me as the story escalated and climaxed. And it started with this sentence:

“We want the thing to smell our scent, but we don’t want our bodies to betray us.”

Sparing the details, I asked myself why is it necessary for these women to use their vessels in such a risky way? Arguably, they are asked to sacrifice their sanctity. Do their actions convey that women are powerful beyond measure? Or, is this just another instance of women “using” what God gave them to make themselves relevant in an unequal world and an attempt to maintain balance between good and evil? Which, ultimately, saves men. If the tables were turned and male clergy were responsible for the exorcism, how would the climatic event in this story change? To me, it would be much different.

There are times when the erotic can be liberating.  There are times when the sexuality and the erotic gaze are self-serving and only maintain sexist ideals. I feel that Little Sisters walks a fine line. The story is well written, but where (and if) readers teeter along this line is subjective, of course.

I would have liked for Cross to allow the nuns to address two of my lingering questions: first, who are they protecting, and second, do they feel their holy vessel is the only way?

As a reviewer, I rarely feel the need to strike an iron hammer by recommending or not recommending a read. Therefore, I’ll end as I usually do. Little Sisters is story for those who enjoy short stories and want to venture into an old world, erotic, and paranormal read featuring religious women that boldly face demons.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter,www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

Julie Thompson reviews A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

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“There is so much we don’t know, can’t know, in doing historical research. Emma Donoghue writes, in the afterword of her collection Astray, ‘when you work in the hybrid form of historical fiction, there will be Seven-League-Boot moments: crucial facts joyfully uncovered in dusty archives and online databases, as well as great leaps of insight and imagination. But you will also be haunted by a looming absence: the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost, that can never be recovered.’” (Postscript)

A Thin Bright Line, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, tells the story of a life lived fully, yet not quite openly. Bledsoe starts from the end of her namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe’s, life and proceeds to build on the available fragments. The two women’s lives follow amazingly similar career paths and sexual orientation, despite decades and miles apart. Bledsoe was nine years old when her aunt died in an apartment fire in 1966. As a result, she has few clear memories of her aunt, a vague, albeit benevolent, figure who made periodic visits and sent gifts. The woman was a benign mystery to her family. In an era without social media and portable devices tracking every move, it was much easier to leave without a trace, or else leave behind few clues about who you were.

A detailed entry for Lucybelle, found by chance in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, as well as an obituary in the Journal of Glaciology, sparked years of research leading to this novel. Bledsoe scavenged her father’s memories of his sister. Among them, her aunt’s aspirations to write a novel; her penchant for organizing school-wide jokes and flash mob-type performances; and reciting humorous poetry. As for the adult Lucybelle became, there is far less information available. A handful of primary documents, such as the reports left behind following the fatal apartment fire, and interviews with the remaining people who knew her aunt in some capacity, were all that remained of a seemingly rich and vibrant life.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was born in 1923 to a devout Christian household in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Her mother was a housewife and her father had a dual career as a farmer and county judge. As a child, Lucybelle displayed a keen intellect, as evidenced by her voracious reading habits and ability to pass the Arkansas bar without having had attended law school. The novel spans a decade and opens on New York City, 1956, about ten years after she left her hometown. The former country girl had by this time built a successful career for herself at the Geological Society of America as an Assistant Editor. She shares an apartment with her longtime girlfriend, Phyllis, and their dachshund, L’Forte. She also enjoys the city’s nightlife with a core group of friends. Everything seems good enough, even if it involves a bit of compromise. However, her life is upended when her relationship shatters and a sudden job offer is pushed at her by Henri Bader, a European ice scientist working for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The novel flows from New York to Chicago to Vermont. Along the way, Lucybelle experiences overt and vague threats from her employer and sources unknown. She learns how to compartmentalize her life, balancing her employer’s demands that she refrain from dating women with a challenging career. The novel is full of coded terrain: her workplaces at Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and her private and family lives. Through her relationships and career, Lucybelle makes sense of the path she wants her life to take. Despite having her life extinguished just as she seems to fully realize it, the novel is an incredible tribute.

Bledsoe paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of her aunt, displaying an understanding of the period’s public, private, and personal politics, and social mores. Some of the characters are works of fiction, such as Lucybelle’s Chicago girlfriend Stella, her cluster of friends in New York City, and coworkers at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. However, the many lives that factor into this story all reflect some aspect of life during the Cold War, in the period covering 1956-1966. Each of the women featured react differently to societal pressures and offer a sort of option for how Lucybelle might conduct her own life. A Thin Bright Line is an engaging and immersive story, featuring strong, intelligent women.

Mid-century queer history is fascinating and complex. Most of the literature and sources mentioned in the novel can be borrowed via public libraries in the United States or purchased online. I acquired the first two volumes of collected issues of The Ladder via my local public library’s interlibrary loan system. I recommend supplementing your reading with the titles listed below.

  1. Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé

  2. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

  3. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur.

Marthese reviews Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

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“Isabella was joy and excitement and adventure and everything else seemed dull in comparison”
Silhouette of a Sparrow is set in 1920s America and follows the story of Garnet. I had been meaning to read it since it came out; the chapters of the book all feature a different bird which is a quirky concept that ties in well with the story.
Garnet is 15, finishing high school and loves birds. She had to conform to her mother’s expectations, so instead of bird watching, she does bird silhouettes on the spot. She is sent to live with the Harringtons over the summer for many reasons, but primarily because her father suffers from PTSD after the war and her mother needed some time alone with him.
The Harringtons are not very interesting company, so Garnet finds a job at a hat shop–interesting choice for a bird lover. But Garnet is not just a bird lover: she is an activist as well. At the shop, Garnet meets and makes friends with Isabella, a flapper who is close to her age. Isabella wakes up Garnet’s more rebellious side and soon she has to make a choice between freedom and conformity.
This book is more than this plot. To me, it is also about complex parental relationships. Parents who have their own story, who only want the best for their  children but do not always know what that is. It is also about love for ones family, and the choices one has to make to incorporate them in their future. It’s about taking a stand for your future and growing into someone’s true potential.
The ending is open with potential. Things are just starting. It is not a fairy tale ending but it is far from sad or tragic. It is realistic.
It was interesting to read this book–to learn more about birds, but also to reflect on the importance of families while enjoying a cute love story that was bound to happen. I feel that most people would enjoy this book.

Rachel reviews The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue

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A new lesbian novel has just been released, The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue. It is a historical romance with a few elements from Beauty and the Beast, as well as a good feminist theme.

The story begins in England in the late 1800s with Patience, a spirited noblewoman. She is the youngest of four siblings and the only daughter left unmarried. Patience has had a regimented life she cannot stand, so when her parents tell her they’ve arranged for her to marry a nobleman she finds repulsive, she runs away from home that very night. But Patience soon realizes how exhausting (and dangerous) her life can be always on the run. By chance she finds a house deep in the woods and sees a strange creature occasionally roaring out the door and window. While her first instinct is to stay away, hunger and chill finally draws Patience to sneak into the house. She meets a young woman named Ada who lives here with the beast, and after much pleading, Ada allows Patience to stay in the house. But the conditions include staying away from parts of the house and never interacting with the creature guarding the place. Ada herself is kind and intelligent, but there are clearly things she’s hiding about herself and the house. The girls become friends and later on there’s a deep love that completes them. But outsiders stumbling in are always a real threat to their secrets.

The Beast at the Door is a relatively short read (208 pages) and while I liked a lot of the story, I had the feeling that more subplots and characters could have been added in to make it fuller. Patience and Ada live in a time where women were restricted by rules and marriages, but they both defied the expectations forced on them. Both were avid readers and always came to their own opinions about the things they learned. While Ada’s father had understood about letting his daughter read, Patience’s family decided what was appropriate for her. Her brother Mason was the one that secretly lent her the books she really wanted and helped shape her into the bright, forward-thinking woman she is in the story. Ada especially is resourceful in tight places and with Patience’s assistance they’re quite a team. Althea Blue was wonderful with her portrayal of these two women and their love story is beautiful. It’s not the central plotline for Patience and Ada but clearly their love for each other strengthens them.

However, there were very few character interactions in The Beast at the Door. Most of it was between the two women at the house, and I think the story would have been more engaging had there been other regular characters with their own stories. The pacing of the book seemed to go too fast, and that further gave the impression more subplots would have helped. There were also questions raised early on about a couple characters that were never answered. I thought I would learn what was happening with them but at the end nothing had been revealed. That and the epilogue didn’t feel like strong resolutions to me. Then again, I don’t know if Althea Blue is planning to write a sequel to this book, so perhaps these questions will be addressed later.

Even though I can’t recommend it, The Beast at the Door is still a good story and will draw in readers, especially those who love books centering on history and women’s rights.

Kathryn Hoss reviews Juliana by Vanda

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Juliana is actually the story of Alice Huffman, “Al” for short, a small-town girl who moves to the Big Apple in the 1940s to pursue a musical and acting career. She ends up spending very little time working on said career, and more time alienating her friends while having a constant, back-and-forth existential crisis about her sexuality.
I knew I was in trouble when the book began with an apology:
“I wrote this novel to be accurate for its time. That means there may be occasional words used to refer to certain groups of people that would be consider [sic] inappropriate today; therefore, I wish to formally apologize to Roman Catholics, African Americans, Jews, the Japanese, and the disabled.”
That apology could have also gone out to the LGBT community. Though this is a story about and supposedly for queer women, there is so much homophobia depicted in these pages that I was tempted to give up 10% of the way through– and would have, if I wasn’t reading to review.
We pressed our own noses against the glass to see what was going on. Inside there were real homosexuals eating breakfast. When they saw us staring, the men homosexuals did a fairy dance like they were girls and the girl homosexuals, wearing suits and ties, kissed each other on their mouths. It was disgusting.
Worse than the homophobia surrounding Al is her own internalized homophobia. Every time it seems as if Al is about to grow from an experience, she immediately backtracks. In one scene she is kissing Juliana, in the next berating her for leading her down an immoral path. I failed to understand why a semi-successful club singer like Juliana would be interested in such a stick-in-the-mud, unless she wanted to take advantage of Al’s insecurity and naïveté.
The unhealthy nature of their relationship may be the main reason this novel didn’t work for me. At no point do we get a window into Al’s feelings, aside from sexual desire for Juliana. And even while Al’s body is saying “hell yes,” her mouth is saying “no.” Juliana pursues a sexual relationship with her anyway, making this an extremely uncomfortable read for people like me, who value such things as consent.
If the (lack of) consent between Juliana and Al isn’t questionable enough, Al is also sexually assaulted by one of her closest friends earlier in the story. She immediately forgives him and acts as if this violence never happened for the remainder of the novel, a response which I cannot logically reconcile without deciding Al is just an inconsistent character.
The supporting cast is not much better. The only living, breathing part of this novel, for me, was the setting. Vanda grew up in Huntington NY according to her bio, which is where this story begins. It is clear that plenty of research went into the location and time period, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. I got the impression that the author was more keen on hitting all the historical bases than in telling a coherent story. Yes, the setting is beautifully portrayed, but at what cost?
 
History buffs may find Juliana an engrossing read, but for those of us looking for lesbian romance, it leaves much to be desired.

Korri reviews Petticoats and Promises by Penelope Friday

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I love historical romance novels, especially those featuring women who love women (see Pembroke Park). The high stakes of that love when women could not earn a living and had to secure their livelihoods and social position through strategic marriages automatically creates tension and drama. Petticoats and Promises, a Regency romance by Penelope Friday, is a mostly entertaining read in that genre.

A few weeks before their joint coming out ball, Serena Coleridge is astonished to realize that she is in love for her best friend, Clara Battersley, and that the feeling is mutual. As the young women discuss the fact that their debut is an announcement of availability on the marriage market, Serena confesses that she cannot imagine loving someone as much as she does Clara. Their tête-à-tête is interrupted that afternoon but their feelings do not remain unspoken for long; soon the girls share passionate kisses and sensual encounters. On the eve of their coming out ball, Serena’s father’s stocks plummet, leaving no money for a season. Serena does not mind the loss of the social whirl – she is more concerned about losing access to her beloved. An invitation to visit the Coleridges in London is the perfect excuse for Clara and Serena to be together – until they are caught by Clara’s mother, who sends Serena home in disgrace. The rest of the novel follows the aftermath as Serena is cut off from Clara, who quickly marries; deals with her parents’ sorrow and mortification; and navigates the turbulent waters of society. She is sponsored in town by her Aunt Hester and becomes friends with the awkward but kind Mr. Feverley and Miss Kate Smith, another “invert,” which helps her to heal.

Penelope Friday doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer imitating Jane Austen) – she allows Serena Coleridge’s first person narration to render acute observations about social interactions and give readers a glimpse of what life was like in the Regency period. Friday is good at depicting the constraints of the era – never being alone or having time to oneself without servants or parents around, the need to abide by rules and strictures of good breeding. The problem with such insularity, of course, is that the novel focuses solely on Serena’s internal emotional life and yearning for Clara, without the cutting wit and sense of irony that makes Jane Austen’s writing so beloved. Since Clara and Serena share so much history then spend most of the novel apart, it can be difficult to feel invested in them as a couple. The endless misunderstandings between Serena and Clara are another issue with the novel; if only they spoke openly and thoroughly, their happily ever after could have come much sooner. But there is a happily ever after indeed!

 

Lauren reviews The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue

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Confession: I’m new to steampunk-themed fiction. Therefore, I was excited to fall into The Beast at the Door— tagged as a steampunk fairy tale.

Immediately, the author (Althea Blue) hits readers with a big dose of pathos, which is delivered by the teenage protagonist, Patience.

Patience lives in a cage. A cage constructed of rigid decorum, never-ending pretense, and swift punishment. She’s prodded by rules and subdued by her family’s wealth. Despite the lavish lifestyle she’s afforded, Patience is drowning in a world that stifles her voice and potential.

When Patience’s parents surprise her with an arranged marriage, she finds the courage to set herself free. She flees from home and embarks on a rough journey with a dash of danger until she stumbles upon a garden and the lure of sanctuary. Out of desperation and survival, Patience resorts to behaviors short of her moral code.

Blue sprinkles tiny nuggets of foreshadowing, but they come later in the plot—mainly due to the story’s very slow pacing. Nearly halfway into the book, Blue drops a golden nugget before her reader’s eyes. The enticing hint comes during a low moment of Patience’s journey and propels the heart of The Beast at the Door into a coming-of age-story.

Saving plot spoilers, romance lands at Patience’s feet when she least expects it, which grants her refuge in the form of emotional freedom. This feeds my favorite aspect of the story. Patience’s vulnerability is authentic and bubbles over into the thrills of young adulthood, budding love, and friendship.

The newfound freedom works to Patience’s advantage by making her a relatable character; however, this book lightly treads on steampunk. The most tangible steampunk element hinges upon a single character, Ada. Other subgenre-related characteristics (i.e., the setting and time period) are captured in the story, but they are secondary to Ada’s role and don’t necessitate Patience’s development. The fairy tale element was steeped in the main characters’ overall cheerful dispositions and the essence of oral storytelling (which is mimicked in the writing style), but stunted by the story’s realism.

Granted, I’m .5 of an ounce biased. Maybe I was in the mood for a sprinkle of fantasy where I’m transported to a slightly alternate world. Or, maybe I was in the mood for a gritty European subculture. But hey, isn’t that the beauty of fiction? Readers indulge, digest, and then regurgitate all sorts of thoughts and feelings from a single story.

With that said, if you’re in search of weighty speculative fiction, The Beast at the Door may not satiate your curiosities. You’ll need a meatier portion of steampunk. However, this novella will be a delightful read for those who seek dashes of lesbian and steampunk flavors.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

 

Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.